As a songwriter I often write songs that uses more than one motif. Without the change to the other motif the song would either be too short or sink into boredom.

Most theories I have read were about chord progressions and melodies, using dominant chords and leading notes, and so on, but I was missing material on the time part of the puzzle.

Therefore I am looking for theory on the proportions of musical motifs and sections, and about popular music in particular. (Popular in the sense of non-classical, including all music based around verses and choruses, sung and played).

I have a gut feeling that the number of bars needed to tonically and rhythmically build up a change can relate to the number of bars before the change, but maybe I am off the track. Too less and the change would feel like a bump, too much and you may miss to have a clear motif.

Also in some cases there's an opposite of build up, more like a motif "has a sense of ending" that makes the listener be curious about another motif.

So, is there a general rule-of-thumb/well-researched theory on build-up/signaling change in pop compositions?

What keywords should you use to search for materials discussing it?

(Feel free to edit my question regarding jargon - I have learnt my theory mainly in Hungarian).

  • I used motif a lot of times in my question, but I am not sure if it is the exact term for self-containing "bars" of groove, melody and chords together, that is one musical unit.
    – atoth
    Commented Apr 2, 2017 at 12:58
  • If you figure out how to avoid all the "bumps", you have discovered how to write elevator music. Life (and music) needs some surprises to make it interesting!
    – user19146
    Commented Apr 2, 2017 at 13:12
  • Well, in my vocabulary "bump" is a "surprise" that did no go well. A "gimmick". The question is about how to "prepare" the surprises, so they would be a wild ride without flying out of the front window of your car. If you listen closely surprises still have rules, 99.9% of the time you won't change at 3.14th of a 4/4 bar.
    – atoth
    Commented Apr 2, 2017 at 13:44
  • Not sure whether I can make this a full-fledged answer yet, but among other musical forms in non-classical music, there are the 12-bar blues (repeat the same 12-bar chord progression several times, but often with different melodies on top) and 32-bar form (AABA sections--each section is 8 bars long). There's also the notion of a "head" section in jazz music--the bandleader signals (sometimes by pointing at his/her head), then everyone plays the starting melody again. Of course, once you head into any "progressive" sub-genre (of rock, jazz, metal, pop, etc.), all bets are off.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 2, 2017 at 13:45
  • 1
    To understand the question, if all else fails, I would recommend listening to what drummers do before a change: the break can be rolling on the toms, roughening up the pattern they played, and a lot of tricks. However a 4 16th notes tom roll after 8 bars may not be enough. Or maybe. That is the question.
    – atoth
    Commented Apr 2, 2017 at 13:54

2 Answers 2


I don't know of a particular pop oriented theory. But, I wouldn't avoid the 'classical' theory about musical form. I think a lot of it can be applied to pop music. For keywords try: bridge, period, cadence. I'm thinking of phrase endings as a signaling device. Regarding proportions, in addition to counting bar, trying looking a harmonic rhythm. In this case I'm thinking of how a bridge sometimes can involve change in harmonic rhythm. These are all obvious terms to look up - and I imagine you probably already know them - the key may be to examine how they create expectations for the listener and you can exploit those expectations to signal changes.

  • Phrase endings (both melodic and rhythmic) and harmonic rhythm can be both I am looking for. So I can re-phrase my question as if there are theories, guidelines on constructing strong phrase-endings?
    – atoth
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 14:40

There's no theory because it's not mechanical, its artistic. Different types of transitions and modulation make different artistic statements, so you have to go with what works for the song.

Some songs have no harmonic transitions, sections are delimited by melodic, rhythmic, and/or timbral changes. Two examples that spring to mind are What I Got by Sublime and Who Do You Love? by Bo Diddly. 12 bar blues could be put into this category.

Some songs have no or very little preparation at all for modulation, and the type of modulation is obvious and marks an almost jarring transition. The "truck driver" modulation, where the whole chord progression is just replayed in a key that is one to several half steps up is a good example. Probably the best effective use of a truck driver change that fits the prosody of the song is in Love Story by Taylor Swift.

Most popular music (as a genre of sorts, not the normal meaning of popular) straddles the line between including some out of key material, like borrowed chords, and outright modulating to a different key. When there is a modulation, it's usually smoothed over and prepared for with material borrowed from the destination key.

How much material? Is then your question, I would guess. Well, it's up to the artist. Some songs have borrowed material as part of the beginning chord progression so you could interpret the preparation as beginning right at the beginning of the song. Others have no preparatory material and either deliberately have a jarring modulation or modulate to closely related keys (relative major/minor being popular target keys). And as in a lot of jazz, sometimes the borrowed material is so prevalent that there isn't even a firm establishing of a key in the traditional sense, and different theories of harmony at at play.

I hope that exploration of the options goes a little way in apologizing for the fact that your question can't be simply answered. You have to decide in every situation how you want the transitions in your music to play and sound. The best teacher in how to handle transitions is to learn to play and analyze a lot of different music, so you have a large library examples to choose from as well as a sense of the conventions that you might want to challenge.

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