Song Maps

‹-- PreviousNext --›

When I was about 12 I was flicking through the textbook we were using in our music class at school when I should have been doing something else, and found a diagram that looked a bit like this:


I think it was in a chapter about Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, though the thing that I found interesting was that it also described the shape of the Clementi sonatina I was learning at the time. I don’t recall what I was supposed to be learning in that lesson, but the revelation that you could represent an entire piece of music in a one-page picture continues to be useful to this day.

You get debates in music education about whether music analysis helps people become better performers and/or helps people memorise music, but I’ve come to think that that is asking the question the wrong way round. I think we should be judging the quality of an approach to music analysis (whether an explicit method, or way of teaching the standard elements of form) by how much it helps people find their way round real music. If analysis isn’t helping real people with real music, then we need to find a better way to teach it.

The reason I’m talking about this is a practical one. I’ve had a number of conversations recently with friends who sing in Magenta about how they’ve been finding it hard to find their way round songs mentally when we rehearse them in short chunks, or how they find it hard to memorise music. And I realised that the kind of map of a musical form I discovered all those years ago is something I still use as a matter of course, both in constructing arrangements, and in finding my way round other people’s.

If it’s a standard kind of form, I’ll do this in my head, but if it’s long or unusual in any way or if I just need to think about it, I’ll draw a picture. Here, for instance, is the sketch I drew of the form of ‘Moondance’ when I was arranging it for Heartbeat chorus:

moondance songmap

And the following isn’t the actual diagram I drew when arranging Happy Together (which I have lost/thrown away – most of my sketches get drawn on the back of envelopes or other ephemera), but looks very much like the kind of thing I would have done.


The two things that people fret about when mapping out a song’s form are how to locate the boundaries between sections, and how to label them. The first thing to point out, though, is that if you’re doing this to help your own memory or mental map of the piece, nobody else is going to be bothered if you’re ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The only test is how useful you find the results. So, put the boundaries where it seems to make sense to put them, and call them what you like. The very act of making the decisions is what will give you control over the song.

Having said that, there is a simple guideline for both questions: and it’s where material is repeated. If you get a chunk of music that comes back in recognisably the same form somewhere later in the song, that both identifies it as a chunk in its own right and invites having the same label. So, in Happy Together, all the chunks that have the bass melody with the tune in the minor mode get labelled as a verse. The first is (in a strikingly original approach to labelling) referred to as Verse 1, and the second as Verse 2. The next two verses to come along have the same words and tune as Verse 2, but are treated differently musically, so I’ve called them Verse 2a and 2b. The bit with the baritone melody that is instrumental in the original I’ve called “instrumental”, though I might equally have called it Interlude, Break, or Martin. The point is that it gets a different name from everything else because it sounds different from everything else.

Once you’ve laid out the song in this visual form, it becomes much easier to find your way around it. It’s like putting extra chapter markers in a DVD so that you can skip ahead or back to a particular moment without having to fast-forward through all the intervening bits. And, whilst it can be useful to see someone else’s map of a song, it’s easier to remember what it all means if you’ve drawn it yourself. As Nicholas Cook has been known to say, reading someone else’s analysis is a bit like asking someone else to do your piano practice for you.

Oh! I get it - "it" being something I could try. Give a shape to the song, and that might make it more learnable.

"Happy Together" took me ages to learn. As someone for whom pages of music were a bit of a mystery/blur, the only markers I could see clearly, apart from the words, were the page-ends. Writing out the words helped only partially.

I'm a bit more familiar with reading music now, but I've still struggled with seeing a shape or pattern in songs. Or maybe more accurately, I've seen I didn't see a shape or pattern on the page, and been a bit helpless/hopeless about how I might go about finding one.

It seems helpful just to know that that is a strategy I could try, rather than just muddling along till at last I get it unconsciously, by repetition.

Off to try it on "Shine"! Thanks!


Hi Liz

Your "back of the envelope" diagrams look suspiciously like mine! We too did Happy Together so my rough diagram got transposed to A1 sheets which I put on the wall. At that scale I found that shapes and colours worked better than labelling, although I did use things like V1, V2, etc.

Interesting point about boundaries. I think you can extend this to the sections themselves. Sometimes what we think is an obvious 'chunking' of a song into well-defined sections doesn't register for another person. They may well have a slightly different map of the song in their head. It's important to realise this when teaching a complex song.

Some people find it easier to speak in numbers (number of repetitions, number of verses, number of beats, etc.) whilst others are more visual and/ or intuitive.

Many's the time I've been asked about a song's structure only to have to translate the question into a form I can understand before responding in a useful way that the questioner can understand!

There's more than one way to describe a song!

From the front of the choir

Love it!

I think arrangers might consider spacing each verse or chorus to a single page where it's possible, as it enables the eye to parse and also compare sections. I do this where I can, and it's a relief to not have to go searching for section boundaries. Worth a thought?

That sometimes works, and I agree that when the boundaries nearly do this it's worth manipulating them so that they do line up with pages. Where I'd hesitate to is where it would involve squishing things up more to get them onto a page, as I find that makes things harder to process visually while sight-singing. So if sections are naturally a bit shorter than a page, spreading them out so the next section waits until the page turn is a good plan; where they're a bit longer than a page I'd rather let them take up the extra to give a cleaner read.

I do find I'm annotating more with section boundaries these days than I used to. And I think genre norms have changed considerably over the past 20 years - it's not just me doing it more.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content