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Songwriting Elegance Through Song Form - The "AAA" Song
By Mary Dawson - 05/28/2007 - 11:10 PM EDT

Let's say that you just "blew your wad" on a whole new wardrobe of beautiful, expensive designer clothes. You have just brought them home and now are about to put them away until you can show them off to your friends.

Question: Would you simply toss the clothes into a heap on your closet floor….or would you carefully display them on padded hangers where they can be seen, admired and coordinated with each other to create stunning ensembles?

Hopefully, this question is really a "no-brainer." Nobody with any sense would simply toss their expensive investment into a heap where no one -- not even the owner -- could see and appreciate the beauty of the garments. The same logic applies to the matter of song form. Why would you as a songwriter choose not to display your carefully crafted lyrics and music in the most complimentary and effective manner? Song form is that essential part of the songcrafting process that provides the "hanger" to exhibit your song at its best.

In my last article, we identified some basic components of songs -- the hook, the verse, the chorus and the bridge. In our next several sessions, we will look at some major song forms that have dominated commercial or hit music for the last century. There are, to be sure, many other ways to construct songs, but three forms continue to keep turning up on lists of "greatest hits." Whether or not listeners are consciously aware that the songs they love have a specific form, they have, nonetheless, been conditioned to subconsciously connect with songs that use these major song forms. If our objective as songwriters is to communicate our songs to the ears and hearts of millions of listeners, then we MUST speak the language that listeners understand. Song form is the framework for that language.

The first of the three major commercial song forms is commonly called the AAA Song Form and is the simplest and earliest of the three. Remember: When we refer to any song form, "A" always stands for a verse. So, the AAA Song Form is simply a series of verses linked together. Each verse is complete in itself, but is part of a larger whole -- very much like links in a chain. The AAA Song can also be called the "one-part song" which means that it has only one section that repeats musically, but differs lyrically in each verse. The technical name for this song form is the -- strophic song form -- the Greek word, strophe, simply meaning "verse."

The beginnings of the AAA Song go back several centuries to early court composers and musicians who set poems to music for performance at royal functions. Because the song form was so simple and repetitive, it also became part of early children's rhymes and songs. Any child who has learned and sung, Mary Had a Little Lamb, has learned the AAA Song Form -- whether he/she realizes it or not! And, of course, Girl and Boy Scout camps would be literally handicapped without the AAA song form that has produced such campfire hits as Kum Bay Ya and Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

As the last title demonstrates, it makes no difference how many verses the AAA Song may contain or how long each verse may be -- it will never have chorus or a bridge. But one thing it will have is a hook and that hook (which is usually also the title) will almost always appear at the same strategic, parallel place in each A section -- often in the first or last line of the verse.

The AAA Song is the essence of simplicity and memorability. Because of this, it had a phenomenal resurgence during the 1960's and 70's as folk singers like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell and others used it to create songs that made an indelible imprint on American Music. Consider the immortal Dylan classic, Blowin' in the Wind. Each "A" section or verse begins with a series of questions answered by the hook which -- in this song -- concludes the verse and is part of the refrain. You will remember that the refrain occurs in the same place in every verse of this song and is definitely the most memorable part.

The AAA song is also an ideal song form for telling a story. Consider the genius, 1970's Jim Webb hit, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, which uses the AAA Song Form to tell a "split-screen" story of a man leaving his girlfriend. He starts out from California and as the song progresses, each verse finds him in a different city further west while the girlfriend goes about her daily routine and begins to realize, little by little, that this time the guy really meant it and is definitely gone! By the Time I Get to Phoenix uses the AAA Song at its best and fullest potential, and the hit that resulted for Jim Webb and Glen Campbell proves again that simplicity can be extremely effective if it is "elegant simplicity!"

Of course, the recurring music of the AAA Song can make it overly repetitious and even downright boring if it is not developed well. Here are some techniques to consider to keep listener interest:

1) In producing your demo, you might start the song with very simple instrumentation -- perhaps just a guitar or piano and vocal. Then at the second A, you could add some strings or percussion. Continue to add instruments to the arrangement at each A section as the song builds to the end.

2) You might consider changing keys between a couple of the later verses. Modulating the song up a half step between A sections gives the song a forward movement and makes the listener feel as if "we are getting somewhere." This technique is especially effective when the song tells a story.

OK, now it's your turn! Why not try writing an AAA song -- or several of them? Remember to strategically place your hook at the beginning or the end of each A section. Perhaps the next great resurgence of the AAA Song Form will begin with you!

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