When we talk about music theory, we tend to get spun up in our minds.
What notes are in a Bbm7b5?
What scale can I use to solo over Fmaj7#11?
But at its core, music theory is about giving names to commonly occurring things, and using those names to do two main things:
- communicate with other musicians
- organize our thinking
Perhaps the most basic aspect of music theory is giving names to the sections of a song.
It’s helpful to communicate:
- Can you give me a different groove for the chorus?
- Let’s take it again from the top of the bridge.
- I’m gonna lay out for the first verse and enter at the second.
And it’s also useful to help organize your thinking about a song’s form:
- Oh, that last verse isn’t a verse at all—it’s its own thing.
- I solo over the chorus progression on this one.
- This song goes Verse Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus Tag.
These terms aren’t set in stone, and you might see some variations or call it something different than the next person. That’s ok.
The thing that happens before the meat of the song. Maybe it’s a riff or a chord swell or a drum beat or a melodic figure that you repeat later.
Usually the intro is instrumental, but not always.
Sometimes it’s the most iconic part of the song (When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy are prime examples).
Other times the world collectively decides that the song would be better off without the lead-in of the intro (did you know there’s a whole ‘nother section before “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”? Same thing for “take me out to the ballgame…”)
The verse is where the story of the song gets told. The melody & chords are usually the same from one verse to the next, but the lyrics change.
“Left a good job in the city” in the first verse becomes “Cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis” in the second verse and “If you go down to the river” in the third.
Sometimes you’ll see a new melody (but the same chords) in a successive verse, but we still call it the verse. You might see a second or third verse that’s different than the rest (but isn’t the bridge). In these cases, it’s usually enough to label them VERSE 1 and VERSE 2, etc.
This is the part that’s most anthemic, the part that everyone knows the words to, the part that gets repeated two or three times at the end of the song.
Generally speaking, the words don’t change from one chorus to the next, (but they might).
It’s usually louder & more intense than the verse (though songs like Karma Police invert that relationship to great effect).
In a song where the chords & melody are the same between the chorus and the verse, the chorus is the one where the lyrics are the same each time through.
People tend to use “refrain” and “chorus” interchangeably, but I wish they wouldn’t.
In my mind, a refrain is a lyrical hook that gets repeated at the end of each verse.
The song might have a proper chorus that follows, or it might not.
The bridge is the third main section of a song, and its job is to keep us from getting bored by verse-chorus-verse-chorus. It usually only happens once.
Lyrically, the bridge probably contains the insight or surprise (all this time he’s been singing to his wife it’s been at her graveside!).
Sometimes you’ll hear people call the bridge a “middle eight” (because 8 bars is a common length for a bridge).
Not every song has a bridge.
Songs that don’t have bridges frequently use this move.
It’s the chorus again, but with different dynamics. Maybe everyone is playing quietly, or maybe the drums stay in but the bass & guitar drop out.
It’s frequently followed by a regular full volume chorus, or maybe the first half is down, but then the band returns loud and proud for the rest of it. (On a chart, I’d write “ALL IN” so we all know when & where to re-enter.)
Does breakdown chorus deserve its own distinct name? Eh, I could go either way. But marking a chart “BREAKDOWN CHORUS” or simply “DOWN CHORUS” gives everyone a heads up as to what’s going on. And “breakdown” is an easier thing to say than “that third chorus where we play quietly.”
Just like a (break)down chorus, a (break)down verse is one where the dynamics drop down.
Do you need to label it “Down Verse”? No, you could just label it “Verse 3” (or whatever) and put the dynamic marking (p, mp, mf, etc) below the staff. But I like to use “Down Verse” and “all in” to make it clearer.
Most of the time an interlude is just the riff or melodic figure from the intro played between the chorus and the next verse.
Oftentimes it’ll be half as long as it was in the intro—one time through instead of two, or just the back half of the phrase.
When I’m writing a chart, I label it INTERLUDE, but when I’m speaking out loud I’m just as likely to say something like “one time through the intro riff.”
Sometimes it’ll just be a few bars of a chord that help set up the second verse.
In either case, you’ll frequently see a song go…
….where the second chorus goes to the bridge instead of the interlude.
If a melodic figure is more central to the tune than the intro/interlude—but not so pervasive that it underpins the verse—you might label a section RIFF.
Slow Dancing In A Burning Room? Yeah, sure, label that thing RIFF.
Whole Lotta Love? Well, that’s definitely a guitar riff, but I don’t know that I’d label it as RIFF on a chart (since it underpins the verse).
This one’s a little slipperier and prone to overuse. It’s a section that goes between the verse and the chorus.
But who’s to say that it’s not just a continuation of the verse?
It’s a bit of a judgement call. Chart writing is an art—you want to give people enough information to do their job, but not so much that it becomes a wash of visual noise.
