Analysing popular music

An aural based unit where students will learn about the structure of popular music, standard instruments in a rock band and their roles as well as appropriate terminology and concepts of music characteristic of different genres.


  • 4.7 demonstrates an understanding of musical concepts through listening, observing, responding, discriminating, analysing, discussing and recording musical ideas.
  • 4.8 demonstrates an understanding of musical concepts through aural identification and discussion of the features of a range of repertoire.
  • 4.9 demonstrates musical literacy through the use of notation, terminology, and the reading and interpreting of scores used in the music selected for study.
  • 4.10 identifies the use of technology in the music selected for study, appropriate to the musical context.
  • 5.7 demonstrates an understanding of musical concepts through analysis, comparison and critical discussion of music from different stylistic, social, cultural and historical contexts.
  • 5.8 demonstrates an understanding of musical concepts through aural identification, discrimination, memorisation and notation in the music selected for study.
  • 5.9 demonstrates an understanding of musical literacy through the appropriate application of notation, terminology, and the interpretation and analysis of scores used in the music selected for study.
  • 5.10 demonstrates an understanding of the influence and impact of technology on music.


10 lessons.


The concepts of music in a variety of popular music genres.


Aural tasks based on the structure of popular music, instruments of rock and their roles (melody, harmony and rhythm) and the identification of melodic and harmonic riffs in popular music genres.


All activities require students to demonstrate their learning and are all assessment for learning activities.

Teaching and learning activities

According to the Oxford dictionary, popular music is

'Music appealing to the popular taste, including rock and pop and also soul, reggae, rap and dance music.' retrieved 23rd November 2017

Popular music can be seen as an umbrella term for a wide variety of different genres that appeal to a large number of people.

Students will:

  1. brainstorm genres of popular music. Some examples could be (but are not limited to)
    1. hard rock
    2. metal
    3. soul
    4. reggae
    5. dance
    6. dubstep
    7. rock'n'roll
    8. protest
    9. hip hop
    10. R'n'B
    11. rap
    12. folk-rock
    13. indie/alternative
    14. progressive rock
    15. indigenous pop
    16. commercial soft pop
    17. punk
    18. screamo.
  2. listen to and identify the genres in a series of excerpts of different songs and genres, played by the teacher. The popular music genres resource (PDF 4.27 MB) provides a list of suggested examples to assist with this.

The structure is the order of sections and ideas in a piece of music. Popular music has certain labels for each section. These can be introduced to students by starting with an aural task.

Aural task

Using the song Wonder by Naughty Boy ft. Emeli Sande (03:26) (pressing play and pausing when necessary), students will:

  1. identify and write down each section of the song as outlined below
  • introduction 00:00:00 to 00:00:15
  • verse 1 00:00:15 to 00:00:30
  • chorus 00:00:30 to 00:00:46
  • verse 2 00:00:47 to 00:01:02
  • chorus 00:01:02 to 00:01:17
  • bridge 00:01:17 to 00:01:48
  • chorus 00:01:48 to 00:02:04
  • verse 3 00:02:04 to 00:02:19
  • verse 4 00:02:20 to 00:02:35
  • chorus (x2) 00:02:35 to 00:03:06
  • outro 00:03:06 to 00:03:22
  1. number and identify the verses
  2. create a table comparing the similarities and differences between the verses (same melody, different lyrics)
  3. number and identify the choruses
  4. make notes of the similarities between each of the choruses (same melody, same lyrics)
  5. listen to the bridge section again (bridge 00:01:17 to 00:01:48)
  6. identify and discuss how it is the same or different to the other sections previously played (different melody, different lyrics).

The order of sections can vary from song to song, the only rule being that if present, an intro must go at the beginning and an outro must go at the end. Songs may include all of the sections below or only some of them.

Students will:

  • copy the following structure sections into their books
    • The introduction (if present) is usually a short instrumental section at the beginning of a song. It is not called an instrumental.
    • The verse has the same melody but different lyrics (words) each time it is played.
    • The pre-chorus (if present) is a section that appears directly before the chorus. It will be the same each time it is played and generally increases in texture and dynamics.
    • The chorus has the same melody and the same lyrics each time it is played. It often contains a hook or key phrase which can be the title of the song.
    • The bridge has a different melody and different lyrics to the rest of the song. There is generally only one bridge.
    • The instrumental is an opportunity for the lead guitarist or another instrument to play a solo. Voices may be present. However, they do not sing lyrics. Instead, they are used instrumentally, for example, humming. This is evident in the instrumental section of Justin Bieber's song, Love Yourself, where a saxophone plays the solo and Bieber hums.
    • The outro (if present) is always at the end of the song. It is a small section that repeats an earlier part of the song, often the hook line of the chorus. It can be instrumental, however, it is not called an instrumental.
  • map out the sections in the song Wonder by Naughty Boy ft. Emeli Sande (03:26) in the correct order
  • list the performing media (instruments/voices) they hear in the song
  • name each of the sections and indicate in which section each instrument plays
  • discuss as a class what they have noticed about the way the instruments, lyrics and sections work together.

