AABA Form: What it is, how it works.

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. In those cases, what can you do? In attempting to answer this, someone had 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 seen above, we’ve tried changes in tempo and melody, instrumental interludes, lots of lyrics … but none of those are enough to help us escape 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.

 

 

 

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.