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Song structure in popular music
Community Arts Music
Song Structure in Popular Music
Although most people may never have been required to name the various parts of popular songs, almost everybody will have some implicit knowledge and/or a great deal of previous experience of popular music and the various parts which make up songs: They will know that there is a part which delivers the various stages of the song’s narrative, which also tends to be calmer than other parts; and they will know that there is a more buoyant part, which is normally repeated and which somehow encourages them to join in and sing together.
The calmer part, which delivers the narrative, is of course the ‘verse’; and the buoyant part, which repeats and where everyone can join in, is the ‘chorus’. The words themselves, ‘verse and chorus’, virtually describe the functions of the parts within the song.
It is worth noting that in the simplest forms of song, which include many folk songs and traditional songs, the music and chord structure, and sometimes even the melody of the verse and chorus, are identical. Where there is no slight variation in the melody, only the repeating lyrics, and the level of gusto from the performer, differentiate the chorus from the verse. However for most popular songs, the chorus will have a different chord structure and melody, which sets it apart from the verses. More often than not, the chorus will tend to be musically brighter and lyrically simpler; the happiest and catchiest part of the song. Perhaps because of this, it is not surprising that many slower and more serious songs, often called ballads, have no chorus at all.
This very commonly understood verse and chorus relationship is a fundamental one which the music facilitator can take advantage of when instructing young children or less able adults in song. By choosing the songs carefully (or even composing them to suit), the music facilitator can teach the song simply by performing it. A common method is for the facilitator to sing the verses and invite the client group to join in at the choruses. By the end of the song, after three or four choruses, the participants are likely to have learned the melody and the lyrics of the chorus. To some extent this ploy also relies on the storyline, delivered through the verses, to maintain the interest of the participants until the chorus comes round again. The facilitator must decide whether or not the song should be one in which the chorus is musically identical to the verse or whether it should differ in chord structure and melody. For the youngest children and least capable client groups, it may be enough that they need learn only one tune as ‘the song’.
From their previous experience of listening to music, some people may also understand that there is sometimes a more dramatic section in the middle of a song that is quite different, both musically and lyrically, from the verse and the chorus. This is the next most commonly occurring part of a song and is called the ‘Middle Eight’. The name simply comes from the fact that this different part usually occurs in the middle of the song, and that it is usually eight musical bars in length. Most popular songs do have a middle 8; songwriters generally put them in at a point in a song where they fear the audience may be starting to tire and something new and fresh needs to be added. It is worth noting that
a good middle 8 will add greatly to a listener’s enjoyment of a song, but that a poor one, which seems unconnected to the rest of the song, will almost certainly irk the performers and their audience.
Music facilitators should note that more sophisticated client groups, such as older primary school children, secondary school pupils and youth groups will be very well used to songs which include a mid8 section, and may become bored more easily by songs which do not have one. Something that can provide a great source of musical enjoyment in such songs is that the participants may think they know a song, but require to rediscover the middle 8.
Another song part, although less common, describes those short parts of songs that are often written-in to link the major parts previously mentioned. For example a short section, which is musically different from both the verse and the chorus, but used to link the two together is commonly called a ‘Link’ - logically enough. Sometimes such a section is also called a ‘Bridge’, but bridge is often also the description given to a section of music that is deliberately written-in to accommodate an imminent change of key.
Although ‘Solos’ or ‘Instrumentals’ are also definite parts common in many songs, it is not normally the case that a solo section will have a different musical structure and chord sequence from all the other parts of the song. Mostly the solo is played on top of a musical structure or chord sequence identical to that of either the verse or the chorus. All that normally occurs is that the singing of the melody line is replaced by the playing of the melody line, (or some improvisation on it) by a particular ‘lead’ instrument.
The remaining parts not yet previously mentioned are those that are required simply to get the song started and finished; the ‘intro’ (short for introduction) and ‘ending’ or ‘outro’. The word ‘outro’ is in common usage because it is very often the case that a song will end in a way very similar to how it started, especially if started and ended instrumentally. ‘Ending’ is more commonly used where a special variation in chord structure and/or melody and/or timing has been applied to the end of the song. Music which is not live and has not been recorded live will often have no ending, the audio will simply be faded out whilst part of the song seems to play on. Such songs present difficulties for the community musician or music facilitator in a live setting, because a ‘proper’ end has to be arranged for the participants to conclude their performance.
Try to identify two popular and well-known songs, one of which you have chosen because it has a simple structure suitable for younger primary school children and less able adults; and another which has a more complex structure, with a middle 8, which can be appreciated by older children, youths and normal ability adults. Formulate a method to document the contents of the songs and attempt to name all of the parts in each of them.
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