When we write something down, we adopt a format. Phrases, sentences, paragraphs. It helps to give it an understandable form. The same applies when we speak.
We speak in similar ways, using various methods like rests or changes in tone to give what we are saying a format. The same can be applied to music. Although there are many different formats, there’s one common format in modern music. That is what is known as AABA. But what is AABA form in music?
What are Form and Format?
Music has a structure and a format in the same way that the written word has. Just as you wouldn’t end a sentence halfway through, you would not stop a verse of a song halfway through either.
This is one of the most popular formats for writing music from the early 1900s. It is a format with a very predictable set of sequences. Today we find it regularly in Rock, Pop, and Jazz.
Let’s look at how to construct the AABA format. In its most common form, it revolves around a pattern of 32 bars. These are divided into four segments of eight bars each. Each particular segment is given an indicator.
The first eight bars could be named ‘A.’ As they are a verse and usually repeated, they are also labeled ‘A.’ That will give you the first part of the format as ‘AA.’ That is the first ‘A’ repeated with exactly the same, another ‘A.’
Then the Bridge usually comes. There are also eight bars in this segment. As this is lyrically and musically different from the verse, ‘A,’ we identify this as ‘B.’ We now have ‘AAB.’ To complete the format, we return to the verse we labeled ‘A.’ Another eight bars that give us the complete construction of ‘AABA.’
What is the Form?
We use the term “form” to understand the structure of a musical piece and how it is organized. A good way of doing that is to first identify what parts of the music repeat themselves. This can be done at various levels.
At the smallest level, you have the beats in a bar. If there are four in the bar, that will give you a standard 4/4. Of course, we might be more concerned with the larger repetitions. We have already considered the verse and the bridge.
It is how often these segments, verse and bridge repeat, that gives the song its form. Not all songs are the same, of course. Some don’t have bridges. Likewise, some may not even have what you would call a recognized chorus. But they will all have a format of some description.
Exceptions to the Rule
We are talking about some basic music theory and organization here. It often seems that music organization was only created so that we could find exceptions to the rules we have all agreed on. Needless to say, there are plenty, even in the form and format. Therefore, when we ask, “What is AABA form in music?” we need to keep these exceptions in mind.
Sometimes the segments that we label ‘A’ and ‘B’ etc. don’t always have the same melody, harmonies, and at times even chord structures. Musicians and sometimes singers like some artistic license to be able to change things around.
Sometimes you will find some extra chords applied as a filler. But it still fits within the basic 8-8-8-8-bar form, so we still recognize the format. The ‘A’ section you will recognize as a repeat even though it might be slightly different. The ‘B’ section will be different enough to be able to recognize it.
The changing of a key is something that can be used. This might especially occur in the final ‘A’ segment of the ‘AABA’ pattern. The Beach Boys were known to do this. A strict ‘AAB’ pattern, then the final ‘A’ would see a key change. That is acceptable; it still conforms to the ‘AABA’ format. The format has remained the same even though the key has changed.
Is it always 32 bars?
The 32 bar format is one of the most common we see, but it can vary. Some songs have formats but don’t follow the 32 bar pattern at all. You may find the ‘AABA’ format is lengthened in some areas.
For example, you could have an ‘AABA’ format but with an extra ‘B’ and an extra ‘A’ added to the end. This would give you an ‘”AABABA” form. There is no formal chorus in the ‘AABA’ format, but you often find an alternative that provides a recognizable hook.
A Refrain is Helpful
Some songs in the AABA format have no chorus; some lines are repeated to create a refrain. This might be at the end of the song, as is the case with Bob Dylan and the “Times They Are a Changin’.” Or sometimes at the beginning with songs like “Scarborough Fair.”
We could not end this piece without referring to Jazz. Does the AABA format apply to jazz where musicians are all improvising their socks off? Actually, it does to a certain extent.
You will often find music where the Jazz boys follow the patterns for the melody, playing it twice. This gives you ‘AA.’ You will find that it is followed by a bridge and then back to the eight bars of melody again, giving you the ‘AABA’ form.
One classic example
From a master of jazz is “Anthropology” by Charlie Parker. Of course, after this period of lulling you into a false sense of order, all improvisational hell is let loose. Nevertheless, it does follow a basic format that is recognizable to start with.
Learning music theory can be difficult. However, there are many good publications to help you along the way. So check out Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert, The Young Musician’s Guide to Songwriting, or the excellent The 30-Day Music Writing Challenge.
Want to Learn More about Music Theory?
Our experts can help you improve your skills and understanding. Check out our helpful articles on A Guide To The Chromatic Scale, What Is Theme And Variation In Music, 7 Best Music Theory Apps, Best Apps and Games for Learning to Sight Read Music, and What Are Accidentals In Music for more useful information.
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What Is AABA Form In Music – Final Thoughts
In its basic format, the AABA system is a much-used 32 bar form incorporating four segments of eight bars each. It first came to prominence as a style after the First World War. It remained as the form of choice until the early to mid-60s.
Was there a moment where the importance of the AABA system changed a little? Don’t relegate this format to the museum just yet. The Beatles made good use of it on songs like “Hey Jude” and “The Long and Winding Road”, and George’s “Something.” Others have also.
No coincidence that other formats developed
Prompted by Marshall, who announced to the rest of the world, forget what you’re doing, this is Rock music. Big Jim not only changed the sound of Rock music from his little shop in West London like no one else could have. He also contributed to a change in musical style and format.
But that is another story.
Until next time, let your music play?