Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Embracing Ambiguity in the Analysis of Form in Pop/Rock Music, 1982–1991

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Embracing Ambiguity in the Analysis of Form in Pop/Rock Music, 1982–1991

Article excerpt


Example 1a. Form of “One” (U2, 1991), as found in Harris (2006, 99) and Endrinal (2008, 148)

Example 1b. First sixteen bars of vocal material from “One” (U2, 1991)

Example 1c. Lyrics to each iteration of Endrinal’s chorus section in “One” (U2, 1991)

[1.1] The analysis of form in pop/rock music traditionally involves partitioning a song into various discrete sections, such as verse, chorus, and bridge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this process is not always straightforward, since two different analysts sometimes provide two different interpretations of the same song. For example, the form of the U2 song “One” (1991) has been analyzed in at least two different ways, as shown in Example 1a. Endrinal (2008, 148) views the song primarily as an alternation of verse and chorus sections, whereas Harris (2006, 98–99) views it primarily as a succession of verse sections only.(1) We may naturally wonder, therefore: What factors underlie this and other instances of disagreement in the analysis of form in pop/rock music?

[1.2] Examining the song “One” more closely, we can find evidence both for and against the readings that Endrinal and Harris offer.(2) On one hand, the passage that Endrinal labels as a chorus (Example 1b) sounds rather chorus-like in contrast to the preceding material. Most notably, the melody rises into a higher register along with a corresponding lift in the harmonies to the relative major, which are features that theorists have associated with verse-chorus pairings.(3) On the other hand, there is very little if any textural change between the first eight bars and the second eight, which dampens our sense that these sixteen bars cleave into two separate sections. Another factor involves the lyrics. In particular, many explanations of form in pop/rock music observe that the lyrics of a verse typically change each time its music reappears, whereas the lyrics of a chorus typically do not (e.g., Stephenson 2002, 134–35; Everett 2009, 145). As Example 1c shows, the lyrics for each iteration of Endrinal’s chorus section are considerably different, with “one” being the only significant word shared among all four instances of the passage. Overall, therefore, the differences in interpretation observed here appear to derive from conflicting perceptual cues within different domains (harmony, melody, texture, lyrics), each of which has the potential to confirm or contradict a given reading. In short, the form of the song is ambiguous.

[1.3] To some, the lack of agreement on the form of this song may seem like a rare occurrence—too rare to deserve closer attention. Neal, for example, writes that “the mere act of labeling sections of a song is little more than a rote exercise, one that is easily and frequently taught to undergraduate students of popular music” (2007, 44), implying that partitioning a song into sections and applying standard form labels is usually a clear-cut process. And it may be so, if done alone. But in my own experience—both in analyzing songs and reading other’s analyses—I find form in pop/rock music to be a very subjective topic. (Form in common-practice era music is no different, considering the panoply of approaches that have been offered to describe the form of the first movement of a sonata.)(4) It is impossible to quantify the true extent of subjectivity in the analysis of form in pop/rock music, of course, although some recent work sheds light on the issue. In a study by Bruderer, McKinney, and Kohlrausch (2006), for example, listeners were asked to label structural boundaries in six full-length popular songs. The authors found that, of all the boundaries identified, only a few were agreed upon by all participants. In a similar study by Smith (2014), trained musicians independently labeled structural boundaries in a large and stylistically diverse corpus of recordings. …

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