Song formats as they relate to genres

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kc5's picture

Are there certain song formats that are known to be used for certain genres and if you deviate from them its an absolute no-no?
Mountain Music

Any others I may have missed.

I don't know that there are any absolute no-nos when it comes to genre song formats. But I suppose a question might be, what are the characteristics of a song which would make you pigeonhole it as "Country" or "Mountain Music" or "Bluegrass" or "Folk"? Those four genres have a lot of possible crossover, and it's kind of a "I know it when I hear it" thing.

The genre that i want to know more about is "Singer/Songwriter" Is it a genre? Is there a "style sheet" or definition? Is it a sound or a rhyme scheme?

Nothing is considered an absolute no-no. Since music is a form expression, there are no rules at all. Smile

[@brrrse] I think of it as some sort of tag rather than a genre. Such as label to define that someone not only writes lyrics but they also compose their own stuff too.

@metalfoot In country music, certain guitars that have that "twang" sound so that's one applicants that would qualify for it. Others would probably be a banjo, and a fiddle. But I think in my mind you can get away with the right guitar but it probably won't be country anymore, noting but an undertone.

As for "bluegrass", vocal harmony play more prominent role in this genre than the others as well as more wood instruments like a mandolin and it's usually exclusive to acoustic instruments rather than amplified ones. Also the pace of music is a lot quicker than country music and mostly instrumental.

As for "folk", it can be anything as long as it's played on an acoustic instrument. Now there are certain fusion genres with folk like folk-rock. Which is completely different and nothing but a nod to bands that incorporate the jangley 12 string ric guitars mixed with acoustic guitars .

Let me be more specific....I've been browsing listings to see what kind of songs people are buying for film and TV. Lots of the ads are for "Singer-songwriter" songs conveying a certain emotion, slow to medium tempo. What do they mean by singer/songwriter? Smile

A couple of years ago, I was asked to be the guitar player/backing vocalist in a bluegrass band. My relationship with them lasted two rehearsals, but in those two weeks I did watch a bunch of YouTube videos and learned a fair amount about bluegrass-style guitar. Pretty much every song we played, the chords were G-C-D, and the banjo player did not like it one bit when I tried to introduce E minor and B into "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" to give it a bit of gospel/blues feel.
A whole lot of bluegrass songs are in the key of G because a banjo is tuned to open G (C is a pretty common bluegrass key, too). Also a bunch of the fiddle tunes are in A, and then a banjo picker can put a capo on the second fret.
But then some of the new-grass bands that operate more like jam bands (there's another wide-ranging genre for you) have taken bluegrass way, way out there. And the father of bluegrass banjo, Earl Scruggs, was super-adventurous in going beyond traditional bluegrass.

bill frisell plays jazz largely on a tele these days, and danny gatton played just about everything on a tele for quite a while.

singer/songwriter WAS a genre, when it came about. music used to have three parts, back in the day-- a writer, players, and a singer. the writer wrote songs, the players were in the band, and the singer was out front and sang. folk singers were different-- they accompanied themselves, and sang from a folk tradition of established songs. that is why the singer-songwriter genre to this day is largely still folky in feel and cadence-- it largely derives from folk music-- earnest, with slow to medium tempo. the examples of bob dylan and the beatles revolutionized the concept of music into self-contained units that wrote their own material, and played their own instruments. but the singer-songwriter genre is still largely defined in folk terms, though the instrumentation has expanded from just a strummed guitar. and THAT is why, [@brrrse], the singer-songwriter genre is largely defined by a certain amount of emotion and certain tempos to this day, because it arose in a historical context that some people are blissfully unaware of when they say that the singer-songwriter label has nothing to do with qualifying music except for writing your own songs and singing them yourself. those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, while those of us who do are doomed to watch them repeat it. history and context matters in EVERY genre. that is why there are genres.

[@brrrse] well they must be thinking of adult contemporary music because singer/songwriter doesn't have anything to qualify other than writing your own songs and singing them yourself, and subvertedly having one or more than one songwriter to compose music and lyrics for their own band.

@tsunamidaily Thank you! Short, sweet, concise and very understandable! Smile I no longer wonder! Smile I knew someone could help me out!

kc5's picture

Its been very interesting to read all the above comments as it relates sonically. I learn something new every question. I suppose I should have narrowed my question a bit more, though I'm glad I didn't because if I had, I wouldn't have caught the sonic perspective. However, my initial question (which I wasn't very clear on) is in relation to lyric formatting.

i.e., musical intro, verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, Bridge, verse 3, chorus, outro -- Rock
i.e. short verse 1, refrain, refrain, short verse 2, refrain, refrain, short verse 3, refrain, refrain -- blues

(not saying that is the format for those two, just using them for examples--I'd like to know if there is an actual "generalized" format for the various genres listed at the top.