…doesn’t give enough information. No double bar lines between sections, no section names, no logic to how many bars per system, and no bar numbers.
And charts that give too much information tend to look like this:
For me the hard-and-fast rule for labeling a prechorus is whether or not it ever appears independently.
Two verses, prechorus, chorus? Yeah, definitely calling that a prechorus.
We come out of the bridge or the solo and play the prechorus? Same thing: that’s definitely a prechorus.
On a chart, I don’t write out “prechorus,” I just put “PC.”
Is this even a thing? I think it is.
It’s a section that:
- isn’t an intro/interlude
- has lyrics/singing
- happens after a chorus
- but not after every chorus
The Billy Currington song Do I Make You Wanna has one—eight bars of singing, after the first chorus, but not after the second one. It gets used again for the song’s outro.
Pretty self explanatory—someone plays a lead.
If the solo is over another part of the form, sometimes you’ll see something like “with guitar solo 2nd time” or “Verse 1, Verse 2, Solo”
This is when you repeat the last line of the last chorus for emphasis.
Or maybe for when there’s a playful instrumental exclamation point on a tune.
Sometimes I’ll write it as TAG, other times I’ll just mark it LAST CHORUS to give a heads up that there’s something different about it.
The coda is an ending section. Outside of the classical world, it’s mostly fallen into disuse. Why?
Well, here’s where it came from: sheet music uses Italian “roadmap” markings like Da Capo (go back to the beginning) and Dal Segno (go back to the sign). If I want you to go back to the sign, but then jump ahead to an ending section, I’d write DS al Coda.
“DS” is short for “Dal Segno” (from the the sign). When you get to this:
…you jump back to this:
And from there, “al Coda” means that when you get to this:
…you jump ahead to this:
This was largely done to save ink & pages (in commercial printings like song books), to save the trouble of rewriting a bunch of things (in professional charts, which were handwritten), or to try to cram a whole song onto one or two pages (so it sits nicely on a music stand and doesn’t require a page turn).
The trouble with this is that (like we discussed above) it’s likely to get lost amidst the visual noise of the rest of the chart. And if not everyone follows the Italian roadmap directions? Total onstage trainwreck.
And the problems solved by DC, DS, & al Coda aren’t real problems anymore:
- save ink & pages? We’re all reading it on an iPad now.
- save the trouble of rewriting? That’s what copy & paste are for.
- avoids a page turn? Bluetooth page turners are just as common as the iPads they’re connected to.
To recap: a coda is an ending section of a tune, but that name is falling out of favor. Because technology.
Since we’re not calling it Coda, the end section of tune is an outro.
Is outro even a word? Not according to the spellcheck on this computer. But it doesn’t think wah is a word either. And it thinks I meant to say that something is ducking ridiculous.
So yeah: the last section of a tune is an outro. Oftentimes it’s the thing from the intro again.
In country & pop music, the hook is the title of the song, sung at the top and/or bottom of the anthemic chorus. It’s the most recognizable part of the tune, and the one that even your weird aunt knows the lyrics to.
In hiphop, the hook is the sung part between the rapping. It’s the guest female vocalist singing the catchy “chorus” of the song. Or maybe it’s some infectious synth line Dr. Dre plays.
You wouldn’t label a chart with HOOK in a country song (it’s just part of the chorus), but you might for a rap tune (though you might also label it “chorus”).
Either way, don’t be confused about any of the other catchy elements of a song, which are also frequently referred to as hooks.
The last measure of Rivers Cuomo’s guitar solo on Buddy Holly is absolutely a hook, but it’s not the hook.
If a song has a ton of different sections (common in prog, fusion, & jam bands), you might abandon names all together and simply label the song sections with letters:
Those are called rehearsal letters—they’re there to make it easy to say “let’s take it again from J…” in a rehearsal.
In jazz songs, you’ll see a lot of this. It’s a Tin Pan Alley convention that was carried forward. Works like this.
- You have a verse with a refrain. (A)
- Then another verse with a refrain. (A)
- Followed by a bridge. (B)
- And then another verse with a refrain. (A)
- 1st A: From the beginning to the repeat sign in measure 8.
- 2nd A: Back to the start repeat, take the second ending.
- B: Starts with the Gmi after the double bars.
- Last A: Starts with the F after the double bar lines in the fifth system.
So the bandleader might say something like “Let’s take it from the second A, and then let’s watch the dynamics in the B section.”
Of course, it needn’t be vocal music with a refrain—plenty of instrumental jazz standards use it too.
The Wrap Up
So there you have it: some of the most fundamental (and useful) music theory.
Use it to communicate your ideas to your bandmates.
Use it to label your charts.
Use it to organize your thinking.
And use it to help you learn songs.
See you out there,