This article will explain fundamentals of AABA Song Form, also called American Popular Song Form and Ballad Form, and provides examples of it being used in popular songs. For simplicity AABA Song Form will be used throughout the rest of this article.
As this article is focused on providing a basic understanding of AABA Song Form in the modern era, some root musical forms or classifications of musical forms have only been referenced for completeness.
Song Building Blocks
Popular music, in particular, often uses a number of common structural song parts.
The common building blocks are:
- PRE-CHORUS / RISE / CLIMB
- MIDDLE EIGHT
- SOLO / INSTRUMENTAL BREAK
- CODA / OUTRO
- AD LIB (OFTEN IN CODA / OUTRO)
For details about these song building blocks please read our article, "Song Building Blocks".
The Changing Meaning Of "Verse" and "Chorus"
It should be noted that the meaning of some terms, such as "verse", has not always meant the same as it's current commonly understood meaning. During the period from the 1920s to the 1940s, many songs used lengthy introductions that wandered around before leading into 32-Bar, AABA structured songs. Just to confuse everyone, these long introductions are called "the verse".
To add to the confusion, the complete 32-bar AABA form is known as "the chorus". For those interested in historic changes in meaning of songwriting terminology, please read " 200 Years Of Song Writing Terminology" by Songstuff author, Colin Lazzerini.
For the purpose of this article we will use modern terminology, where each A section is a verse in the modern understanding of "verse".
AABA Song Form / American Popular Song Form / Ballad Form
This is one of the most commonly used forms in both jazz and early to mid-twentieth cetury popular music. The AABA format was song form of choice for Tin Pan Alley songwriters of American popular music, an East Coast USA songwriter scene based in New York City, in the first half of the 20th century. Tin Pan Alley included songwriting greats like Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Sammy Cahn, Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin.
The dominance of the AABA format faded out during the 1960s with the rise in popularity of rock 'n' roll and the rise of groups like The Beatles. Before The Beatles broke off into other songwriting formats, they heavily utilized the AABA format in many songs.
This song form is used in a number of music genres including pop, jazz and gospel.
Structure Of AABA Song Form
In modern terminology the A section is repeated as the main section of the song and is known as "the verse".
The A sections are similar in melody but different in lyrical content. The phrases of the A sections often comes to harmonic closure.
This is followed by the bridge (B) which is musically and lyrically different than the A sections. The bridge gives the song contrast before transitioning to the final A section. The B section often provides melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, or contrast in texture. The B section is known as "the Bridge", "Middle Eight" or "the Release". It presents the listener with a change in mood in the song, often using contrasting melody, lyrics and chords.
Derived versions of this form (AABABA or AABAA for example) or AABA with the addition of a coda (or “outro”) are not uncommon. Where necessary readers should confirm the meaning of terms in our music glossary.
The standard AABA song form is 32-bars long, with each section of the song being 8 bars long.
Examples of AABA song form:
- "Harlem On My Mind" (1933, by Irving Berlin)
- "Blue Moon" (1934, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart)
- "Heart And Soul" (1938, by Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael)
- "Blue Moon" (The Marcels by Mel Torme)
- "Over The Rainbow" (Judy Garland, 1938, by by Harold Arlen and E.Y.Harburg)
- "Crazy" (1961, Patsy Cline, by Willie Nelson)
- "That'll Be The Day" (1958, Buddy Holly)
- "From Me To You" (1963, The Beatles, Paul McCartney and John Lennon)
- "Yesterday" (The Beatles, 1965, by Paul McCartney)
Non-standard AABA Forms
There are many AABA songs that don't use the 32-bar, 8-8-8-8 format. For example: "Send in the Clowns" has a 6-6-9-8 format. Sometimes the songwriter lengthens the AABA song form by adding another bridge and a last A section resulting in an AABABA format. The second bridge can have lyrics or purely instrumental in nature. It can be essentially the same or completely different than the first bridge. The last A section may also be an earlier verse repeated, or an entirely new verse that somehow completes the story of the song.
