This article explains the use of common song forms in combination, as a compound form, in both the past and current times. Building upon the AAA, AABA, AB, ABC and AAB song form articles from our series on song forms, this article explains common compound popular song forms that you can add to your song writing toolbox. It also gives examples of those song forms being used in current popular songs.
It is worth mentioning that the meaning of some terms such as "verse" and "chorus" has changed over the years. Where necessary we have explained the understanding and use of these terms.
Song Building Blocks
Popular music, in particular, often uses a number of common structural song parts.
The common song 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".
Song Form describes the structure of songs in an easy to understand framework, making communicating many musical aspects with other songwriters and musicians much easier. Song forom also makes it faster and easier for songwriters, themselves, to analyse, improve and vary their own songs, and to analyse any sectional based song, improving their ability to learn new styles, and learn from other songwriters. Understanding the basics of song form also helps songwriters take part in the critique process and gain more from both providing critique, and receiving critique of their own songs from other songwriters, all of which improves the depth and breadth of our knowledge, and the speed that we learn new skills that we can adopt to use creatively during the song writing process.
When using song form, letters are assigned to the different sections of a song, where repeated sections are assigned the same letter as was assigned on the first occurance of that section. The letters then create a map of the overall song, or the song architecture of the key feature of that type of song. Thinking of song form helps song writers retain an overview of songs and how the sections of music that make up the song are organized.
A song starts with two verse sections, followed by a bridge section, then by a final verse.
If we then apply labels to the sections, each verse would receive an "A" label, and the bridge would receive a "B" label, resulting in an AABA song structure.
Different Levels Of Song Form
When trying to understand song forms and how they relate to each other, it can be useful to think of some song forms as describing both a whole song structure and the key concept of that song form, while other song forms describe the key concept only, relying upon the songwriter to pad out the concept into a finished song.
- Whole Song Architecture And Key Concept: The named sections, in the form name, often describes the entire song architecture. At the same time it conveys the key concept of the song form.
Examples of this would be:
- AAA song form - Key concept, it is a single section song that is repeated, the standard being 3 repetitions make up the entire song structure.
- AABA song form - Key concept is a two section song, arranged so that the two sections make up the AABA pattern to make up the entire song structure.
- Primarily Key Concept Only: The named sections usually describes what makes that song form unique, and it doesn't convey the full song architecture. To create a whole song map, the key concept has to be repeated several times. Examples of this would be:
- AB song form, the name just describes the two sections, not all the sections of the song. In learning the song form we know that the standard arrangement of AB would actually be ABABAB, although like AAA the AB pattern can be added on to the ABABAB as many times as the songwriter desires.
- AAB song form, yet again the name describes the main sections, not the total song architecture. Unlike other song forms AAB describes the structure of a verse, with letters assigned to lines within the verse. The standard Arrangement is simply a repetition of the AAB pattern to provide the overall song architercture, such as AABAABAABAAB.
- ABC - Key concept a song that uses 3 sections. Unlike the others, the name ABC does not directly relate to the way those sections are normally arranged, ABABCAB, only that 3 sections are used. True the concept of 3 sections can be used any way you wish, including a whole song architecture, but that is not the standard way it is used by songwriters.
Certainly song forms do provide concrete examples of the standard entire song architecture relating to that song form, but it is important to tell the difference between the overall song map, and the concept behind the song form.
AB Song Form Concept - A two section song, normally understood to be a verse and a chorus section.
Standard AB Song Form Map - ABABAB
ABC Song Form Concept - A three section song, normally understood to be a verse, a chorus and a bridge section
Standard ABC Song Form Map - ABABCAB
AABA Song Form Concept - A two section song, normally arranged as a verse, verse, bridge, and final verse.
Standard AABA Song Form Map - AABA
AAB Song Form Concept - A two section song, where AAB usually describes the arrangement of a single verse where each section is 4 bars long, with the whole pattern being 12 bars long.
Standard AAB Song Form Map - AABAABAAB
There are extended versions of AAA and AABA, such as AAAAA and AABABA or AABAABA. These extended primary song forms also usually describe the overall song architecture. AAA is a description of a repeated verse section, as a whole song construct. Conceptually, AABA describes an AAA song form with an additional bridge section, and is yet again the map of an entire song.
Compound Song Forms
Compound song forms, sometimes called hybrid song forms, use a blend of two or more song forms together within the one song. This is a combination of two song form concepts where a song form is used to describe the overall song architecture, and the concept of another song form is inserted into the overall song form, replacing one of the named sections.
All song form concepts, such as AB, AAB, AABA, AAA and ABC can be understood as being used as a "plug-in". There may be common expressions of those song forms, but the critical information they provide is that they describe the key feature of the song that sets it apart from other song forms, not the entire song.
In this, AB is essentially two sections:
VERSE, CHORUS - AB
What we think of as the standard AB song form, can be understood as a compound song form.
Using the fundamental two section verse-chorus / AB structure, it can be plugged into an AAA song form concept. i.e. Every section of "A" in AAA is replaced by an "AB" pattern, resulting in a "ABABAB" map of the song:
VERSE, CHORUS, VERSE, CHORUS, VERSE, CHORUS - ABABAB
Similarly if you plug the two section AB concept into AABA song form, changing the "B" in AABA to a new letter of C giving AACA, then plug the verse-chorus / AB structure into AACA by replacing the "A" in AACA with AB, you get the standard ABC song form:
VERSE, CHORUS, VERSE, CHORUS, BRIDGE, VERSE, CHORUS - ABABCAB
As a beginner it is faster to understand simple individual forms with a given layout, instead of adding the complexity of how those forms relate to each other. However, understanding those relationships at a base level can really help songwriters be more adventurous when experimenting with the architecture of their songs.
In simple terms, the standard song form structures usually given for AB form, or ABC form, are actually compound forms, combining the AB concept with the AAA concept or AABA concept.
12-bar blues, AAB song form, is another form that just describes the verse structure as AAB (where B in this case is the resolution, typically as a refrain). To get a full song map you need to apply a full song form such as AAA or AABA to it, resulting in AABAABAAB and AABAABCAAB, respectively.
Compound Song Form Examples
- "Johnny B. Goode" (Chuck Berry, 1958) (12-bar blues/AB/AABA)
- "Oh Pretty Woman" (Roy Orbison) (AB/AABA)
- "Leader of the Band" (Dan Fogelberg) (AB/AABA)
- "Summer of '69" (Bryan Adams) (AB/AABA)
- "House is Rockin'" (Stevie Ray Vaughan) (AB/12-bar blues/AABA)
- "Hazard" (Richard Marx) (AB/AABA)
- Boston's "More Than a Feeling" (1976)
- Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" (1964)
- "Whole Lotta Love" (Led Zeppelin, 1969)
- "Brown Sugar" (The Rolling Stones, 1971)
- "Refugee" (Tom Petty, 1979)
"Every Breath You Take" (Police, 1983), is compound AABA form. A 32-bar section is followed by a bridge section then by a repeat of the 32-bar section, creating an ABA song form. The song then combines the ABA structure with AABA, creating a compound of ABA and AABA structures giving AABACAABA.
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