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Songwriting Elegance Through Song Form: The AABA Song
By Mary Dawson - 06/08/2001 - 11:29 PM EDT

© 2001, Mary Dawson.

She is elegant, sophisticated and lovely! Her name is AABA and she is the third of the three "Sister Song Forms" that have dominated American Music for the last century or so. We have already met the other two members of the family.

The AAA Song, is the natural, conservative sister -- also known as the "one-part song form" -- simply a series of verses containing identical music, but different lyrics in each. The AAA Song is the eldest of the three sisters and was used for some of the earliest songs ever written -- songs such as narrative ballads, nursery rhymes and folk songs. The Verse-Chorus Song is the flamboyant, energetic sister, whose hook-containing chorus always announces her arrival and calls every listener to attention. But AABA, is the elegant one -- the sister who sweeps into the room with grace and style and literally causes "jaws to drop" with awe at her beauty and impact.

Like the AAA song, the AABA begins with two verses that have identical music but different lyrics. These A sections, then, are followed by a B or Bridge section that is different both musically and lyrically and clearly contrasts with the A sections. The B section is transitional and leads into a final A section which, again, has the same melody but different lyrics than the first two A sections.

One of the most beautiful examples of the AABA Song is Somewhere Over the Rainbow, written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for the 1930's film, The Wizard of Oz. In fact, if you remember this song, you will also remember the template for the AABA Song Form. All the A Sections start with the hook/title, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

1st A: Somewhere Over the Rainbow way up high…
2nd A: Somewhere Over the Rainbow skies are blue…
B Section: Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far
behind me……
(different music/different lyrics from the A's)
3rd A: Someday Over the Rainbow bluebirds fly…

Like the AAA Song, the AABA has no separate chorus, so the hook/title usually appears at the beginning of each A section (as in Somewhere Over the Rainbow) or at the end of each A (as in What I Did for Love and Saving All My Love for You)-- or sometimes both. Since the B section is different and contrasting, the hook does not appear in this section, but the B section serves as a very strategic place to make a musical/lyrical "point" and to bring the listener back one more time to the hook/title in the last A section.

The AABA Song Form developed during the first part of the 20th Century -- especially during the Golden Days of Tin Pan Alley songsmiths like Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin, who wrote primarily for musical theater and later for films. Usually, these songs had 32 bars (eight bars in each section) and were often preceded by an introduction, that simply allowed the singer to move to the center of the stage where he/she would present the song.

The AABA Song Form is a favorite of experienced music composers because it allows the melody to flow with uninterrupted and effortless continuity. Unlike the AAA Song that concludes at the end of every verse -- or the Verse-Chorus that has a melodic break at the chorus, the AABA Song flows easily from one section to the other. The repetition of the A sections, contrasted only by the Bridge or B section, allows the song to build to a climax that is extremely pleasing to the listener's ear.

Although this Song Form means more work for the lyricist -- in that there are three major A sections that will require development in content using the same cadence and rhyme scheme -- the AABA is a song structure worth mastering. If you have not attempted to write in this form, here are some suggestions for developing the lyrical content:

1. Remember that as in any song, the goal is to showcase the hook/title in the
most effective way possible. That means that the hook must appear in the same place in each A Section, which will usually be either the first line or the last line. Every other line of lyric should point to and clarify the all-important Core Idea that is summarized by the hook/title.

2. Just as in any other form of writing, it is essential to have an outline that will develop your idea clearly and concisely. Think ahead and plan exactly what you want to say in each A section to develop your idea. If you have a major point to make about the hook, save that for the B section which will contrast and be set apart from the rest of the song.

3. Because of its flow and uninterrupted development, the AABA Song Form lends itself beautifully to one of the following formulas:

Problem-Solution Formula

1) In the first A section identify the problem
2) In the second A section, elaborate on the problem -- what caused it?
3) In the B section (which is, as we have mentioned, a great place to make a point) discuss the solution to the problem
4) In the final A section, talk about where we go from here. This is an important place to offer hope, so that no matter how desperate or serious the problem, we don't make the song overly depressing

Vignette Formula

This formula makes use of the very effective technique of "word pictures" that will suggest visual images to the listener's imagination and help them stay interested in and focusing on the hook idea. You can develop these vignettes along a "timeline" -- where the first scene can be in the past……the second in the present…..and the third in the future. Or you may decide to start with a present tense snapshot and then "flashback" into the past. Or you can simply make the vignettes unrelated to each other except in the way they arrive at or develop the hook. Again, be sure to use the B Section to make your point and "bring home" the core idea of the song.

You have now met all the lovely ladies in the Song Form Family, but it is not enough to "meet them." If you are a serious songwriter who hopes to reach millions of listeners, you need to develop a deep and intimate relationship with each one.

You will eventually fall in love with them all!

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