Strophic Form: What it is, how it works.

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.



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.

How to get Strophic Form to work.

As we saw in the first part here on strophic form, the main limitation here is that because these songs just go round and round the same chord pattern, they can get very repetitive. While this is something we can’t get away from, there are some workarounds.


If you’ve poked around this site, you’ll see that the focus is almost entirely on form and structure and the role that harmonic movement plays in that. But with strophic form, where harmony doesn’t really provide much of a structural framework, lyrics can step into to fulfil this structural role. There are different ways of achieving this.


If we’re looking to get more material into our song and with that more length, one approach is to use lots of words. Often lots and lots of words. To see this in action we need look no further than Dylan. After all, he didn’t get the Nobel Prize for writing two verse and a chorus songs. Strophic form or not, nearly all of his songs have lots of lyrics – which then take more time to get through. Desolation Row, with its 10 rounds of the basic 12 bar block (or 24 depending on how you count it), stretches out to a magnificent 11 minutes.

Dylan’s not alone. In its original form, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah with its repeated Hallelujahs at the end of each strophe has 80+ stanzas. And while there’s no version with all of these, plenty of them still get over 6 or 7 minutes. Similarly, the Simon and Garfunkel version of Scarborough Fair has 10 stanzas and is over 6 minutes long.

The sheer volume of lyrics gives these songs a longer arc in the same way the text does with a poem or a novel. In short, if you want longer strophic form songs, one way is to write lots of lyrics.


In looking at song-building, something I’ve tried to bring out is how harmonic movement within and across sections of a song creates structure and form. But in strophic form, where we only have one repeated section and nothing to contrast it with, we don’t get that. So we need to look elsewhere for structure, and one place to do so is in the lyrics. That is, we can use the words not just for their meaning, but as a structural device.

A simple example is a song like Old MacDonald – OK, a children’s song, but work with me here. Lyrically, each strophe starts and ends with exactly the same text, then between that we get the body of the words talking about the different animals and the sounds they make. This opening and closing text serves as a container, bookending the “meat” of the content each time. It’s a kind of formula, something like what you see in poetic forms such as limericks or Japanese Haiku.

What’s happening is that as you finish each round, there’s a sense of anticipation in moving onto the next. Anticipation creates tension, which creates structure. So as we move through the chickens and ducks and cows and pigs, the lyrics become a kind of motor, providing the momentum and drive we need, carrying us forward.

But, there’s a trick here. Songs like these only work if you “get” how the lyrics are being put together structurally. Take Scarborough Fair, where we understand from the second stanza onwards that each round is going to be built on a different message from the protagonist to his lover: Have her make me a cambric shirt. Tell her to weave it in a sycamore wood lane. Have her find me an acre of land. etc. As a listener, you’re drawn into this “what happens next”, because you realise from how the lyrics are being put together that something WILL happen next. A song I mentioned earlier, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is very similar. By the time you get to the second stanza (see what I did there …), you understand what’s happening –  that each strophe will start with his arrival in a new city as he gets further and further away.

A great example for me is “Not Dark Yet” from Dylan’s 1997 album “Time Out of Mind”. It’s 6 glorious minutes of strophic form where each block ends with the line “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”. I never tire of listening to how he manages to bring everything back to that line at the end of each stanza. For example, the third round starts “Well I been to London and I been to gay Paree”, and you think to yourself, how the hell is he going to bring that around to “It’s not dark yet”? But he does, and in doing so, you’re transported, drawn in and carried along while along the way he sprinkles your path with gems like: “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from”.


So strophic form often leads to a “wordy” kind of songwriting, one with plenty of text, or  lyrics used in a structural way. I think of it as an edge-of-your-seat, “tell me more” form. The best strophic form songs have lyrics that carry you forward and in doing so, overcome the limitation of all that harmonic repetition.


