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Song Forms
by Rich Scott

Excerpts from Chord Progressions For Songwriters.

This lesson describes the four most commonly used song forms - the blues, AAA, verse/chorus, and AABA. Every songwriter should know these forms inside and out.

Blues

The standard twelve-bar blues form is divided into three four-bar phrases as shown below. Typically, the first two and a half bars of each phrase are devoted to singing, and the last one and a half bars consists of an instrumental solo that repeats, answers, or complements the vocal line. The first phrase is four bars of the “I” chord. The second phrase starts on the “IV” chord and the lyrics from the first phrase are repeated. The third phrase starts on the “V” chord followed by the “IV” chord. This is the answer phrase that lyrically and musically completes the statement that was made earlier. The last two bars of the “I” chord are typically replaced by any number of possible turnarounds (see the separate “Turnarounds” chapter of this book). Notice that the “IV-I” plagal/amen cadences in bars six and seven, as well as, ten and eleven reveal gospel influences.

Phrase 1			
|I / / / |I / / / |I / / / |I / / / |
Statement: Ain’t it hard to stumble when you’ve got no place to fall? [solo]

Phrase 2			
|IV / / / |IV / / / |I / / / |I / / / |
Repetition: Ain’t it hard to stumble when you’ve got no place to fall? [solo]
   
Phrase 3			
|V / / / |IV / / / |I / / / |I / / / ||
Response/Answer: In this whole wide world I’ve got no place at all. [turnaround]

AAA Song Form Cycle

Many folk songs follow the AAA song form comprised of repeated verses that is well suited to storytelling. This is one of the oldest song forms dating back several hundred years to early court composers and musicians that adapted poems to music for royal functions. Several examples of hit songs written in the AAA song form include By The Time I Get To Phoenix (Glen Campbell - 1967), Gentle On My Mind (Glen Campbell – 1968), Maggie May (Rod Stewart – 1971), and The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald (Gordon Lightfoot – 1976). Verses are usually built in four-bar phrases of eight, twelve, sixteen, or twenty-four bars, but can be found in any length to accommodate the specific lyrics of a song. A typical AAA folk song form is shown below.

A			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
Main Theme

A			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
Main Theme Repeated	

A			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
Main Theme Repeated	

Verse/Chorus

Most popular songs from the classic rock period forward are written in the verse/chorus song form that has been around since the mid-nineteenth century (see Oh, Susanna – 1849). The verse/chorus form consists of two or three verses that alternate with a second musical section referred to as the chorus. The chorus usually contains the song’s main message and title. It is differentiated from a bridge in that it sounds complete on a stand-alone basis. This song form has been described as energetic and assertive. As with blues progressions, not all verse/chorus songs are found in the typical 32-bar length. Verses and choruses can be any length, however, most are four, eight, twelve, sixteen, or twenty-four bars long. Examples of the verse/chorus song form built on typical eight-bar verses and choruses include Get Back (Beatles – 1969), Proud Mary (Creedence Clearwater Revival – 1969), Hotel California (Eagles – 1977), and Don’t Stop (Fleetwood Mac – 1977). A typical verse/chorus song form is shown below.

Verse 1			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |

Chorus			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |

Verse 2			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |

Chorus			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |

Verse 3			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |

Chorus			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
Below are several common verse/chorus song form variations. The pre-chorus (also referred to as the climb or lift) is a short section between the verse and the chorus that increases tension by delaying the start of the chorus.
Form #1     Form #2	Form #3	    Form #4
Verse	    Chorus	Verse	    Verse
Chorus	    Verse	Verse	    Pre-Chorus
Verse	    Chorus	Chorus	    Chorus
Chorus	    Verse	Verse	    Verse
Bridge	    Chorus	Chorus	    Pre-Chorus
Chorus	    Chorus	Chorus

AABA Song Form

The AABA song form, favored by Tin Pan Alley songwriters during the first half of the twentieth century, is sometimes referred to as the American popular song form. This is one of the most commonly used forms in both jazz and popular music. The B section is also known as the bridge, middle eight, or release while the complete 32-bar AABA form is referred to as the chorus. Other examples of the AABA form are the standards Blue Moon (1934), Heart And Soul (1938), Somewhere Over The Rainbow (1938), Satin Doll (1953), Misty (1954), and Yesterday (1965). As with blues progressions, not all AABA songs are found in the typical 32-bar length and some songs have added or reordered sections such as in the ABAC (i.e., Here’s That Rainy Day), ABCD (i.e., My Funny Valentine), an ABAB (i.e., Fly Me To The Moon) forms. The typical AABA song form that has been described as elegant is shown below.

A1			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
Main Theme

A2			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
Main Theme Repeated	

B			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
Change of Theme (Contrasting)

A3 			
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
|/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |
Return to Main Theme

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about song forms, take a look at the following lessons:

The "AAA" Song (Muse's Muse)
The AABA Song (Muse's Muse)
Introduction (Muse's Muse)
The Verse-Chorus Song (Muse's Muse)


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