An Introduction to…Song Form

An Introduction to the Music Staff

Understanding the basics of music theory can go a long way in helping you read sheet music, create music, and communicate with other musicians. And Sheet Music Direct is here to help! Take a look at our introductions to other key music theory topics, including pitch, chords, rhythm, and intervals.


Knowing the form of a song helps us to effectively memorize and interpret it. Sections of songs are most commonly eight, twelve, or sixteen measures long.

Blues Forms

Blues progressions are hidden within songs in other styles, so it's important to know them. The most common is the 12-bar blues form; it follows the general chord progression below, which you should memorize and learn in other keys. Once you are familiar with this basic form, you can learn to recognize its many variations.

The final two measures of the blues progression often contain a turnaround, a short progression designed to push us back to the top. This example has a typical turnaround: I–IV–I–V.

Here is a typical 8-bar blues form; one of many variants.

The blues progression may consist of only major or minor triads or dominant chords on the numbers shown above, or it may be dressed up with extra chord changes. The overall structure and general sense of harmonic movement remains.

Other Forms

Popular song forms often use three main sections: the chorus, the verse, and a bridge. After a possible introduction, either a verse or a chorus may start the tune. Usually the chorus contains the catchiest part of the song (the hook) and a strong chord move or resolution. The chorus often includes the song title in the lyrics as well.

The verses usually start at a lower energy level and provide supporting material for and build up to the chorus. Typically the verse contains fewer chord changes and a lower dynamic (volume) level than the chorus, and the lyrics provide additional story elements or development of the song’s theme.

The main purpose of the bridge is to provide contrast to the other sections, possibly changing keys or the rhythmic feel, along with lyric content that contrasts the other sections.

Multi-sectioned tunes, especially instrumentals, may just use rehearsal letters (A, B, C, etc.) to label the sections. The 32-bar or AABA song form is used for many well-known standards (songs that stand the test of time). This form consists of four sections, each containing eight measures. Usually the first, second, and final sections (A) are similar in melodic phrasing and chord-progression structure. The B section acts as a bridge, with contrasting material.

Chart Directions

A basic written version of a song may contain chords, the main melody, a few important phrases played by the instruments, and most importantly, the form. This is called a chart or a lead sheet. On it, you will see symbols and instructions that tell you to repeat sections a specific number of times, or to jump to an end section when you reach a specific measure. These symbols make the chart shorter, requiring less writing by the copyist and less page-turning by the player.

Instead of specifying every note, we can notate chord attacks and durations with rhythm slashes that cross the center of the staff. Diamond shapes indicate whole-note chords.

Repeat signs tell you to play everything between them twice. A right-facing repeat sign must always be followed by a left-facing one. Another handy symbol is the one-bar repeat (seen in the 2nd measure below).

If there is only a left-facing repeat sign, repeat from the very beginning.

You may use instructions such as Play 3 times over a repeated section. Be sure not to use the vague direction Repeat 2 times when writing your charts.

Numbered Endings

Often a repeated section has a different phrase at the end of each iteration. Keep track of how many times you have played the section and go to the appropriate ending each time. Follow the numbers written below the staff to see how it works. Each time through, you are required to play one ending only, skipping over the previously-played endings.

Italian Directions

The letters D.C. stand for the Italian da capo, meaning from the head. This means to immediately return to and play from the beginning of the piece. After following a D.C., it’s customary to ignore all repeat signs you've already encountered, playing only the final numbered ending(s), unless you were directed otherwise in a phrase such as D.C. w/ repeats or repeats good.

Eventually you will play up to the D.C. mark again. This time, ignore it! It only applies once.

The letters D.S. stand for dal segno (from the sign). The sign itself is an S with a slash and two dots.

Before playing the song, make a mental note of the location of the sign and the letters D.S. on the chart. The sign will always be well before the D.S. Play past the sign the first time through; it will be a starting place later. When you finally arrive at the letters D.S., jump back to the sign without stopping and continue to play. The rule regarding previous repeated sections after following a D.S. is the same as for a D.C.: they’re usually ignored. Take any final numbered ending.

Either D.C. or D.S. may be accompanied by the instruction al Fine (pronounced feenay), literally meaning to the end. The word Fine will appear later in the music. After jumping to the beginning (D.C.) or to the sign (D.S.), continue playing and stop when you arrive at the word Fine.

Instead of al Fine, you may see al Coda (meaning to the tail), referring to an extra section of music used as an ending. The coda symbol looks like the crosshairs on a rifle scope.

As with the segno, do nothing but make a mental note of the locations of the coda symbols the first time you see them. After following the instruction to jump to the beginning (D.C.) or to the sign (D.S.), continue playing until you arrive at the first coda symbol. Then, without stopping, jump to the other coda-marked section near the end.

Before starting to play, always take a few seconds to find all of the chart directions and talk through or mentally follow the path they indicate through the chart. If there is confusion, ask the bandleader about the form.

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