If you don’t have much (harmonic) material, another solution is to take more time to get through what you do have. That is, slowwww downnnn. Many of the songs I’ve referenced above are slow songs. Take Knockin on Heaven’s Door. Dylan’s original is 70 BPM, while the Guns and Roses version (to cite but one) is even slower at 67 BPM. “Not Dark Yet” is a glacial 62 BPM.

Slower tempos give you more duration for the same number of bars. As we saw, at 115 BPM, you need around 12 repetitions of an 8 bar block to get over 3 minutes. But if your tempo is a lot less than that, you might only need 7 or 8 repetitions, which becomes much more achievable.

There’s a related technique we can use here. It doesn’t slow down the tempo, but it lengthens the underlying beat, which amounts to the same thing. For this, the tempo and basic beat stays the same, but we change the meter, and in particular, change it to some form of triplet time. For the same pulse, triplet time adds 50% to the duration of each rhythmic unit. The accent comes on every third unit as opposed to each second – a unit here could be anything, but we’re usually talking about 8th notes. A bar of 2 4 has 4 x 8th notes (quavers), but the same bar in 6 8 has 6 x 8th notes, though both have two main accented beats. So for the same underlying tempo, i.e, the same number of 8th note beats per minute, each bar will be 50% longer. As such, instead of needing say 96 bars for our song, we could get to the same duration with only 64.

It’s no accident that a number of the songs I’ve mentioned here, such as Scarborough Fair, In the Pines or The Times They Are A-Changing are all in triplet time. It’s the case with a lot of strophic songs, so much so that if I hear a song in triplet time, I’m guessing that it’ll either be strophic form or its bigger cousin, AABA/32 bar form. (I discussed this in my AABA entry, for example in The Beatles’ “Oh Darling”.)

As an aside, this is an interesting example of how form impacts the other elements in a song. If you start working on a song in strophic form, you’re often going to find yourself using these slower tempos and/or triplet meters.


As we’ve seen, strophic form tends to get very repetitive, so anything we can do to introduce variety and contrast is welcome. One way to do this is to use instrumental interludes between some of the sung stanzas. Bob Dylan didn’t have a harmonica mounted around his neck just for show. We still repeat the strophe and the chords stay the same, but a different instrument takes the top line, usually with another idea.

This is a standard technique in many traditional styles, and is a defining feature of many of them. You only have to look at Irish music or Bluegrass. There’ll be two or three rounds with singing, then a break for a violin interlude, another few rounds, then another interlude, this time on a mandolin. And so on, though the underlying chord progression is the same each time. These interludes are improvised or vary a theme,  because we need them to be different each time even when they’re played by the same instrument. We’re looking for variety and change, so  for example, the use of  a repeated guitar riff isn’t going to help us.


A great example is Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower. We have the same 2-bar chord progression throughout, but every 16 bars or so we get a guitar solo. But not just any guitar solo. You can hear him working to make each one as different as possible in sound and approach. For example, when we reach the second series of interludes (1:42), there’s a succession of 8 bar solos, each very different: the first is a kind of “straight” guitar solo, the second uses slide, the third uses wah-wah, the fourth is a kind of “chord solo”, all across the same chord pattern each time. This mirrors the approach we see in a form like bluegrass, where across successive blocks you might get banjo, guitar, then fiddle each taking a solo for a round before the singing returns. In the context of song length, it’s worth noting here that while Dylan’s version of Watchtower is just over 2 minutes, the Hendrix take on it is almost double that, helped along by all these guitar interludes. Though Hendrix also takes a tip from (ii) above and slows Dylan’s 129 BPM down to 114 BPM.


This is in some respects similar to the above, and is there for the same reason: to create variety in the instrumental parts while we continue to cycle through the same basic harmonic block. But this time, instead of coming between the sung sections, it occurs as part of them. In other words, we have the same or similar melody and the same chords, but a different backing. A great early example of this is Them’s Gloria, sung by Van Morrison.


