Music Structure and Navigation

Introduction

This document discusses the structural elements found in most popular songs, and the notational devices used to specify the sequencing of a piece, or how to navigate using the sheet music as a map.

Songs in notation format are available over the internet and in song books, but music notation is not something most people are familiar with. Of those familiar with it, there are only some who become fluent in reading it. However, it is possible to learn the sequencing of the parts of the song without really being able to read notation well. If you understand the methods used to document navigation through a song, you can grasp how it is structured, making it easier to learn. You can also make simple maps of the structure as cheat sheets for learning and playing the piece.

Standard Popular Song Structural Terms

There are a number of sections common in popular songs that any aspiring musician or singer should know. These include:

  1. Introduction (or intro)
  2. Verse
  3. Chorus
  4. Bridge
  5. Instrumental Break
  6. Coda (or outro)

In addition, you may encounter additional sections such as solo, pre-chorus and post-chorus. I suppose you could have a pre and post for any of the other sections. I don’t know that I have seen this, but you could keep your eyes open for such things. Not every song has all of these sections of course. Sometimes, these sections are just identified with letters, but more often, the names above are used.

The order of the sections is variable. The intro and the coda provide starting and ending sections, although it is not necessary that a piece has either. After that, the order can be highly variable. A typical form would be:

  1. Intro
  2. Verse
  3. Chorus
  4. Verse
  5. Chorus
  6. Coda

However, any of these elements can be mixed and matched to the taste of the writer.

The melody for the verse is usually the same for all verses, but the lyrics are typically different. The melody for the chorus is usually the same for all choruses, and the lyrics are usually more or less the same for each chorus.

The chorus is usually a more emotive section, and is the one most likely to be remembered. Since this is not a treatise on song writing, I will not discuss this farther.

Navigation

To traverse a piece of sheet music, you need to understand the common notations for navigation found in popular music. These are also used by all music which uses the standard notation system. Since this is not a document on the intricacies of notation, I will restrict the discussion to the devices used in navigation. These come in the following varieties:

  1. Play sequentially straight through with no side trips, which is the default.
  2. Go back to the start and repeat once up to the closing repeat sign, then continue on through.
  3. Repeat some contiguous section between open and close repeat signs, some specified number of times, with one repetition being the default.
  4. Repeat with alternative sections at the end of each repetition.
  5. Go back to the start and play until you hit the finish marker. This is called da capo al fine or go back and play from the start to the finish.
  6. Go to the sign and play until you hit the finish marker. This is called dal segno al fine or go back and play from the sign to the finish.
  7. Go to the start and play until you hit the go to coda sign, then jump to the coda. This is called da capo al coda or go back and play from the start to the coda.
  8. Go to the sign and play until you hit the go to coda sign, then jump to the coda. This is called dal segno al coda or go back and play from the sign to the coda.

These are shown below as flowcharts, and as musical notation. The melodies are silly, but serve as examples.

Deciphering the Structure

With knowledge of the navigational devices used, and the terminology for sections in popular songs, you can decipher and document the structure, as a sort of map to aid in understanding. You must identify the navigational notation, and put labels onto the sections that are revealed. Although you can just use letters, it is better if you can analyse the piece using the common names for sections, such as verse and chorus. The most common terms were presented above.

Any convoluted piece can be flattened out so that everything becomes a linear sequence. Sections that are repeated can be duplicated. However, you don’t want to create notation for the whole piece, only reveal the structure. I recommend that you create a description as a map of the flattened structure. So, if you have a piece that is like this in structure:

You can map it as follows:

  1. intro
  2. chorus
  3. verse 1
  4. chorus
  5. verse 2
  6. chorus
  7. verse 3
  8. coda

Note that the repetition has been removed. This obviously is not a real piece, but it should be sufficient to see how the process works. I have labelled the sections according to what I thought they represented, and then unrolled everything.

This process can be done for any of the navigational indicators. When a piece stretches over a number of manuscript pages, it is hard to understand the mapping, and requires a lot or careful looking at the notation, and a lot of page turning. Once a map is produced, the structure becomes much clearer.

Although some musicians think it is an advantage to have fewer pages with more complex notation, I think that a linear presentation should be easier to follow for a lot of people. Since printed linear song sheets are seldom an option, making a map accomplishes some of the same objectives for the student and the player. When I was teaching students a new piece, I would always create a map for their benefit, and for my benefit.

Here is another more complex example. We have the following piece, where the actual music has not been documented, but the structure is shown using musical notation. I don’t show all of the bars, the notes and the rests for the piece. In a real song sheet, a piece might extend over a number of pages, and it would take some work to find all of the important symbols.

Unrolling the notation, we get this linear structure:

  1. Intro
  2. [A] Verse 1
  3. [B] Chorus & Ending 1
  4. [A] Verse 1
  5. [B] Chorus & Ending 2
  6. [C] Solo
  7. [D] Bridge
  8. [A] Verse 3
  9. [B] Chorus
  10. Coda, Solo twice & Tag

This reveals the essence of the sections and navigation for the piece.

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