It’s sometime in the 16th century. You’re sitting inside with a fine glass of mead on a fine summer’s day. Through the open windows, street noises drift in and amongst the Renaissance soundscape, some music. A passing minstrel, a kind of early busker, plies his trade. A few musical phrases or chords on a lute, a simple repeated melody – welcome to strophic form. Even though it’s been around a long time, it still exists and today, sounds something like this:
If you look at most guides to songwriting you’ll see that strophic form gets a bad rap – if it gets any rap at all. You’ll often find it being dismissed as not being relevant for the contemporary songwriter. But to me, any discussion of form in popular music has to include strophic form. Apart from the fact that some of the greatest songs of all time are in strophic form, it’s where it all began. We can better understand AABA and verse-chorus form and how/why they work if we see them in the context of strophic form and as a response to its shortcomings. Which we’ll get to in a moment, because oh yes, strophic form has some serious limitations.
While strophic form can be found in all styles of music, it’s usually seen as a kind of “folk” form. People’s music, where arrangements, harmonic material and musical elements tend to be fairly simple. Because of that, it’s ideal for setting text to music as the musical information tends to stay out of the way. Songs in strophic form are often what I think of as “story” songs. In the English-speaking world, classic folk examples are songs like Scarborough Fair (UK) or In the Pines (USA), though these kinds of vernacular songs exist across all languages and cultures.
Forget about verses and choruses, much less bridges or middle 8’s. In strophic form, there’s only one section, a building block that’s repeated through the entirety of the song. It doesn’t really have an agreed name, so I’ll go with “strophe”, even though that’s not a term you hear all that much. It’s the musical equivalent of a stanza in literature and poetry i.e., a repeated group of lines of text which share a similar meter and rhyming scheme.
If we were to represent strophic form in letters, well, nothing could be simpler: AAAAA … with as many A’s as you need to get you to the end. Each of these A’s is usually 8-12 bars in length.
The form’s defining characteristic is that each strophe has the same chord progression. As Wikipedia says, strophic form is “a song structure in which all verses or stanzas of the text are sung to the same music“. If there’s a section with a different chord progression or which heads off in another key, it’s no longer strophic form.
(In reality, if you have another section in another key and you’re wondering what it is, look no further than AABA form, because that’s probably what you have. As we saw, AABA is closely related to strophic form, especially the “A” part of it, and much of what we’re discussing here applies to it.)
Apart from repeating a single harmonic block, the other main characteristic of strophic form is in how the lyrics are used. Unlike verse-chorus form, in strophic form we don’t have a separate, repeating chorus lyric. What we have instead is a line of text, usually the title, repeated as a refrain. This is treated in one of three ways, or in a combination of them:
Firstly and the most common, this refrain can be used to conclude the basic block, which is what we saw above with The Times They Are A-Changin’. We return to the song title at the end of each stanza. Other classic examples are Dylan’s “Blowin In The Wind”, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman, and one that’s often cited as a great example, Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”.
Secondly, the refrain can do the opposite and open each block, such as with a song like Scarborough Fair. The first line is the title, and away we go. You’ll find it in a lot of nursery rhymes and traditional songs: Mary Had A Little Lamb, Old MacDonald Had A Farm, Row Row Row Your Boat, right through to traditional hymns like Amazing Grace. A more contemporary example is Jimmy Webb’s, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. OK, he changes the place name each time, but the underlying idea is the same.
Be aware that unless you’re writing short songs, this is the hardest of these approaches to pull off for the same reason that it’s almost impossible to get away with starting a song with a chorus. (Unless you’re David Bowie). In general with songs, you want to be moving towards your main idea or key moment, not away from it. Consequently, most strophic-type songs that open with the title end up as AABA because you generally need another section to get it to work.
In addition to these two, there’s a third approach which is to treat a stanza of lyrics in its entirety as a repeated refrain. This is then set in alternation with other lyrics – though the difference with verse/chorus form here is of course that the chord progression never changes. A classic example is Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. The basic chord pattern is repeated throughout, but across one of the rounds we sing a repeated “knockin’ on heaven’s door”. Mr. Tambourine Man uses the same approach, as do many Dylan songs.
Another great example is the traditional song “In The Pines”, also known as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and also as “My Girl”. It’s a traditional song with multiple versions, sung to devastating hair-on-the-back-of-your neck effect by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Here, there’s not just a repeated 8-bar refrain but also the repetition of “my girl, my girl” at the start of many of the stanzas.
HOW LONG IS A SONG?
As we saw already, regardless of where we put our main lyric, all of these songs use the same basic harmonic material throughout. Sometimes this block is 8 bars, sometimes more, but strophic form songs repeat the same chord progression from go to woe. So while they can still have variation in other areas, they’re limited by the form’s defining feature: don’t change the chord pattern or move to another tonal centre. Which throws up a problem.
Let’s imagine that the average song is around 3 – 4 minutes long. It could be longer, but probably wouldn’t want to be much shorter.
According to Mr. Google (or Ms. Google), the average tempo in popular music is 115 BPM, so let’s start there. 8 bars at 115 BPM takes just 17 seconds. So if we want to fill say 3 minutes 20 seconds but are limited to repeating the same 8 bar section, we’re going to need a LOT of repetitions. Nearly 12 in fact. So, round and round the same 8-bar chord sequence 12 times. Further, the strophe might itself contain harmonic repetition: e.g. Knockin on Heaven’s Door repeats the same 4 bars twice in each strophe, while All Along the Watchtower loops the same 2 bars for the whole song.
And therein lies the main limitation of strophic form. Because we don’t have much material to work with, it tends to get repetitive and, not putting too fine a point on it, the b-word: boring. Of course, musicians all know when a song has gone on for too long – and if we don’t, our public will soon let us know. So the problem here, in short, is just that: not much material = short songs.
So how can we get around this limitation? What are some of the techniques that songwriters use to sustain songs in this form, to give them more meat and substance? In part two, I’ll look at how to get strophic form to work – because in spite of what you’ve been told, it CAN work.