For much of the 20th century, the dominant form in popular music wasn’t verse/chorus form as it is now, but AABA or 32-bar form. It’s a form that started to come to the fore after the first world war and by the mid to late 20’s had become pretty much the form of choice for popular music. Which it remained until around the time that Jim Marshall developed his first amplifiers in the mid-sixties – which is not just a coincidence, but more on that later.
AABA is a form that’s both easily recognisable and familiar. It powered the music of your grandparents, and depending on your age, your parents as well. Most of the songs from the heyday of musicals and film soundtracks were AABA – “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is but one of many – as were the majority of the early Beatles, though they used AABA throughout their career. Late songs such as “Something”, “The Long and Winding Road” and of course “Heh Jude” are all AABA.
But it’s not just a museum piece. In more recent times, bands from Green Day to Queens of the Stone Age to Coldplay, even to Metallica, have all used AABA. I’ll look at the reasons for that in Part 2, but first we need to understand what AABA is, and how it works.
To do that, we need go back, way back to the origins of popular, vernacular music. Back hundreds of years to ye olde minstrels and balladeers of yore and their form of choice, strophic form. A song like “Scarborough Fair” (e.g., the version by Simon and Garfunkel) is a good example of where strophic form came from, while a lot of (early) Dylan shows where it got to, e.g. “The Times They Are A-Changing”. It’s a form that is still very popular in traditional styles such as folk, bluegrass or (12-bar) blues.
The main characteristic of strophic form is that it has just one structural block which is then repeated for the duration of the song. While there’s no chorus, there’s usually the repetition of one or two lines of lyric as a refrain, which also becomes the title. This comes either at the beginning of the basic block, “Are you going to Scarborough fair”, or at the end, “Cause the times they are a-changing”. There are other possibilities, including variations in how this basic lyric is used, but these two are the most common.
Strophic form can work well, which is one of the reasons its been around for hundreds of years in the first place. But it has one major weakness: we repeat the same basic harmonic material throughout. If we were to write out the sections we get something like: AAAAAAAA, with perhaps the odd A’ thrown in for variation. It sounds like what it looks like, and all this repetition can easily become predictable and uninteresting.
There are various ways around this which I’ll go over in more depth in a Strophic Form entry here at a later date. One of the most common solutions is to use lyrics rather than music to give the song form and momentum: Dylan’s “Hurricane” is one of the best examples, all 11 verses and 8+ minutes of it. Strophic form is primarily a story form, where the lyric narrative, the “tell me what happened next”, provides impetus, carrying us through the song.
Another simple way of stretching things out is to use slower tempos or triplet time (which effectively adds 50% to the duration of the basic beats). No surprise that “Scarborough Fair” and “The Times They Are A-Changing” use both of these techniques: they’re slower songs in 3 4 time. Other techniques for sustaining interest include the use of melodic variations or instrumental interludes to add some variety.
But these approaches aren’t always enough, or aren’t always right for what you’re trying to achieve. So what can you do? In attempting to answer this, someone came up with a brilliant idea: rather than just repeating a single section, why not add a different section, a B relative to the A? But – and it’s a big but, which is one of the reasons it took a few hundred years – how can we make another section which by definition needs to move AWAY from where we are? As we’ve touched on above, we can have changes in tempo and melody, instrumental interludes, lots of lyrics … but none of those are enough to help us escape the limitations of going round and round a single repeated block.
But there’s one change that you never see (or hear) in strophic form: change the underlying chord progression. But not just change the chords, shift the harmonic centre to a new key to create an audible difference.
And thus was born AABA form. It’s a kind of supercharged strophic form, strophic form with an additional contrasting section, a “B”.
A classic example is the Beatle’s “Oh Darling”. It harks back to the golden era of fifties doo-wop, much of which was AABA. Straight away, we see the strophic form heritage with the title and main lyric idea in the opening line, “Oh darling …”, even the slower tempo in triplet time. Also typical is that each of the A sections starts with the title lyric, “Oh darling”. In fact, until the end of these first two A’s, there’s nothing to differentiate the song from strophic form. But after two rounds in the home key of A major, there’s a harmonic shift, and up up up we go to the sub-dominant (D major) on “When you told me …”. This becomes the contrasting section, the “B”. That modulation to the subdominant through the 7th of the tonic (A7 in this case) is a classic, instantly recognisable transition.
Following this, the B section slowly but inexorably winds its way up to the dominant (E), from where we drop back to where we started for the final repeat of the A section. To recap: 2 sections (A), followed by a section in another key (B), followed by a return to the material of the first section (A). AABA.
If each of those sections is 8 bars, as is often the case, we get 8 x 4 = 32 bar form, which is another name that’s often used for AABA. I tend not to use it because AABA doesn’t have to be exactly 32 bars to be recognisably and audibly AABA. George Harrison’s “Something” has a 9-bar A section with an 8 bar B, giving us 37 bars for the basic block. 37-bar form? It’ll never catch on.
