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Exploring the AABA Form in Songwriting

The song form known as AABA was the form of choice in the first half of the 20th century. It's still used today in songwriting, but has fallen off in popularity. However, it's good to know this form because you never know when it'll be the perfect fit for the song you are writing.

Examining the AABA form

In the AABA form, the A sections are the versesections, and the B section is a bridge. In other forms, B represents whatever section comes second in the song. The title is usually placed either in the first or the last line of each verse and is in the same place each time it comes around.

The bridge is a section that provides a contrast to the verse sections by using different chords, a different melody, and sometimes a shift in the focus in the lyrics. It provides an interlude between verses, which can be very effective if it's done well.

In the classic AABA song, the A sections are usually 8 bars in length and constitute the main melody of the song. Each of the three A sections has a different set of words, although the last verse section can be a repeat of the first, as is the case in the song "Monday, Monday" performed by The Mamas and The Papas (written by John Phillips). In fact, all three verses can be the same, as in John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" But these are exceptions to the rule and you won't find many songs that repeat verses like that. Songwriters usually compose three separate sets of lyrics for the verse sections of the AABA form.

The AABA form continues to be used today in many styles of music — country, gospel, Christian, pop, jazz, theatre, and film — but not as often as it once was. The form can be used to provide a very effective emotional satisfaction: The first two verses establish the main melody of the song, and then when the bridge is sung, it provides a different feeling because of its contrasting quality. Thus, the return to the last verse provides an emotionally satisfying return to what was presented before.

There are always exceptions to every rule — that's what makes life (and songs) interesting. Some AABA songs don't introduce the title in the first or last line of each verse. "The Christmas Song" (written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells) is an example of this. Everyone knows this song ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. . . ."), but the title, "The Christmas Song," does not appear in the lyrics at all (because the title describes what the song is about and it's not a phrase that would sound good in the song itself.)

Another example of a different placement for the title is George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin's famous song "I Got Rhythm." The title appears at the beginning of the first verse, and then gets transformed in the next two verses. In the second verse it becomes "I got daisies," and in the third verse, it's "I got starlight." This is a great trick, the same one used by songwriter Jimmy Webb in "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." Take note of it — you may want to do the same thing in a song of your own someday.

A real classic, "Over the Rainbow," was sung by Judy Garland in the film The Wizard of Oz. This is a great example of an AABA song with an added section at the end called a coda. The verses have a flowing feeling to them with the expansive quality of the words ("Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly"). This is perfectly contrasted by the quick movement of words in the bridge ("Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops"). The bridge provides a perfect interlude between the second and third verses.

The following list includes songs written in the AABA song format. Table 1 shows some great songs for you to explore in order to discover more about the form.

Table 1: AABA Song Examples

Song title

Songwriter(s)

Singers/Performers

"Something"

George Harrison

The Beatles

"Blue Moon"

Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart

Chris Issak, Willie Nelson, and many artists

"Save the Last Dance for Me"

Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman

The Drifters

"Just the Way You Are"

Billy Joel

Billy Joel

"Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

Carole King, Gerry Goffin

The Shirelles

The extended AABA form

Beginning in the 1960s, some songwriters began using an extended version of the AABA form, called the AABABA. This is merely the AABA form with an additional bridge and a final verse. This final verse may be a repeat of a previous verse or even just a part of one of the previous verses.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney's song "Yesterday" uses an extended AABA form. The title appears as the first line in each verse except for Verse 2, where the word suddenly is used instead. The title also appears in the last line of each verse, and in the last line of the bridge, and the final verse is just a repeat of Verse 3.

This AABABA form is also used in other Beatles songs (written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney), including the following:

  • "I'll Follow the Sun"
  • "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
  • "Hey Jude"
  • "Hard Day's Night"
  • "Long and Winding Road"
  • "I Call Your Name"

Things get a little more complicated in a few of McCartney's songs. "Michelle," for example, has a form of AABABABA. The fourth verse is not sung but is instead played as an instrumental. The words in the second verse are repeated in the third and fifth verses, so all these verses are the same. All three bridges have different words, however. This is a very unusual and innovative formal structure. Because the formal structures in many of the songs written by McCartney and Lennon are very advanced, you can get a lot out of studying them. (Don't you wish your studies in school were this much fun?)

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