VIII. Popular Music

AABA form and strophic form

Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • consists only of repeated . Its form would be abbreviated as AAA.
  • , also known as 32-bar song form, consists of a twice-repeated strophe (AA), followed by a contrasting (B), followed by another repetition of the initial strophe (A).
  • AABA and strophic form were common especially in older pop music (1960s and earlier).
  • AABA and strophic form both have strophe sections as the main section, which features the primary lyrical and musical content of the song.

Chapter Spotify Playlist

Strophic form

Songs that repeat the same basic multi-phrase unit throughout are in (sometimes abbreviated AAA, because the same basic material A is repeated), and the basic unit that is repeated is called a . Strophic form is more common in early rock-and-roll (1950s–1960s) than in the 1970s and beyond.

For an example of a strophic song, consider “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins.

This song contains multiple , all of which have the same basic underlying music. Though the instrumentation and the lyrics change, the section beginning at 0:19 contains the same – or, at least, very similar – melody, harmony, and phrase structure as the sections that begin at 0:58, 1:37, and 1:54. Listening a bit more closely, we can hear a similar, but abbreviated, version of the same patterns at the opening of the song. Even the instrumental sections at 0:41 and 1:21 have the same underlying pattern, just a different melody in the form of a guitar solo. The entire song is a repetition of this same basic pattern, or slight variations of it, modeled at 0:19–0:41.

Example 1 is a bird’s-eye-view sketch of the form of “Blue Suede Shoes” to follow as you listen:

timestamp section abbreviation
0:00 strophe 1 A
0:19 strophe 2 A
0:41 instrumental strophe A
0:58 strophe 3 A
1:21 instrumental strophe A
1:37 strophe 1 (slightly varied) A
1:54 strophe 4 A

Example 1. "Blue Suede Shoes" is in strophic form.

While “Blue Suede Shoes” is composed entirely of , it is important to note that strophic songs can also contain so-called  such as , , and . An example of a strophic song with auxiliary sections is “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” by Patsy Montana & The Prairie Ramblers. Follow the form chart in Example 2 as you listen to this song, and notice that the intro/outro do not change the fundamental strophic form significantly.

timestamp section lyrics
0:00 intro [instrumental] Yodel-ey…
0:20 strophe 1 I wanna be a cowboy's sweetheart…
1:02 instrumental strophe
1:32 strophe 2 I wanna ride Old Paint…
2:17 strophe 1 I wanna be a cowboy's sweetheart…
2:49 outro Yodel-ey…

Example 2. "I Want to Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart" is in strophic form with auxiliary modules.

However, if a song has more than one main musical idea other than strophes and auxiliary sections, it is not strophic, but AABA form, which is discussed below, or , discussed in the next chapter.

32-bar song form (AABA)

Another formal structure that is more common in early rock-and-roll is , also called 32-bar song form because of some of the features of earlier “Golden Age” songs that make use of this structure. AABA form, like strophic form, relies on the to communicate the main lyric and musical ideas of the song, but add in a contrasting section in the middle.

As an example, listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles.

After a brief introduction, the song begins with two strophes. However, where “Blue Suede Shoes” followed with an instrumental strophe, The Beatles move to a at 0:52. This new section builds tension by contrasting and withholding the main strophe theme before it returns at 1:11. Note that the song begins and ends with the , and the strophe contains the title lyrics. It also, for many people, is the more memorable part of the song. Thus, the strophe is still the primary section. But now it has a secondary section to add interest and tension, the bridge. (And an auxiliary section, the , to help get the song off the ground.)

timestamp section abbreviation
0:00 intro I
0:08 strophe 1 A
0:29 strophe 2 A
0:51 bridge B
1:11 strophe 3 A
1:33 bridge B
1:53 strophe 3 A

Example 3. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is in AABA form, with a typical repeat of BA.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a typical AABA song in that it does not just have four sections, AABA. AABA songs almost always have a complete AABA cycle, followed by either another complete AABA cycle, or an incomplete cycle (typically BA). Once the first AABA cycle is complete, there tend not to be any new lyrics, only repetition of the whole or the end of the main cycle.

