Fixed Form 50 is a 50 bar song structure for working with groups of kids or starter songwriters. FF50 gets results rather quickly.
The idea is simple: provide 5 chord symbols and a song can be played without giving much more instruction. Cuing is always necessary in the early stages, but once a group or a student has it, it can happen without the teacher saying anything. One of the goals in my classroom is to “shut me up”. Me not talking means that the train is on the tracks. Kids typically don’t like talking when surrounded by instruments. Great motivator. And, they actually remind each other of the goal, often. “He’s talking!”
For a band, the drummer’s usage of cymbals and floor tom can provide visual cues. Verse = hi-hat • Chorus = ride • Bridge = floor tom.
Once a group has the form, then there can be points or places for modifications (mods).
Symmetry matters. It’s all 8 bar groups. Within a short period of time, the changes can and should be felt by all musicians engaged in realizing the form.
And self-expression is encouraged within the form. We start with being solid on the beat, playing quarters/8ths. Once students have this, I encourage them to configure the harmonies in ways which reflect what they hear, and to play off the beat.
The 5 square boxes are where we write the 5 chords. In class, I simply write 5 chord symbols on the board, sometimes with slash marks to show beats. Point conducting helps at the start too. I use a mallet and play the chalkboard. Keeps the train on the tracks.
The intro can be anything which sets the tempo. The simplest starting point is a basic count-in. We also use the roots of the 4 chords of the verse/chorus to set the stage. In the live audio example below, a student could play the single tones: A G F E for the intro. Full chords also work, or even just one of them.
The verse and chorus share the same chords; they differ in that the chorus cuts the duration of each chord in half and goes through the sequence 4 times. The verse and chorus are ‘inverted’. Verse = 2 times through, 4 beats on each chord. Chorus = 4 times through, 2 beats for each chord. This challenges students to look at the same amount of bars (time-space) in different ways.
I opted to show the bridge as 1 bar, 8 times, rather than 4 bars, twice. This provides contrast for young tracking minds. With the verse & chorus being “4/2” then “2/4”, the bridge as a “1/8” works better.
And base-base level ‘outro‘ is landing on the first chord, as a whole note.
As mentioned, once the form is set, any moment in the tune can be a point for modification, whether pauses, extending the last chord of the verse, changing the last chord of the verse on the 2nd time through, etc. It’s endless, of course, and I’ll provide mod ideas in future waves. Keeping it simple at the start is the best plan, especially for groups of kids. Things happen naturally too. Allow the organic.
Finally, measures don’t have to be in 4/4 but this is the best place to start (a good mod is 3/4 time for all of it or just a part, such as the chorus in 3/4 time while verse and bridge are in 4/4).
This is the seniors group at our school (11-13 year olds).
Instrumentation: drum set, keyboard, xylophones, chimes, bells, two guitars (acoustic in standard and an electric with missing string one and tuned D-A-D-G-A – using thumb over the top bars – a future wave topic).
The next step in the songwriting process is melody and lyric writing. For this tune, we have melodies happening…working on phrasing and will add consonants to naturally occurring vowel shapes.
This experience teaches the songwriting process through a balance of agency and communion (I/We).