Continuing on through “Oh Darling”, after that first round of AABA, we repeat the B, then another A, and at this slower tempo, it’s all that’s needed to get us easily over 3 minutes. But it’s that first 32 bar AABA section that defines this song and the form in general.
As with all AABA songs, the B section here has a sense of “other”. When we hit it, we’re somewhere else, and the run-up to the key change only emphasises this sense of displacement. If you spend a few hours listening to nothing but songs in strophic form, e.g. early Dylan, old ballads, folk music etc., and then you put on a song like “Oh Darling”, the B section really jumps out. Which of course is the point.
The B section is very similar in feel and role to the Middle 8 in verse/chorus structure, and is sometimes referred to as such. You might also come across the B section being referred to as a Bridge, which I feel is confusing, for reasons I discuss in my Middle 8 entry elsewhere here. I’ve always just called it or known it as the B section, which for me helps tie it into its functional role and the form it appears in – there’s no “B” section in verse/chorus form.
Any harmonic shift is possible for the B section, but there are two common modulations. One of these is so common it almost defines the form: it’s what we just saw, modulation to the fourth, the sub-dominant. There are any number of examples in the Beatles repertoire, and not just early Beatles either: “Oh Darling”, “Back in the USSR”, “Heh Jude” … all run up to the fourth for the B section. Same story for Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, and even Coldplay’s “In My Place”. It’s so instantly recognisable that unless it’s handled with care, it becomes a cliché, and we’re back in the fifties with songs like “Great Balls of Fire”, or “All I Have To Do Is Dream”. It’s perhaps revealing that two of the Beatles songs I referred to above, “Oh Darling” and “Back in the USSR” are both to some extent parody or quotation songs. They reference earlier song styles (“Oh Darling”) or in the case of “Back in the USSR”, earlier song lyrics (The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” meets Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”.)
The second most common modulation is just as equally recognisable, though is less associated with a particular period or style and for me, is less of a cliché. This time, instead of going up, we descend the 3 steps to the relative minor. So if you’re in D, you’d drop down to b minor, in F to d minor etc. Once again, just to take the Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” has the A section in G major, the B section in e minor. As an aside the B-sides of the single version were “I Saw Her Standing There” in the USA and “This Boy” in the UK. Both of these are also AABA, though they revert to the more common modulation to the sub-dominant (fourth). Yes, AABA was very, very common in this period.
A more recent AABA example which uses exactly the same modulation is Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (G down to e min on “Here comes the rain again”). Similarly, there’s a relative minor modulation for the B section in Coldplay’s “Yellow” (B maj to g# min on “Your skin”).
In contrast to the kind of clearly defined harmonic approaches that we see in verse/chorus form, AABA is a lot more “anything goes” when it gets to the B section. If the song starts with the main lyric, or uses the main lyric as a refrain somewhere else in the first 8 bar block, and we then get a modulation to a different key after two or so rounds of the A, that’s about all we need to give us AABA form. It doesn’t really matter what key the B is in. The object of the exercise is harmonic contrast and any tonal shift will give us that. Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” is AABA and simply drops down a tone on “Never cared for what they do” for the B. We see the same thing in another “softer” song by a more powerful band, Cream with “White Room” (amin down to G on “I’ll wait in this place”).
Even moving to distant or unrelated keys can work. In “Yesterday”, McCartney drops from F major to e min for the B section at “Why she had to go”. George Harrison drops from C major down to a somewhat unexpected A major (not minor) in “Something” on “You’re asking me will my love grow”, and he even gives us a straight modulation to the major from the minor in the B of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (a minor to A major on “I don’t know how”). Queens of the Stone Age sum it all up in some ways, by not really moving to anywhere particularly defined: the B section of “No-one Knows” (“I realise you’re mine”) is just a succession of ascending chords to the dominant (5th) before eventually crashing back down to the tonic with the riff-to-die-for when we return to the A. The object of the exercise is to get away from the tonal centre of the A section, and riffing up a series of different chords is as good a technique as any.
Before moving on, to recap the above, AABA is:
- 2 blocks of material, +/- 8 bars each, in an AABA structure
- the second block (B) in a different key and with a different chord progression
- main lyric or title in the first A block, usually in the first or last line
- slow to mid tempos
In the next entry, I’ll look at how we use these blocks to build whole songs, and then get onto The Big Question: where and how would you use AABA?
© Peter Crosbie 2017. All rights reserved.
3 thoughts on “AABA Form: What it is, how it works.”
Wow, Peter, this is great. I will have to read your whole blog.
Methinks I may have known you by sight at UWA. In 1979 I started a composition degree there with Roger Smalley. I’m so glad I got to study with him but, can you believe, in all my five years doing composition I never studied songwriting or wrote a single song. I still haven’t.
But I’ve become a bit of a lyricist and do hope to write an actual song some day. I’m sure your blog will really help me with that.
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