Sections of AABA and strophic forms

The pop form terminology used here and throughout OMT is based on the research of Jay Summach.[1]

Strophe (A)

The primary function of a section is to present the primary lyric and musical content and to provide a point at which the song might satisfyingly end.

In (AAA), strophes are the only core sections, and thus do not participate in a functional progression. Functional progression takes place on the phrase level within the strophe. The strophe sections themselves tend to set a stanza of text each with music that is self-contained and harmonically closed.

In , the strophe’s functions—holding primary music/text and providing harmonic stability— are elevated through contrast with the bridge section. In AABA songs, strophe function often involves the prolongation of tonic harmony. Strophes tend to be longer in strophic songs than in AABA songs.

In both forms, srdc is by far the most common internal pattern for strophes. For three-part strophes, the 12-bar blues progression is the most common pattern.

Bridge (B)

Bridges share many traits with the continuation function of classical form. tend to play a transitional role (neither the point from which to depart, nor the point of arrival) in the formal cycle. This generates heightened expectation for the return of A, by contrasting with A and temporarily withholding it. A bridge section “must be followed by [the primary section] in order for its function to be satisfied.”[2] Bridge sections tend to emphasize non-tonic harmonies and commonly end on dominant harmony.

As the next chapter discusses, in , bridge sections are more free to contrast verse and chorus sections without a strong need to build expectation for the return of the chorus than in AABA form. In an AABA song, building expectation for the return of the strophe and arriving on dominant harmony in preparation of that return are essential to bridge function.

Introduction (I)

sections transition from the unmetered silence that precede the song to the musical activity of the first core section. They tend to be short and untexted/instrumental, and tend to present musical material from one or more core sections to come. This is often accomplished by the building up of musical material, perhaps through layering (e.g., one instrument at a time) or through a more generic building of energy.

Occasionally intros include non-core material. Such intros often correspond to an outro based on the same material, and together they create a “bookend” effect. It is also possible to have multiple intro sections in a row, with each based on different music.[3]

Outros (O) and Codas (X)

function as a transition from song back to silence, and thus decrease energy. Often this is accomplished in the recording studio by way of a fadeout. When an outro section is present, it is almost always based on material from the last core section that preceded it. Otherwise, outros tend to draw material from the intro, creating a “bookend” effect (as in “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” above). Outros exhibit .

A is a song-ending section that presents new material—in other words, an outro not based on music previously heard. Like outros, codas exhibit .

Muse’s “Resistance” is useful for distinguishing between these two terms, since it has both a coda and an outro. The coda, which contains new musical and narrative material, begins at 4:05, following the final chorus. This new section, which brings something of a conclusion (if an open-ended one) to the narrative, gives way to a song-ending outro at 4:54. Aside from the clear change in content and texture at 4:54, the outro is recognizable as an outro (versus a coda) by the return of material from the introduction, creating the “bookend” effect.

Standout passages within sections

Refrain

A is a lyric-invariant passage within a section that is otherwise lyric-variant. A refrain is too short to form its own section—typically a phrase or less.

A refrain is most often the last line or so of a section’s text (), and occasionally the material at the beginning of a section’s text (). “Cathedrals” by Jump Little Children contains a head refrain. Each strophe begins with the same line: “In the shadows of tall buildings…”. “Blue Suede Shoes” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” each discussed at the beginning of this chapter, both contain tail refrains at the ends of their strophes, emphasizing the title lyrics.

Further Reading
  • Summach, Jason. 2012. “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89.” Ph.D. diss., New Haven: Yale University.
Assignments
  • Worksheet on AABA and Strophic Form (.pdf, .docx). Asks students to identify formal sections and any variations to the form. Worksheet playlist

  1. Jason Summach, “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2012).
  2. Jason Summach, “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2012), 79.
  3. Dexy’s Midnight Runners’s “Come On Eileen” contains several different intro sections with different musical content.

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Open Music Theory by Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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