Here's my two cents:

Bluegrass is Appalachian influenced music that has incorporated a few elements from gospel and jazz, mainly in the form of taking instrumental breaks to showcase the banjo, fiddle, cello or bass and mandolin.

Country is mainly about storytelling. It borrows heavily from many genres: especially blues and mountain music. Folk music and country both have a lot of that in common, but folk music is more tied to discovering roots in your area, telling local history and includes more delving into bluegrass, mountain music, gospel, etc. while country is more about originality and having a southern U.S. accent, rural focus.

That would be my interpretation.

Rockabilly is rock music tied into hillbilly tunes. It's heavily influenced by Appalachian mountain music and old-time folk. Scotch-Irish roots

Jazz, blues, soul, reggae and hip hop have their roots in African rhythms and black culture.

Bluegrass is white people's interpretation of jazz and soul.

Anyway...that's how I see it. I'm happy to be enlightened by a more savvy music historian. I really think that there is crossover between certain genres. In a broad sense you could label a lot of music as folk, because folk is all about discovering your roots. Classical music could in many ways be termed European folk music. It's well recognized. It's stood the test of time, and we use it as a base for analyzing song construction.

The Nashville pop-song writing crowd loves their formulas, and are more than happy to let you know if you deviate from them in the least little detail. I'm not sure that's actually a good thing.

Great posts, everybody!
Is there a genre with no set lyric formatting?
Like, say, prog, or "experimental"?

kc5, yes there is. It's why I know, funk, blues, r&b, heavy metal... when I hear it. That's it, four, there are only four music food groups and all have their own formula : ) in general. It's why Bach, et al., could get electrified ; ) all the other mutt derivations are when someone tried to munge those four. Folk music came out of dad pulling the breaker box main... the unplugged sound. Singer songwriter came when rockers stopped doing covers, and blue grass came out of level one guitar books, --no level two. There you go ; ) Three licks to that tootsie roll center.

They all have forms, -- latest Christian contemporary, "hill song" format is what, but with non-secular lyrics?

Rock derived from, arguably American Slave Spirituals, call and response, where the Brits made it what it became, then consumed back as American R&R. We didn't like Jimi Hendrix, till the Britts did, as e.g. The Stones, others, came and studied face to face, ate our lunch, and souled it back to us : )

Heavy metal was born on 100W Marshall stacks, where they fought over * Tube Type sound... more than a 1, 5 power chord over 100W, mic'd to 10KW sounded, wonky ... "heavy metal" born. But, the best, pre hair-band formula had good, R&B lyrics roots. Then, Santana-ish, and BMarley guys introduce their Ethnic isms... Today, along comes Bolly Wood, and where back to show tunes, ala Ghetto Rap, on Menthol Cigarettes ; ) Sea, clear as mud.

Corporate Rock, where they tried to formula "music" brought many disasters from formulas ... early disco, was some of the best funk-rock, there ever was... then hair-bands, now the swiftly-movement (I have a lot of respect for Taylor Swift... Formula driven, indeed). As well we now have the modern soul-rap-modulate-auto-tune me ethnic music of a kind, as formula as it gets.

I could go on, but, is so convoluted, it's become a "Major" for College, -- good use of mom and dads money, indeed! What kills me, are the Professors, as Authorities, and how they became, as such : ) OMG!

-- Start with a formula, then change it to yours. Then if 10M other folks like it, agree -- good for you : )$ ...
if not, still, good for you!

I actually love formulas because they allow those of us who are just beginners to create songs and enjoy this hobby! My opinion is you need to be pretty damn good at formulaic songs before you can advance to odd formats or free-form progressive stuff. Kinda like the old adage that you must learn the rules before you break them! The nice thing about verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus and other common formats is there is something there we can all recognize and enjoy even if the writing is sketchy (like some of my skirmish efforts)! And even some of the great songwriters lose me when they depart too much from the formulas. I guess what I am trying to say is...I use formulas and expect to do so for the foreseeable future!!! Biggrin comments above are in no way intended to discourage anyone else from departing from formulas! Do whatever you feel good doing! Just don't be too surprised when folks skip over your 5 minute spoon and cowbell solo!