Here, we have a kind of A A’ form, where there’s a variation of the melody on the repeated refrain (G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria). But underneath it all, we have the same one-bar, E D A chord pattern for the whole song.  (Yes, the song just repeats a single bar from start to finish.)

The first body of text is built around the guitar part (that we all know and love), while the second block from 1:27 features organ. This leaves the guitarist standing at the back of the stage blowing kisses to the fans but not actually playing anything. There’s a massive contrast in sound and arrangement between these two sections of the song. But even with that, we can’t escape the limitations of the repeated one bar chord pattern, and the song struggles to get over 2 minutes – though a fabulous 2 minutes they are. Even with all the work that’s being put into these variations, including in the melody, there’s not enough harmonic material to sustain the song for any longer.

A more recent example from Blur uses similar techniques, but faces the same limitations and gives us the same result: a very short song:


Except for a very brief couple of bars in Db as an interlude, we go round the same 2 bar pattern for the whole song. Blur are inventive and do everything they can in terms of the arrangement: there’s a huge contrast across the various sections from simple solo guitar to full-blown power punk, along with variations in almost all the elements, including the melody. But once again, the limitations of strophic form kick in, and while it’s a great song, it’s also a very short song. 2 minutes. Not helped of course by the fact that they’re belting along at 130 BPM, which is unusually fast for a song in this form for all the reasons we’ve seen. With strophic form, you’re usually looking at how you can slow things down, not speed up. So in spite of all that work, the song is over very quickly. Without introducing different harmonic material they run out of places to go and ways to build a longer form.


This relates back to what we saw above under (ii) slow down, where one of the ways to get length is to use triplet meters. The material takes more time to get through at the same tempo. 

We can apply this to the basic block itself, and it’s one of the characteristics of a lot of Dylan songs in strophic form. He tends to use strophes that are longer than 8 bars, either by adding bars at the end, or repeating them in the middle. Or both. It’s the same with some of the other songs we’ve seen above.

There’s a traditional form of music which takes this approach as its defining feature: the 12 bar blues. Instead of, say, an 8 bar block we have 12. So rather than needing 12 rounds at 115 BPM to get to 3 minutes, we only need 8. And while there are plenty of slow 12-bars, it’s a form that starts to make faster tempos possible without coming up against the limitations that we saw in Van Morrison or Blur.

It’s no accident that a lot of early rock (pop?) songs are built around 12 bar blues patterns: Hound Dog (Elvis), Tutti Fruiti (Little Richard), Johnny B Good (Chuck Berry), Whole Lotta Shakin’ (Jerry Lee Lewis) to name but a few. Though even here, we can’t entirely escape the limitations of the form, especially at faster tempos, and it’s no coincidence that nearly all these artists were not just great writers and singers but great instrumentalists as well. (OK, Elvis wasn’t a great instrumentalist … but Scotty Moore was.) Many of these songs still need what we saw above, instrumental interludes and solos to give them substance and length.

So with the 12 bar form, we start get a version of strophic form that’s a lot more meaty, which then allows us to start building songs that are more muscular. The power in Cream’s version of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads wouldn’t be possible going round a simple 4 bar or 8 bar pattern – or not for this duration anyway.



Strophic form is a more traditional form, often a lyric-based form, and not really one that you’re likely to come across on mainstream radio or with millions of hits on Youtube. But I wanted to include it here for a few reasons:

(i) It’s a great vehicle if you’ve got something to say lyrically.

(ii) It’s the basis of AABA form, and understanding it helps put verse-chorus form in context.

(iii) It uses a range of techniques to help build songs, and we can apply these to any form or style.

(iv) It also reminds us of the limitations of those techniques. For example, it’s not enough JUST to vary your arrangements if that’s not supported by structural use of harmony.

I’ll leave you with a couple of truly great songs that just happen to be in strophic form. Because yes, strophic form still has a place.


And Sinead meets Prince. Yep, strophic form as well.