This activity can be done with any number of popular songs. Some examples of breakdowns in other songs have been provided to you in the accompanying resource titled structure in songs resource (PDF 4.27 MB). Students may suggest or even present songs, however, ensure that they are suitable for playing/showing.

There are three primary roles in music. Melody, harmony and rhythm. Some instruments can only play one role and some can play more than one or can change roles.

Students will:

  • watch the video Melody vs. Harmony (03:12)
  • answer the following questions:
    • Are you familiar with the three roles in music?
    • Can you define these roles?
  • Brainstorm a list of instruments in popular music that perform these roles.
  • discuss each role listed below, taking notes of each point
    • Melody
      • The main part of a piece/song.
      • The single line of notes that you remember most.
      • In popular music, the lead vocalist sings the melody in the verse, chorus and bridge.
      • The lead guitar, keyboard or another pitched instrument may play the melody part in the instrumental section, intro and/or outro.
      • The lead guitar or keyboard may double the voice in the melody.
    • Harmony
      • The other pitched notes that are not the melody.
      • These can be single notes or several notes at once (a chord).
      • In popular music, the backing vocals, rhythm guitar and bass guitar play the harmony during the whole song (although there can be exceptions). Lead guitar, keyboard and any other pitched instruments play a harmony role unless they take the melody in the instrumental, intro/outro.
    • Rhythm
      • The beat and repeated rhythmic patterns.
      • Rhythm guitar and bass guitar play a rhythmic role as well as a harmony role.
      • The drums can only play the rhythm.
  • aurally identify the structure and roles in excerpts of songs. Some examples have been provided for you in the Instrument roles resource (PDF 4.27 MB)
  • copy the lyrics of one of their favourite popular song from the internet (make sure the song is appropriate for their age)
  • using only the lyrics, aurally identify the sections and roles in that song. The song analysis worksheet (PDF 4.29 MB) has been provided for you to assist with this.

Please remember - YouTube clips suggested in this sequence may not be housed by the Department. It is always recommended that you preview each link and lyrics for suitability, before implementing in class.

Students will:

  • copy and discuss the definitions for riffs below in their books, listening to the examples when suggested
    • A riff is a repeated pattern of notes. It is a term only used in popular music. In other genres, it would be called an ostinato.
    • A melodic riff is played by the lead guitar, bass guitar or sometimes a keyboard. It is a pattern of single notes that is repeated at various points throughout the song. Examples are
    • A chordal riff is played by rhythm guitar or keyboard and is a repeated, rhythmic pattern of chords. Examples are

A riff can be repeated throughout the whole song, for example, What about us? by Pink, or played only in specific sections of a song. This can be heard in the song Ice, Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice (04:00), when the main riff is only played in the intro, each chorus and the outro. A second riff is only played in each verse and the outro.

The Riffs resource (PDF 4.27 MB) will provide you with a table of suggested songs and riffs. This may assist when teaching the exercise below.

In pairs, students will:

  • create a table that identifies the type, number of and instrument/s playing riffs, in different songs. An example of this can be seen below
Name of song Type of riff (melodic or chordal or a combination Number of times played Instruments playing

  • note any similarities or differences between songs, regarding when or how riffs are played.

Students will:

  • learn and use metalanguage to discuss the concepts of music
    • structure - order of sections and ideas in music
    • texture - layers of sound
    • dynamics - volume
    • melody
    • harmony
    • rhythm
    • chords - 2 or more notes of a scale heard simultaneously
    • performing media - instruments (including voices) that are playing
    • riff - a repeated pattern in popular music
  • students can tally the number of times they hear a riff being played.



Students could:

  • present a song they have analysed, noting its structure, performing media and roles.
  • create a short video outlining and explaining the structure of a pop song.

Life skills


  • LS 7 a student experiences music from a variety of social, cultural and historical contexts

Students could:

  • identify sections of a song through multiple choice or a tick box table.
  • identify and verbally call out the different sections of songs when listening to class examples.


Formative feedback student contribution to class tasks.

Summative feedback class aural quiz or exam.


Please note:

Syllabus outcomes and content descriptors from Music 7–10 Syllabus (2003) © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2017.

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