Book Review | Allen Forte, Listening to Classic American Popular Songs

Allen Forte. Listening to Classic American Popular Songs. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows…”
—Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”


Although major universities have been offering courses on jazz, musical theater, and rock‘n’roll for many years, this body of music has not been taken seriously by music departments across the country. Courses have proliferated, yes, but the majority have been mainly survey classes for non-music majors. It is only recently that music majors can seriously examine forms of popular music alongside Western European classics. The majority of popular music scholarship, and most journalistic writing, about vernacular music has come from the disciplines of critical studies, sociology, history, and psychology.1 With few exceptions even today, traditional tools of analysis used in the study of the Western canon (studies of form and analysis, chord morphology, melodic and rhythmic analysis, time studies, set theory, and so on), have not been applied to popular music. 

This is not without implications. By not studying popular music, theorists have denied this music their venerable imprint, deeming this body of work unworthy and not sophisticated enough to stand beside Western art music. Indeed, to utter the names Berry or Bo Diddley in the same sentence as Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms is still unimaginable in some circles.

As one of the foremost theorists of the late twentieth century, Allen Forte would be the last person expected to take popular music seriously. Until very recently, Forte’s career has been founded on, and grounded in, the analysis of Western European concert music. His published works include articles on Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Mozart; a book for Yale University Press on the atonal music of Anton Webern; and a definitive work (along with Steven E. Gilbert) on Heinrich Schenker’s methodologies. Forte has also introduced the concept of set theory in music, published a widely used music theory textbook, and trained a cadre of enthusiastic theorists who have taken up the Fortean call and marched forward with his methodology into the twenty–first century.2

In 1993, however, he surprised many of his contemporaries with an article in The Musical Quarterly entitled “Secrets of Melody: Line and Design in the Songs of Cole Porter.” For Forte to investigate the work of this American popular song composer was a significant shift in emphasis. Forte followed up the Gershwin article with a 1996 book, The American Popular Ballad in the Golden Era: 1924–1950, in which he applied his theoretical analytic techniques to such tunes as Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and Richard Rodgers’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” among others. With Allen Forte taking up popular music in such a comprehensive way, it may seem as if popular music has finally arrived in the academy.

Maybe, but not quite. Forte wrote in the introduction to The American Popular Ballad:

To take popular music seriously in this way has required a certain reorientation from my ordinary pursuits, which concern music theory and analysis of a more recondite kind and music that scholars might regard as better suited to the more traditional research endeavors. (4)

Neither this book nor the 1993 article were for the faint of heart; neither would have appealed to the average scholar of popular music, particularly scholars whose backgrounds are in critical and cultural studies rather than in music theory. According to Forte’s introduction to The American Popular Ballad, he expects the reader to be able to read music notation and have knowledge of the basic nomenclature associated with harmony and music theory. Unsaid, but probably just as useful would have been a familiarity with the analytical methods of Allen Forte, including—at the very least—an introductory lesson or two in Schenkerian analysis and the technique of Schenkerian “reduction.”3 Taken in its entirety, this monograph seemed to be saying to the readers that this popular repertoire can stand up to the scrutiny of Music Theory and prove itself worthy.

Listening to Classic American Popular Songs begins with a similar note of introduction:

Since many readers may know of my scholarly work in more academic areas of music, I should like to offer a word of explanation concerning my participation in the writing of this book and in the preparation of the compact disc. My experience with classic American popular song extends back to a misspent childhood, during which, in addition to subjecting me to a traditional training in music, my mother made me play popular music and jazz on the piano. Subsequently I played that music professionally, before seeing the error of my ways and entering the cloistered academic life. This project has enabled me to revisit that earlier phase of my work in music and to apply my skills to the realization of a book that I sincerely hope will bring pleasure and satisfaction to the reader. (xii)

Though perhaps a bit tongue in cheek about “seeing the error of his ways,” his words nevertheless reveal a strong need to justify this book to his community of his peers. Thankfully, Forte has, in his own small way, thrown caution to the wind.


The Golden Era 

In both books addressing American popular song, Forte focuses upon the mid 1920s through 1950—decades that for him comprise a “golden era.” As he points out, the talented composers who were penning songs and lyrics during this quarter century are now legendary: the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, to mention only a few. In Listening to Classic American Popular Songs, Forte rationalizes cutting off his exploration at the end of the 1940s by noting that “with the passing of these remarkably talented [composers and lyricists], only a few special persons…were waiting in the wings to replace them. Thus, the enormous productivity of the golden era petered out…” (xi). Perhaps, but a wealth of material by popular composers and lyricists is missing, composers such as Leonard Bernstein (CandideWest Side Story), composer/lyricists Stephen Sondheim (West Side StoryGypsy,A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumInto the WoodsA Little Night Music, etc.), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (Camelot), and the later works of Rodgers and Hammerstein II (The King and IFlower Drum SongThe Sound of Music), among many others.4 

Even with the narrow scope of the historical era, Listening to Classic American Popular Songs is an important document in which a noted scholar treats American popular music with the same intellectual dignity as the Western classical repertoire. Notwithstanding the author’s hedging in his introductory remarks, this book is a noteworthy signal to the phalanx of music theorists that popular music is acceptable for “serious” study in the academy.