@kc5 I would say yes. To me all genres have similar patterns that fit their own genre. Country and Blues are based on I IV V and boo hoo. Variations of the roots of the original genre, in my opinion, is what makes it less correct and not as good, and ruins the genre. The Beethoven I've looked at is so perfectly correct and I can see how the composing started changing after he Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria. Further, Country music uses electric guitars and drums now. That's not necessarily a good thing if you love old country style music. Well, unless you are a dance band, I guess, they have to play the hits to get a gig. Thanks for the great topic.

@johnstaples; @Mosley and I got 25 comments on an experimental piece, thank you very much. Sad

@Fuzzy that is great! FAWM and 50/90 are the perfect place for experimenting!

@Guitar Kim, I would argue that the "Nashville pop-song writing crowd loves their formulas" because they work! And if your goal is to write songs you want others to listen to, whether commercially on the radio or simply because you sent your friends and family an mp3, you have a much greater shot at getting those listens (and repeat listens) if you aim for commercial standards.

Many thanks, @johnstaples! Smile

"...don't be too surprised when folks skip over your 5 minute spoon and cowbell solo!..."

Guess what my next track is going to be... Wink
Watch this space! Biggrin

@Dragondreams go for it! Smile

kc5's picture

So is there any chance of getting a list of what the lyrical formulas are for the different genres listed here?

Kc5, the "problem" is, in what world, context are your labels coming from. For example, you may see singer song-writer in the/a dictionary, but not rock, or rock and roll. Even music theory has a few cases of differences, English or UK, and then, well, other.

So, for what you ask so specifically, technically I'd refer to a cataloging service/library, as e.g.:

Any resource is subject to question. For example the origins of Rock, or even, "White" ? -- Christian Hymnals music origin. Fairly well discussed as well issued. In fact, the Slave Spiirituals, Hymns were roots for others... Which then, fed, RnB, Blues, White Hymns, so to speak, -- all, arguably. No one was chronology tracking, if even literate... -- we back track, now. It looks disconnected, but is not. Take baby and swap out the Lord, and got a Ray Charles tune? : ) Many "church" songs were bar room ditty melodies. So, what is what, how and who from is dicy, -- back to library catalog services. Remember, the prior is for example, only, to explain the issues to you, specifically. It would take a 120k word book to even start to argue it all.

So, you will have to assemble from wikis, aboutstuff by some inet guy .com, library .edu catalogs. If there is a definitive "book", take it with a grain of salt, minimum. For sure we have 12 Bar Bluea, with Turn around, in 1, 4, 5 progression. But we have 50's dowop, that looks like it, but isn't, -- see?

Anyway, IMO, you ask for catalog service which would then, catalog it. See that link, then look around on your own.

If you hit on something, post it!

: )

Maybe a music history major / PhD can provide a better direction for you, -- none yet though : ) soderugo!

The simple answer is to study the patterns in all popular genres. Most of the time it's repeated stuff anyway like blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I think any good singer could fit any lyrics patterns into whatever genre is the target. Just count your syllables and keep your patterns consistent. To me writing lyrics is a series of phrases strung together to exaggerate a message.

Also, there might be a list out there somewhere on the internet. Try google typical chord patterns per genre.

I think @jcollins has something here; one of the biggest things for lyrics-only writers to watch for is syllable count and stress pattern (iambs, dactyls, anapaests, trochees, etc). As a hybrid lyric/tunewriter, I can play with my tune a little to accommodate sprung rhythm or mismatched lyric counts. But if you're trying to sell lyrics for other songwriters to add tune to, a regular meter is pretty critical to making it work out in the most flexible of ways.

So many interesting twists and turns to this thread! Interesting to read the singer/songwriter references - to me, it's performer and songwriter being the same person, which is why I prefer performer/songwriter. Whatever you call it, it implies an intimacy and immediacy, I think - songs that can usually be performed with minimal production and perhaps just guitar/vocal or piano/vocal.
And then there's the discussion of country/Nashville formulas - I grew up listening to my dad's country albums in the '70s. Later, as I learned more about country music, I noticed a shift in the '60s and '70s toward bigger production. One of my dad's favorites was Charlie Rich - he started out as a Sun Records rockabilly pianist, but his later hits had strings, a chorus of backing vocals, and they were usually mid-tempo ballads.
In the '90s, I checked back in with country and thought a whole lot of it sounded like re-worked Eagles and Bob Seger songs, but the singer might have a twangier voice. So country formulas - for the big hits - may change, but they are indeed formulas.
And now we're on to lyricists, and I'm curious - are there lyricists-only who have succeeded in pitching lyrics to multiple musicians? Two of my favorite lyricists - Bernie Taupin (Elton John) and Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead) - are associated with a particular artist, and I know there have been many great lyric/music teams. But I can't think of a words-only person who is not attached to a certain artist or team.

bernie taupin might be most associated with elton john, but he is also responsible for the lyrics to what is possibly the worst song ever:

so, he gets around.