As mentioned earlier, not all AABA songs use the typical 32-bar length. Some songs have additional or reordered sections, such ABAC, ABCD and ABAB forms.
Title / Main Hook Placement in AABA Song Form
The title in an AABA song can be used in three main ways:
- The first line of the verse
- The last line in the verse
- Both the first and last line of the verse
Sometimes the title / main hook will also appear within the bridge section.
Here are some examples of songs by The Beatles using AABA song form, where the song title / main hook is used in the first line of the verse:
- A Hard Day's Night
- Free As A Bird
- The Long And Winding Road
- Here, There, and Everywhere (Starts with a pre-verse)
There are also a number of songs by The Beatles using AABA song form, where the song title / main hook is used in the last line of the verse:
- And I Love Her
- Here Comes The Sun (Starts with Title Refrain)
- Back In The U.S.S.R.
- Ticket To Ride
- I Am The Walrus (Title Refrain used after Bridge)
- From Me To You
- Day Tripper (Title in Middle of Verse) (Music only bridge)
- I Saw Her Standing There
- Please Please Me
Below are three examples of songs by The Beatles using AABA song form, where the song title / main hook is used in the first and last line of the verse:
- Magical Mystery Tour
- Love Me Do
- I'm Looking Through You
There are also examples where the song title / main hook is used in the first line of the verse and in the bridge:
- She Said She Said[/blt
Here are two examples of songs by The Beatles using AABA song form, where the song title / main hook is used in the first and last line of the verse and in the bridge:
- Hey Jude
...and here are four examples of songs by The Beatles using AABA song form, where the song title / main hook is used in the last line of the verse and in the bridge:
- Can't Buy Me Love (Starts with Bridge)
- Eight Days A Week
- Girl (Title Refrain used after Bridge)
- All My Loving
Planning Your AABA Song
The goal is to effectively showcase the hook/title. To achieve that the hook should appear in the same place in each A Section. This is usually be either the first line or the last line of the section. All other lyrics should relate to and clarify the core message or concept that the hook/title captures.
It is a good idea to have a clear outline that can be used to develop your idea clearly and help you to convey it concisely. Plan what the purpose of each A section is, and what you want it to convey. The bridge section is a great place to make a point to make relating to the hook. The fact that the B section contrasts melodically and rhythmically from the A sections helps the point to stand out and be set apart from the rest of the song.
The natural flow and uninterrupted development of the AABA Song Form lends itself beautifully to one of the following formulas:
Verse 1 - Introduce an idea
Verse 2 - Develop the idea
Bridge - Offer a different perspective, omitting the title
Verse 3 - Conclusion
Verse 1 - Identify the problem
Verse 2 - Elaborate on the problem -- what caused it?
Bridge - Discuss the solution to the problem
Verse 3 - Talk about where we go from here. In a sad song, this is where we offer hope.
Use "word pictures" to suggest visual images to imagination of the listener. Keep them interested in and focused on the hook.
A common vignette development is to use a time-line:
Verse 1 - Set in the past
Verse 2 - Set in the present
Verse 3 - Set in the future
Verse 1 - Set in the present
Verse 2 - Flashback to the past
Verse 3 - Back in the present
Vignettes can use unrelated verses, except in the way they come to or develop the hook.
Yet again the B Section is the place to draw focus back to the core song concept.
Derived Song Form AABABA
Examples of extended or adapted AABA:
- Nine Million Bicycles (Katie Melua, 2005, written by Mike Batt) - 7 bar verse, 6 bar middle-eight
- Hey There Delilah (Plain White T's, 2007, written by Tom Higgenson) - AABA ABCA+ B Coda
- Don't Know Why (Norah Jones, 2002, written by Jesse Harris 1999) - AABA BAA+
- Friday I'm In Love (The Cure, 1992) - 6 bar B section and middle-eight
- Every Breath (The Police, 1983, written by Sting) AABA C AABA Coda
- Paranoid (Black Sabbath, 1970) AABA with additional A sections and breaks
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