The Friday Symposium: Songwriting

Franz Schubert is the Father of Song, so it seems appropriate to pause to talk a little bit about songwriting. The oldest and most basic form of song is the strophic form, which derives from the Greek strophē (turn). In sum, a strophic song has repeating music (the so-called “AAA” structure in which all stanzas are sung to the same music). Bob Dylan is a modern master of the basic strophic song, as this example attests:

Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind:

Schubert was also fond of strophic songs (and Trouts). I’m not sure Schubert ever gets quite so basic as a pure AAA song, but this example gets fairly close to that mark:

Franz Schubert, Die Forelle, Op. 32, D.550:

Setting aside the language (and the obvious difference in singing quality), the gap between classical master Schubert and folksy Dylan isn’t that great. Here are two other examples from the modern pop era:

Johnny Cash, I Walk the Line:

Next up in complexity is the modified strophic form. This broad category includes songs where each stanza is accompanied by a variation of the music heard in the prior section. Technically, Die Forelle is a modified strophic song, but the changes in the melody are somewhat difficult to hear. In this example from his great song cycle Winterreise (much more on that to come), Schubert dramatically shifts the melody from major to minor to alter the emotions in the music:

Franz Schubert, Winterreise: Der Lindebaum:

The most popular form of modified strophic songs is the verse-chorus song that dominates popular music today. At its most basic, the verse-chorus song can be expressed as ABAB form. Here is a great example from one of the best songwriters in history, John Lennon:

The Beatles, Norwegian Wood:

Building on that form, in American popular music, the 32-bar song (AABA form) evolved from its tin pan alley origins to dominate the radiowaves in the latter part of the 20th century. In its most basic form, the sections of the 32-bar song are divided equally: 8-8-8-8.

Harold Arlen, Somewhere Over the Rainbow:

Here’s a familar example from another songwriting great, Paul McCartney:

The Beatles, Yesterday:

The Beatles really are the masters of the form, placing the hook in different places of the verse. Sometimes, the hook (typically, the title of the song) appears in the first line of the verse (A Hard Day’s Night, Something, The Long and Winding Road), but just as often as the last line (Here Comes the Sun, I Am the Walrus, Ticket to Ride, Day Tripper). Other songs such as Magical Mystery Tour (first and last line), Blackbird (first line and bridge), and Girl (last line and bridge) mix the formula up further. Yesterday, of course, features the hook in the first and last line of the verse, as well as in the bridge–one of the reasons it is such an infectious ear worm.

Of course, the roots of AABA form go back to Schubert, who adopted contemporary folk song structures in some of his best known tunes:

Franz Schubert, Der Wanderer, D. 493:

Franz Schubert, Glaube, Hoffung, und Liebe, D. 955:

Schubert, however, was not satisfied with basic repeating form structures, which necessarily limited the range of emotions and ideas that could be presented in any song. While Schubert was perhaps not the first to employ the “through-composed” form, he certainly was the first composer to use it extensively in his music. In through composed form, the music is written without any repetiton or returns. This allows the songwriter to vary harmony, rhythm and the vocal line to a much greater extent than in strophic form. Schubert’s Der Erkönig, from the last entry in this blog, is the best example of a through-composed song from his catalogue. Here are a couple others:

Franz Schubert, Die Allmacht, D. 852:

Franz Schubert, Im Abendrot, D.799:

Through-composed music features regularly in progressive rock (Yes in particular), but two better known groups also made use of the form to great (and more accessible) effect:

Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody:

The Beatles, You Never Give Me Your Money:

Just as modern songwriters built upon the foundations of their classical forefathers, so too do mixologists, who have plundered classic recipies to create modern classics. The Paper Plane, built on the foundation of the Last Word (which in turn is a riff on the very classic Corpse Reviver #2), is one of the best examples. Like a well-crafted song, these cocktails are all based on the same structure—four equal parts. Created by Sam Ross (of the late, great Milk & Honey bar in NYC), this is a contender for one of the best cocktails ever. Fitting the theme of this article, the Paper Plane was named after a song–M.I.A.’s Paper Planes (which is a verse-chorus song, for those keeping score),

The proportions are key–do not free pour this, regardless of whether you are a pro or not.

The Paper Plane

  • 3/4ox Amaro Nonio
  • 3/4oz Aperol
  • 3/4oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
  • 3/4oz fresh lemon juice

Combine and shake vigorously and strain into a coupe. Enjoy with your favorite set of songs.

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