Forte covers the repertoire chronologically by decade. Each era is introduced by summing up the important historical events of the time. He begins the discussion of the individual tunes with background information on the lyricists, the composers, and a brief historical synopsis. The accompanying CD provides a reliable performance of selected tunes (sadly omitting Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “But Beautiful”)—featuring baritone Richard Lilly and pianist/arranger Gary Chapman, and even Forte himself on piano on two tracks.

Before delving into the repertoire itself, Forte begins with preparatory material to help the uninitiated reader understand some of his basic terminology and premises.5 For example, he discusses the building blocks of melodies, including diatonic, chromatic, pentatonic scales, and melodic contour and motivic construction. Forte also introduces the fundamentals of harmony and the most frequently encountered chord types in this repertoire: the major and minor chords, the major and minor seventh chords, the dominant seventh chord, the half-diminished seventh chord, and “added-note” chords. Moreover, he introduces the structural elements of the song, including formal attributes (phrases, periods, contrasting periods, double periods, etc.) as well how the verse and chorus function together. In all cases he uses excellent examples from the literature to illustrate. 

In the area of rhythm, however, much is missing. As many have pointed out—from Amiri Baraka (née LeRoi Jones) in the early 1960s to Christopher Small more recently—the sophisticated rhythmic sense of African-American music has dominated American popular music in the last century and continues to do so. Even though Forte readily admits the influence that African Americans have had on the American song, his analysis and introductory groundwork deals primarily with pitch content, harmony, and aspects of form. At one point in a discussion of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” for example, Forte notes the rhythmic complexity of the song’s melody:

“Fascinating Rhythm” serves nicely as a reminder of the basic role of rhythm and the various forms of syncopation, in particular, in the repertoire of popular song with which this book is concerned. (Listening 32–3)

Twentieth-century American popular music’s rhythmic sophistication may be its most important feature and Forte has not taken this opportunity to seize the day. In his discussion of the outwardly regular AABA–32–bar form of many tunes from the “golden era,” Forte muses: “In the face of such a high degree of uniformity it is absolutely amazing that songs of such remarkable variety were produced between 1925 and 1950” (Listening 20). A more detailed study of rhythm in this repertoire would help yield a satisfying answer to that question. Even though the harmonies, melodies, and periodic form of these tunes seem uncomplicated to those with a classical Western bias, the tunes are remarkably complex and varied. Investigating the depth of African-American rhythmic sensibility and its influence on this popular music genre might very well help Forte reveal the reasons for the “remarkable variety” within the 32–bar form.6

All That Jazz

Forte seems to be aware of the importance of the popular song repertoire in the history of jazz, but not interested enough to delve into this topic. To hear a jazz player—like Oscar Peterson, Joe Lovano, or Miles Davis—improvise melodically while simultaneously respecting an underlying tempo, AABA bar form, and the harmonic progressions of a standard tune is to begin to grasp a highly-evolved understanding of the tune.

In all fairness to Allen Forte, why these tunes are important in the jazz repertoire probably was not a pressing issue for him. Consequently, he also seems to be sadly unaware of some jazz traditions. In fact, his casual observations are often dead wrong. Take, for example, this statement:

It seems impossible that the music of, say, George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” ever existed without Ira Gershwin’s words. But it did, and it does, in instrumental performances, especially by jazz musicians, many of whom may know few of the words beyond the title of the song. (Listening 23)

Jazz instrumentalists often demonstrate that this isn’t the case: they often do know the words and the music. Throughout the history of jazz, professional musicians come to a point in their careers when backing a vocalist becomes part of their experience. Also, many of the important instrumentalists from all eras and all styles of jazz—Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Tex Beneke, Clyde Bernhardt, George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Nat “King” Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, “Tiny” Grimes, James Moody, Oscar Peterson, John Pizzarelli, Jimmy Smith, Clark Terry, and Cootie Williams, to mention only a few—were vocalists themselves.7 Clarence Williams (1898–1965), for example, a pianist who performed in New Orleans’ Storyville district in the earliest days of jazz, always kept an eye and ear out for the latest songs.

[Sophie Tucker] was singin’ “Some of These Days,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and other new songs, and after hearing her sing them, I’d go home and play them over and over until I got them under control… I was the first to write away to the North for professional copies of the latest songs… .(Hentoff and Shapiro 32–33)

A perusal of sheet music from “Up North” will show that text, along with melody and harmony were part of commercially printed song scores.8

What You See is Not What You Get

Though it is obvious from the first selection of the CD, Forte never really delves into another important issue in this repertoire of popular music; namely, whether the “sheet music” versions of this repertoire are the definitive versions. Take for example the George and Ira Gershwin tune, “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

When we listen to this tune on the CD, in the first measure this is what we hear in the piano:

Forte points out that the harmony we hear in the first measure is “state-of-the-art popular song harmony vintage 1927, perhaps originating from Gershwin” (Listening 51). George Gershwin, who got his start as a “song plugger” (a pianist who would perform the Tin Pan Alley tunes of the day in a variety of ways), no doubt used more complex substitute harmonies instead of the stock sheet music harmonizations. 

