Musical Patterns

This page documents some patterns that occur in various styles of music. What sometimes sounds overly complicated can often be broken down into simple patterns.

Song Forms

SongForms? are a macro pattern for defining the structure of a musical piece. Classical examples include Aria, Madrigal, Sonata, Cantata, and Serenata.

Contemporary song forms are commonly broken down into 3 major components: Verse, Bridge, and Chorus. The Letters A, B, and C are usually used to represent song forms, but there is not a universally accepted one-to-one mapping of letters to section types. 'B' may be used to represent a bridge in one song and a chorus in another. 'A' may just represent an introduction section.

Some examples of forms in contemporary music can be found at

Temporal Patterns

As a child, I was very curious as to why all songs on the radio had 4 beats per measure. Was this some intrinsic law of nature? What would be the penalty for breaking this law?

Discovering Brubeck's 'Time Out' album, and Jazz in general, raised my awareness that this pattern was really just an artifact of Western culture music. Cultures where rhythm plays a more important part than harmony or melody (e.g. African drums) have incredibly complex rhythms compared to Western music (patterns can involve prime numbers > 10).

Slow and fast rhythm patterns are often used to elicit uplifting and somber emotions.

Song length in popular music is usually shorter than 5 minutes because radio stations make their money by airing commercial ads between songs. The attention span of audiences today is often shorter. Composers understand this requirement and use shorter song form patterns to meet commercial needs.

Harmonic Patterns

In western music, there are 12 notes to a scale. When notes from within this scale are played, or sung, at the same time, they produce "beats", which are the dissonant clashing of the sine waves competing for the same air space.

Some combinations of notes are less dissonant than others, such as the major 5th, major 4th, and major 3rd. Western music often uses a pattern that limits harmonies to using these non-dissonant intervals, occasionally building tension in songs with transient dissonance, but always resolving to a 3rd, 4th, or 5th.

Some cultures prefer the aural moire achieved with dissonant harmonies, which is reflected in most of their music. Many Jazz composers pushed the tolerances of western ears in the 20th century with their use of Turkish and Indian harmonies.

The prevailing chords within western music are referred to as major and minor. A chord consists of at least 3 notes. Major chords are constructed using the 1, major 3rd, and fifth in a scale. Minor chords lower the third.

Songwriters and film scorers often use harmonic patterns to set the mood. A cliche'd rule of thumb is "major is happy" and "minor is sad". :You forgot to add 'and anything else is "scary"'. I wish there'd more more disscussion of Music in this wiki. oh well.

Melodic Patterns

From a MetaPattern perspective, melodic patterns are very similar to harmonic patterns. Western melodies are confined to the 12 tone scale and tend to favor less dissonant patterns to create less moire for the listener. Adhering to this pattern is the key to create "hooks" that linger in peoples minds long after the song is over.

Popular melodies often reflect limitations of the human voice by maintaining the intervals between notes within a 5th. This can be seen by observing the rolling, undulating, almost sinusoidal pattern of melody notes when published on staff paper.

Putting It All Together: A Pop Tune

Taking some of these culturally accepted western patterns and crafting them into a song is often called a "formula". To maximize radio or TV airplay, composers and producers today will very rarely violate any of the basic patterns discussed above and will seek to differentiate their offering based on subtle, but easily distinguishable changes.

It should be noted that the visual element of creating a popular song is a significant part of the package.

So, to create an uplifting pop song, we know that western audiences pretty much demand the following:

Next time you're listening to the radio or watching MTV, listen for how many of these patterns are in use.

Alternative Patterns

The above described patterns are not rules for creating "good" music, or a basis for arguing a "right" position. They merely reflect the natural regression to the norm that large sample groups will gravitate to in their demand for entertainment.

Alternative patterns are those musical patterns used in music appreciated by audience numbers outside of 1-2 standard deviations of the main crowd. Popular music often is influenced by these alternative patterns and rolled into the main over time.

Some alternative patterns:

Alternating modes. Alternating between major and minor keys. Minor used to create natural tension before major resolution.

Alternating/Ascending: Alternating between 2 modes, such as Mixolidian and Aeolian, while chromatically ascending chords every 4-8 bars. Simple pattern for Jazz improvisation. Allows improvisor to explore all keys within one song. More tension than alternating major/minor.

Rhythmic Moire: Forming a unique percussive rhythm from the combination of two different and independent rhythmic patterns. An example is playing 7/8 and 4/4 patterns simultaneously, which converge every 16 beats.

-- MichaelLeach

Well, it may be madness, although I do not believe what they say about my family, but I wonder what kind of music we would get if we played our traces - - where the amplitude of the note is the 'indentation level', and the tone of the note is the 'process name'. Perhaps I can change the goal of building a system to writing little trace ditties, or logic symphonies. Bugger the user.

See KLF's "The Manual" ( for step by step instructions on applying many of these patterns (along with others for recording, promotion and distribution of pop music.) -- EricHodges

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