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Distinguishing between sections

Although some pieces of music lack clear sections, most pieces of music contain two or more primary sections. How do we go about distinguishing between these sections? How can we name each section in a clear way that takes into account the content of the sections and repetitions?

You may not be surprised to hear that different genres of music have arrived at different solutions for these problems. Here are two of the most common methods:

  • AA’BA” – this method uses letters to label the new sections and apostrophe marks to denote variations in the sections. This is most common in classical and jazz formal analysis.
  • Song structure – this method uses common section names: verse, chorus, bridge, and etc. Each section serves a specific purpose in the form and is usually used in songs and popular music.

To get a better understanding of how these systems work, let’s take a look at a two examples:

Christian Petzold’s (previously attributed to Bach) Minuet and Trio in G was published in 1725

This piece is 32 measures long and consists of 2 periods each made of 2 phrases of 8 measures in length. The phrases begin in measures 1, 9, 17, and 25. The first and second phrase both begin with identical melodies for the first six measures; the third and fourth phrases are comprised of mostly unrelated material. Traditionally, after playing to the end of the piece performers repeat the first half again. One way to analyze this piece would look like this:

Let’s look at the song My Old Kentucky Home.

My Old Kentucky Home by Stephen Foster

This piece would be best analyzed in song form. We can easily call the first 8 measures a verse sense the lyrics change on the repeat. Measures 11-17 are the chorus, or in this case the refrain (these terms are interchangeable although refrain is somewhat dated). After the chorus the verse repeats with a different set of lyrics. Traditionally, this piece is performed with the following form: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Chorus.