Looking at the song and following the chords and melody, we hear something very different on the CD from what we see on the printed page. This is the case with virtually every tune covered in Listening to Classic American Popular Songs. Of course, for a jazz musician, a Tin Pan Alley song plugger, or a rehearsal pianist for a Broadway revival of Kiss Me Kate, “enhancing” the harmony is not unusual at all. For the uninitiated reader/listener, however—the very audience that Forte says he wants to reach in this book—this is bound to be confusing. Even for the seasoned professional, it would be interesting to know more about why performers—Forte and his team included—persist in using “state-of-the-art harmony” rather than the printed music. 

In his conclusion, Forte notes the incredible flexibility in the popular song repertoire:

No other repertoire of fully notated music has undergone such remarkable transformations over such a long period of time… It is this process…that keeps the repertoire alive and that distinguished it from almost all of the concert repertoire that we cherish so. (Listening, 184)

Once again, however, an important point is left for others to ponder. Though this repertoire is “fully notated,” the actual performance of these tunes relies on orally and aurally transmitted information; in other words, the notated score of a Gershwin tune doesn’t tell the full story of its performance.9 Perhaps Forte will address this in future studies.


“How Little We Know”

An important aspect of those great tunes written between 1920 and 1950 is also often overlooked, namely, the verse, an introductory and preparatory portion of the American popular song that is frequently disregarded in modern performances. “There Will Never Be Another You,” for example, is an extremely popular and widely-performed standard, particularly among jazz players and jazz singers.10 Sadly, the verse of this tune is less well known and not always performed with the refrainIndeed, almost every tune written in Forte’s “golden era” has a verse and a refrain; Forte embraces the verse in this study, a welcome and valuable inclusion. All of Forte’s examples contain both verse and refrain, a welcome reminder that we should not forget these magnificent introductory sections anymore than we should forget opera overtures or slow introductions to sonata-allegro symphony movements. 

Allen Forte’s status as a music theorist is so prominent that Listening to Classic American Popular Songs will be seen and heard by his many admirers as a signal that the popular repertoire of American songs is worthy of serious study in music departments everywhere. This book introduces readers to the technical nuts and bolts of the American songbook, including melodic, harmonic, and formal examination of an excellent selection of classic tunes. It may very well inspire other authors to investigate the areas that Forte gave short shrift: the undeniable role of rhythm in this repertoire, for example, or the flexibility and changeability of the tunes, particularly the harmonic language encountered in contemporary performances. Even with the flaws I noted in this review, Listening to Classic American Popular Songs is a welcome addition to the literature devoted to the American songbook, and for that reason will likely find a place on the bookshelves of music theorists, academic libraries, popular music scholars, individuals teaching this repertoire in the classroom, and interested amateurs.

Dave Kopplin
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


Forte, Allen. The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era: 1924–1950. London and New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.

—. Listening to Classic American Popular Songs. London and New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.

—. “Secrets of Melody: Line and Design in the Songs of Cole Porter.” Musical Quarterly 77.4 (1993):607–648.

Hentoff, Nat and Nat Shapiro. The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It. New York: Dover, 1955.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1963.

Nketia, J.H. Kwabena. The Music of Africa. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.

Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meanings of Performance and Listening. Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan UP, 1998.

  1.  Few authors have attempted musical analysis of popular works. A few who do: Robert Walser, Susan McClary at UCLA, John Covach at the University of North Carolina, David Brackett at Binghamton University, and a few others, though by and large this is exceptional rather than usual.
  2.  For a definitive list of articles and books by Forte, visit his website at
  3.  This did not go unsaid in the 1993 article, actually, where Forte introduces Schenkerian graphs in the first page.
  4.  Forte does make special mention of their later work, The Sound of Music, as well as later works of Lerner and Loewe and a few others, while at the same time letting us know that when Elvis Presley hit the scene (around 1953), the golden era was officially closed (187n).
  5.  This book, according to Forte and unlike his first book analyzing this popular repertoire, is geared towards a reader with only fundamental musical knowledge.
  6.  The African rhythmic sensibility is taken up by several authors: see especially Nketia and Chernoff.
  7.  Several jazz teachers and mentors have passed on to me the importance of knowing the lyrics of standard tunes—in addition to the harmony, melody, and form—in order to fully understand the tunes as a jazz player.
  8.  The UCLA American Popular Music Archive at has one of the most extensive collections in the country.
  9.  As indicated above in his discussion of “How Long Has This Been Going On,” Forte is clearly aware of this tradition.
  10.  Searching current on-line CD retailers reveals hundreds of jazz and popular recordings of this tune that are commercially available in September 2001.