OMG! It was a corpse!!!! LOL I guess even the big buck writers need a little fun sometimes too! LOL I'm kidding, I don't know that it was, but wouldn't it be funny if it was?

@kc5 You are unlikely to get a "standard" form per genre. But I've been reading a ton of posts all over the internet and figured I'd share what I've gotten so far. Which is wrong. Even if it is correct, it is wrong. And probably a lot of people will comment and tell us why after this post. And most of them are probably right. But here it goes:

Here are four song forms used in popular music (but usually with alterations):

Song Form 1: Intro, V1, Ch, V2, Ch, Bridge, V3/M8/Interlude, Chorus, Outro
Song Form 2: V1, Chorus, Break, V2, Chorus, Break, Bridge, Chorus, Outro
Song Form 3: Intro, V1, Chorus, V2, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus
Song Form 4: Intro, V1, Pre-Chorus/Break/hook, Chorus, V2, Pre-chorus/Break/Hook, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus Chorus

Bluegrass:Instrumental-Verse-Chorus-Instrumental-Verse-Chorus-Instrumental-Verse - Chorus Chorus (Notice how it is essentially V Ch V Ch V Ch in lyric structure.) There are tons of exceptions. Too many to even start to talk about. Basically you can have almost any structure as long as there are harmonies in the chorus and instrumental breaks

Edited to add: Old Timey and Mountain Music is very similar to bluegrass in a lot of ways. Lyrically similar, too. I think of it all as one genre when it isn't with a lot of the old timey music being the ballads and breathers to the up tempo bluegrass tunes. I actually like old timey music more than bluegrass but it took me decades to figure that out.

Country - V-Ch-V-Ch-(optional Bridge/break/interlude)-Chorus. Variances abound. Too many to list.

Pop - Intro - V1 - Prechorus - Chorus - Instrumental - V2 - Prechorus - Chorus - Middle 8 - Chorus - chorus outro -Outro fade (There are tons of variances, but this seems pretty solid, actually. Admittedly, I spent 10 minutes researching it, though.)

Blues - Verse/Refrain, Verse/Refrain, Verse/Refrain.
Folk - Verse Refrain, Verse Refrain, Verse Refrain

Refrain is a repeated line or two or four that is repeated at the end of the verse. It usually doesn't sound like a separate section musically but the continuation of the form. Older Rock and popular music (think early beatles and before) uses the A/A/B/A form and that works really really well with a refrain on the A sections.

There's two more that come to mind - 1- the classic 'jazz standard'/tin pan alley' broadway song, where there's a freeform introductory 'verse' and then a 32-bar chorus that's subdivided into AABA sections. (Most of the time, people are only familiar with the 'chorus AABA section, but many of these songs had an introductory no-set-length- 'verse' that set up the story (see intro to 'stardust', 'i left my heart in san francisco' for two quick examples)) ----- and then 2- that old 'town cryer' 'spread the news' (think 'folk' songs from the 1700's) form of verse/verse/verse/verse/verse/verse (repeat till the story is told)... Smile

@tsunamidaily - That song always makes lists as one of the worst hit songs ever. And it is so terrible it's glorious.
@mike skliar - I like that "town cryer" reference. I think of it, too, as "wandering minstrel" or "wandering troubadour." Often I write like that - I may modulate the verses to different keys to make the song less repetitive. Or I may not - Dylan doesn't.
A comment I've gotten in the past (not this year) either here or at FAWM is that a song of mine with that verse-verse-verse-verse ... pattern could use a bridge. And I think (but have never responded this way): it's a well-meaning comment, but if I had wanted a bridge I would have included one.

@Chip Withrow..."And I think (but have never responded this way): it's a well-meaning comment, but if I had wanted a bridge I would have included one."

This is a good point for all to remember when commenting. Unless the songwriter specifically requested critique I try to never presume to know their intents, skills, etc. Maybe they are way better than me! Maybe they just did a scratch recording and plan big things for later. Maybe it was a skirmish or other draft exercise. Best to say what I like about the song and move on!

@chip -your post reminds me that I read somewhere that for Bob Dylan's first five albums, which included such landmarks as 'freewheelin'' and 'bringing it all back home', none of the songs had a bridge, and even a 'separate' chorus was not really there either. It wasn't till the song 'ballad of a thin man' from Highway 61 that he put a bridge into a song...