32 bar standards – Adorno was (almost) right


I’m currently working on materials for a lecture about AABA song form for the Masters degree in songwriting. It’s a lecture I give every year and it starts from an historical perspective – contextualising AABA as the most common song form during first half of the 20th century. The 32-bar ‘standard’ is a remarkable formula – it was the dominant form of popular music (in the USA and UK) for around 50 years, and it follows some very simple rules – each section is 8 bars long, and form is verse-verse-bridge-verse . (Sometimes the ‘song’ is referred to as a ‘chorus’ because of an extended – usually slower – intro leading into it). In a standard, the title usually appears at the start or end of each verse, and almost never in the bridge. Verse 1 introduces the lyric idea; verse 2 develops its narrative; the bridge comments on the theme from a different viewpoint; the final verse summarises the narrator’s view or otherwise concludes the narrative.

Just An Echo

Here’s an example of a 32 bar standard. I’ve chosen ‘Just An Echo’ (Harry M Woods, 1932) because it’s less well known than the usual examples (Somewhere Over The Rainbow, As Time Goes By etc), and it illustrates the form really well.

For an overview of AABA form see my 2011 article from Total Guitar magazine.

Writing in 1941, the musicologist and sociologist Theodor Adorno described the ‘standardisation’ of popular music and deconstructed the 32 bar standard – which was, at the time, the song form used by almost every contemporary hit. Adorno held some rather extreme views about popular music, and it’s a fairly common sport among contemporary popular musicology to attack his arguments as prejudiced and elitist (although some have attempted a more nuanced approach). But here’s the thing – Adorno’s analysis is musically accurate.

Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Best known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note. The general types of hits are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern is understood, but also the “characters” such as mother songs, home songs, nonsense or “novelty” songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl. Most important of all, the harmonic cornerstones of each hit — the beginning and the end of each part — must beat out the standard scheme. (Adorno, 1941).

Where Adorno’s argument falls down is in his inferences; he assumes that because a popular song’s content may be partly predictable for the listener, this is a reason to contrast it with ‘serious’ music where listener expectations may be more challenged. Actually, he argues that  popular music’s ‘standardisation’ is not to be characterised by comparative simplicity. It’s hard to disagree with the following quotation on musical grounds;

The difference between the spheres cannot be adequately expressed in terms of complexity and simplicity. All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements of jazz. Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as “Deep Purple” or “Sunrise Serenade” are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads and second steps. Harmonically, the supply of chords of the so-called classics is invariably more limited than that of any current Tin Pan Alley composer who draws from Debussy, Ravel, and even later sources. (Ibid).

Adorno had done his research about popular music, and it is inaccurate to say that he criticises it for its structural simplicity. The problem with his critique is that he wasn’t habituated in songs as a listener – or rather, [I infer that] he didn’t seem to derive personal emotional impact from them. Speaking personally, as a pop music consumer (and musicology geek), of course I recognise structural similarities between pop songs (here’s a brief analysis of 2012 hits). But as a listener I’m influenced by the differences between otherwise predictable musical content. These may well be, in Adorno’s terms, ‘conditioned reflexes’, but the skill of the songwriter, and the emotional power for the listener, is contained within the deviations from the predictable, not the predictable content itself. Standardisation in popular music is powerful and self-perpetuating, and here I agree with Adorno’s statement that ‘the standard patterns [of 1940s pop songs] have become invested with the immunity of bigness — “the King can do no wrong.”‘ – but this is just economic and cultural Darwinism in action (here’s a short article discussing the market forces that drive song standardisation; here’s a much longer academic one).

Because he was writing in the 1940s, Adorno did not differentiate between ‘song’ and ‘track’ because, as in classical music, the ‘work’ in popular music of the time was defined in sheet music form. In the early 20th century, the song was usually more famous than the singer. If he were writing now there would be a whole new landscape for him to discuss because late 20th century popular music is defined as an audio product, not a musicological one – the song is the recording. Listeners are responding simultaneously to the song and the track (that is, the production), so the bandwidth of information we receive is so much greater. ‘Serious’ music (or at least a proportion of it) uses a known timbral palette – a piano, or an orchestra for example – but popular music production allows pretty much any sound to be incorporated into the mix.

So I agree with Adorno musically and, mostly, economically; his descriptions of the 32 bar standard and the market forces that perpetuate it are well reasoned and IMO evidence based. But he applies a structural and sociological analysis to popular music that he refuses to apply to ‘serious’ music, even though  all music contains some constrained elements and some challenges to constraint. As listeners, we respond to the difference between constraint and freedom, repetition and contrast, form and content. All music is a balance between standardisation and innovation.

——–

Daytime is over, night time is here
Church bells are ringing, mellow and clear
I feel so lonely, beneath stars above
Listening to one thing, the one thing I love
Just an echo, ooh-hoo!
In the valley, ooh-hoo!
But it brings back sweet memories of you
Can you hear it, ooh-hoo!
Through the twilight, ooh-hoo!
When it answered I love you, I do
How I wish we were here
Just like we used to be
But since you have gone
There’s nothing left for me
Just an echo, ooh-hoo!
In the valley, ooh-hoo!
But it brings back sweet memories of you

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  1. […] Here’s a related post discussing the Adorno critique. […]

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