In songs, we often have very similar melodies and rhythm patterns being repeated over and over again. The following is an approximate melody of one stanza of Willy O' Winsbury as performed by Pentangle. (I prepared the score so it may be wrong -- I know very little about music.) Willy O' Winsbury This pattern is repeated throughout the song: 18 bars for a stanza, with a visible 5-4-5-4 pattern, corresponding to the four lines in a stanza. The melody is very similar every time the pattern is repeated, but it's not exactly the same. There are changes here and there to fit all the syllables in the song properly, to accentuate the proper syllables and simply to avoid making the song tedious.

I would like to learn to talk about such things.

I think there should be a question to which the answer is "18 bars for a stanza, with a visible 5-4-5-4 pattern, corresponding to the four lines in a stanza", a question like "What is X in Willy O' Winsbury?" I would like to know what the X is called, and how to formulate the answer to the question properly. For example, if I removed the fifth, the ninth, the fourteenth and the eighteenth bar, I would change a certain aspect of the structure of the song. I would like to know what the name of this aspect is.

Also, is there a name for the abstract "melody" that is repeated in the song? The actual melody is not repetitious. It almost is. Is there a general term for the class of all particular, very similar melodies corresponding to the stanzas? Is it a theme? It's not like in a classical or jazz piece where there's a piece of melody, called a theme, that pops up in various places, sometimes changed very much. Here it's almost unchangable (especially the X stays the same, but also the pitch of the succesive notes -- only some of them are sometimes split or merged), and there's nothing besides it.

  • It's hard to tell what you're asking here. Are you asking what a repeated section is called?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 6, 2012 at 19:47
  • @Luke I don't know what a repeated section is. This melody is not repeated. There is some variation, but very little. The 5-4-5-4 pattern is repeated, and the "general idea" of the melody is repeated. I'm sorry if it's difficult to understand me, but I know music theory only fragmentarily.
    – ymar
    Commented Aug 6, 2012 at 20:08
  • A motif?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 6, 2012 at 20:10
  • @Luke I'm not sure. This looks like something that's relevant to more complex musical pieces, doesn't it? I've added a link to the song in the question.
    – ymar
    Commented Aug 6, 2012 at 20:14
  • The motif or the pattern in question?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 6, 2012 at 20:16

3 Answers 3


I think the closest thing you're going to get to an answer is 'meter', as is more usually applied to hymns.

This essentially describes the pattern of syllables in each verse by using numbers to represent them. For example, Common Meter refers to a pattern of 8,6,8,6 :

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

In this way, the text of a hymn can be matched to a tune with the same metrical index. So in theory the words to Amazing Grace (above) could be sung to the hymn tune St. Anne, which is normally associated with the text of O God, Our Help in Ages Past.

It isn't usually applied to songs, as hymns typically comform to only a handful of metric patterns. Any hymn that doesn't conform to a regular pattern is simply marked IRREGULAR.

So, in the case of your song you could describe it as "conforming to 5,4,5,4 meter".

  • 1
    Thank you, I'd never heard of meter as a musical term. But if I understand correctly, that counts syllables rather than bars right? So my example would rather be 8,6,8,6 (with occasional irregularities). 5,4,5,4 is more of a foot count than a syllable count. But the actual foot count is 4,3,4,3. There are the extra, almost empty, bars in each line.
    – ymar
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 16:05
  • @ymar not sure what you mean by a "foot count"?
    – Widor
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 16:11
  • 1
    It has to do with poetic meter. Iambic foot, anapestic foot...
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 16:30
  • Yes, exactly. The song is iambic, and there are four iambs in lines 1 and 3 and three iambs lines 2 and 4.
    – ymar
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 18:39

I think the term to apply is strophic, meaning the same music is used for all verses.


It's worth looking at a book on musical form. There are lots of levels that form can be analysed on, from "motifs" (small musical phrases of just a few notes) up to whole sections that last several minutes each.

In this case, the dominant pattern does indeed seem to be the rhythmic phrase that consists of 5 bars followed by 4 bars (of 3/4). Although the melody varies a bit, that element stays quite constant. I'd just call it a "phrase". Although there are small variations in rhythm, they are only there to accommodate the words, and so are not of any great importance.

I only listened right through the once, but it seems that this 9 bar pattern repeats in groups of two, with some kind of major/minor harmonic pattern over 18 bars that again repeats right through. I'd call that a "verse".

So there you have it - an 18 bar verse of two 9 bar phrases that just repeats right through the song. There are lots of verses, no doubt a story is being told, with the odd short instrumental break.

So form-wise, this is quite simple, though none the less pretty for it. There might have been other sections (what we might call a "bridge" or something like that), but no - it's just the same verse pattern right through - not unusal in folk music.

(By the way if you want to do one thing to improve your transcription skills - pay attention to where the "one" of the bar falls. You are a beat out right the way through. If you get this right, small errors in individual phrases are not such a big deal. But this is quite important, it affects the phrasing a great deal.)

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