Form in Popular and Art Music

We have already discussed the basics of form. Now we will look at how these forms are used in both popular and art music.

Form in Popular Music

Popular music relies on the principle of repetition first and foremost. There are not many songs in the popular sphere that are through-composed (although a few examples were mentioned in the previous section) or that follow a theme and variations form. Given this and the dominance of songs over instrumental pieces in popular music, it is natural that the terminology used to discuss form in popular music is specialized for that genre. Here are the important terms:

  • Verse – same music, different lyrics
  • Chorus (Refrain) – same music, same words
  • Bridge – contrasting material that connects two sections (usually falls between choruses)
  • Break – instrumental interlude
  • Introduction (Intro) - opening material
  • Coda (Outro) - closing material

Verse-Chorus Form

Verse-chorus form is often used in classic rock of the '60s and '70s, but appears in a variety of popular sub-genres. Examples include "Get Back" by the Beatles (1969), "Proud Mary" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969), and the "Hotel California" by the Eagles (1977). In this form, verses simply alternate with choruses for as many repetitions as the composer (songwriter) chooses. Thus, it is actually a variation of strophic form.

A A A ...
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Verse Chorus ...

32-bar Form

32-bar form was particularly popular in the American songs of Tin Pan Alley and movie musicals of the '30s and '40s. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz (1939) is an example of this form. 32-bar form gets its name because each of the four sections typically contains 8 bars (measures), making a total of 32 bars for the whole song. There is no chorus in this form. Instead, there is a verse that is repeated (with different lyrics), which is followed by a contrasting bridge, and the piece is concluded with a final verse. This form is a variation on the ternary archetype.

Verse Verse Bridge Verse

Verse-Chorus Form with Bridge

Combining the two song forms previously discussed results in verse-chorus form with a bridge. This is the most common form in all modern popular music. Examples include "I'll Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie (2005) and "Poker Face" by Lady GaGa (2008). The final A section may have both a verse and chorus, but usually consists of only the chorus, which may be repeated several times.

A A B A1
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus (last verse is usually omitted, sometimes the last chorus is repeated)

Art Music Forms

All of the archetypal forms (strophic, binary, ternary, rondo, and theme and variations) play a role in art music, more so than in popular music. Johannes Brahms's Lullaby (Wiegenlied) is an example of strophic form. Johann Sebastian Bach's Suites for Solo Cello consist primarily of binary form dances. Minuets from the Classical period (which appear often in composite forms like symphonies and string quartets) are ternary. Ritornello form, the Baroque version of rondo form, was used in the fast movements of concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and others. Theme and variations form can be seen in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, maman (better known to us as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star") and the second movement of Joseph Haydn's "Emperor" String Quartet. See Musical Borrowing and Appropriation for more examples of theme and variations form

Art music forms are also more diverse than popular music forms in that they are sometimes based on returning themes as opposed to entire sections. Fugues and the sonata form are based on themes in this way.


J.S. Bach is the composer most famous for writing fugues, and his instrument of choice was the organ. Bach often paired his organ fugues with introductions called 'toccatas' or 'preludes' that are through-composed and seem to imitate improvisations. These free introductions contrast with the fugues themselves, which contain complex and highly ordered imitative counterpoint (see the section on melody for more about imitative polyphony).

Each fugue begins with an exposition, which consists of several successive statements of the subject, or primary contrapuntal theme. After the exposition, statements of the subject alternate with free sections called episodes. Below is a video of Bach's "Little" Organ Fugue in G minor (BWV 578) and a chart showing the form of the piece. See if you can follow along with the high and low statements of the subject.

Subject Episode Episode Episode Episode Subject Episode
Subject Subject
Subject Subject
Subject Subject Subject

Sonata Form

Before discussing sonata form, it should be noted that sonata form is not the same thing as a sonata. A sonata is a particular genre (a solo piece often written for piano and originally intended for amateurs), whereas sonata form is a form that can be used in a variety of genres. Sometimes the term 'sonata-allegro form' is used to help make that distinction clear, but 'sonata form' is a more accurate and common term.

Sonata form is the most sophisticated form that plays a significant role in art music. It began to be used in the Classical period (the time of Mozart and Haydn) and quickly became the standard first-movement form for all composite forms (such as symphonies, concertos, and string quartets). Sonata form is comprised of three major sections, where the third is an approximate repetition of the first. Sonata form gives these sections specific names: exposition (same as the beginning of a fugue), development, and recapitulation. Although this structure seems very similar to ternary form, when it comes to the harmonic structure of the piece, sonata form is really in two sections: the first part where I moves to V, and the second part where V moves back to I. This leads us to associate sonata form more closely with binary form than ternary form.

Exposition Development Recapitulation
First Theme Transition (bridge) Second Theme Closing Theme First Theme Transition (bridge) Second Theme Closing Theme
I → V V → I

Although they are not included in the chart above, it is also quite common for pieces in sonata form to include both an introduction prior to the exposition, and a coda after the recapitulation.


The exposition introduces the main themes. The melodies that comprise these themes are designed to be memorable so that audiences will recognize them when they return in the recapitulation. Within the exposition (and recapitulation) are transitional sub-sections that are designed to move the music forward into the next section. Transitions are full of melodic and harmonic movement designed to build energy and momentum.


The middle section, the development, plays with the themes introduced in the exposition and allows them to take the harmony to new and unexpected places. The style of the development section is agitated and unstable harmonically. Developments often include contrapuntal material as well.


The recapitulation is not a literal repeat of the exposition, but it brings back the original themes in their original order. These restatements may be varied, but the recognizable themes nonetheless give listeners material that is more stable and familiar than that of the development. It is in the recapitulation that we begin to shift towards the ultimate resolution and conclusion of the piece. The actual conclusion of a piece in sonata form is usually accomplished by a coda inserted after the recapitulation.