Building songs with AABA: How and why.

In a previous entry, we saw where AABA came from and what it is. In this entry, I want to look at how we use these blocks to build whole songs and then move onto The Big Question: where and how would you use AABA?

So, song building with AABA: what happens after we’ve been around the first 32 bar AABA block?

Unlike verse/chorus form where song structures tend to stick closely to a handful of established patterns, AABA is a fairly free-flowing form, especially once you get past that first 32-bar AABA block. Still, there are certain approaches that are more common than others.

One of the most typical and straightforward is the structure we saw with “Oh Darling”: after the last A of the first block, we then get a second B, followed by 2 or more rounds of A to play out the song. So: AABA B AA.

Another fairly common approach is to take the final A of the first AABA block as an instrumental or solo, for example George Harrison’s “Something”. After this, there’s a reentry of the vocals either on  a repeat of the B or back to an A. We can see both these approaches used in different versions of “Something“.  For the original studio recording, the guitar solo leads into a final A, but in some of the live versions, Harrison comes back in after the solo with a second B before closing with that final A. Both are typical AABA structures. In the longer (live) version, the form looks identical to what we saw previously with “Oh Darling“, (AABA B A), even though the feel of it is quite different because of where and how the singing, instrumental break and lyrics work across those A’s and B’s.

Sometimes songs with these structures start to feel (almost!) like a kind of verse/chorus structure, where instead of verse-verse-chorus-instrumental, we get A A B instrumental. Of course, the big difference with a verse/chorus structure is that the B isn’t in the home key and as always, we find the main lyric (title) in the first A section, not in the B. In AABA there’s no chorus per se, and the B section functions a lot like what a Middle 8 does in verse/chorus form.

Another common approach is to complete the first 32 bar block and rather than use the last A as an instrumental, follow it with an instrumental/solo section on the A as a kind of interlude. The vocals then come back in again either on the B (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on “I don’t know how”), or with another full round of AABA (“When September Ends”).

(Eric Clapton showing that when you can play guitar like that, you can get away with a short-sleeved shirt on stage.)

As you can see, there are a range of approaches, though they’re not as dissimilar as they might seem when describing them on paper. Most of the time, AABA songs take the following form:

AABA … something …. AA.

where the “something” is made up of a combination of A’s and B’s, and may or not include an instrumental section.

To sum up, it’s a structure that’s generally fairly predictable for the first 24 – 32 bars, then goes for a bit of a wander around the material that’s already in place, then returns to something more regular after that, often finishing on one or two rounds of A. These final A’s can even be used as the launching pad for a playout at the end. Songs like “Nothing Else Matters”, “Every Breath You Take” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” all have extended, fairly freewheeling codas on repeated A’s, though there’s no new harmonic material.

(BTW, I’ve cited “Every Breath You Take” here already. It’s a song that starts as a really classic AABA, with the B on “Oh can’t you see”, but at the end of the first 32 bars, goes further in adding yet another modulation to another section, a “C” on “Since you’ve gone”. It’s kind of a second AABA within an AABA. But it’s rare to go that far, generally the harmonic material that we have in the A and B is enough for the whole song.)

 

(A 23 year old Paul McCartney and one of the most famous AABA songs, “Yesterday”. Sung live and without monitors.).

So what does all this mean? When or why would you use AABA?

For me, the main characteristic of AABA isn’t so much in the specifics of its underlying harmonic structure, though it’s a consequence of it. If we look at verse/chorus form, the song is harmonically anchored in the second section, the chorus. This is the point in the song that we move towards, it’s both the high point and the “coming home” moment. But AABA songs don’t do that, they do the reverse. They are harmonically anchored in the first section as that’s the section which is in the home key, and also the section with the main lyric and title. Thus, with AABA, as the song proceeds, we move away from the main material, not towards it. Without that constant moving towards a focal point, there’s less drive, less forward momentum. As a result, AABA is a less assertive or affirmative form, not so much “hands-in-the-air”, more “nodding the head in agreement”.

This has an impact on how the song reads, and in particular, the kinds of lyrics and subjects it best serves. This is especially obvious in the B section where harmonically we move away from the grounded, home-key A section. This is mirrored in the lyrics, and B-section texts are often less affirmed, less certain. Coldplay’s “How long must I wait for this?” is a great example of the questioning and reflection that characterises many B sections, as is Metallica’s cri-de-coeur “Never cared for what they do”. We see it in the self-questioning of George Harrison’s “I don’t know why” from the B section of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and in McCartney’s “Why she had to go, I don’t know” in the B of “Yesterday”.

Coldplay in particular are worth mentioning here, especially early Coldplay, because I often see them as the classic AABA band. It’s a form that’s perfect for them and what they’re about, the introversion of “bedroom rock”, where no matter how hard you drive the guitars, there’s always that sense of “what am I doing here?”. As often as not they don’t get the girl, but even when they do, we’re a long way from “You shook me all night long”. AABA isn’t particularly muscular or self-assured.

So this is a form that lends itself to reflection and ambiguity, songs that concern themselves with matters unresolved. With lyrics built around these subjects, verse/chorus structure can simply be too “Yes We Can”, and in particular, the chorus too concrete, too solid. AABA is perfect for slower songs when you don’t want to make A Big Ballad, a kind of Celine Dion or Adele.

So it’s no surprise to see even powerful bands like Green Day and Metallica use it for exactly that reason. In the cases of both “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Nothing Else Matters”, verse/chorus form would have felt too bombastic, even ponderous for the feelings of melancholy/reflection that they’re exploring. Not surprising either that another of Green Day’s most successful down-tempo songs, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is also in AABA, dropping down to a major on the 6th in the B section at “My shadow”. For me, wondering-out-loud lines like “Sometimes I wish that someone out there will find me, till then I walk alone” are classic AABA lyrics.

Historically, AABA is synonymous with the rise of popular music, in particular, the rise of music through mass media platforms such as film, radio, TV, and eventually the vinyl disk. For around 40 years, it was THE predominate popular music form. But when in the mid-sixties we started looking for forms that would support bigger, more assertive, more powerful musical and lyric ideas, when we started to see the emergence of rock, and when Jim Marshall starting building amps that went up to 11,  AABA eventually lost its place at the top of the tree.

That doesn’t mean it’s obsolete, far from it, as we’ve seen from the contemporary examples above. It’s another structural form, another approach, another tool in the songwriter’s box of tricks. But as always, the form has to match the content, and these days, AABA form is usually reserved for the specific kind of lyric or feel that I’ve outlined above. If you’re working with more reflective material, consider AABA, as for these kinds of songs, it’s often perfect.

 

© Peter Crosbie 2017. All rights reserved.

Published by

Peter Crosbie

Musician, Producer, Mix and Recording Engineer

One thought on “Building songs with AABA: How and why.”

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