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SongCrafting: Song Form (Part 2)


It may look complicated when you see a song described as “AABA” or something similar, but it’s not.

To start, consider the first melodic segment you hear (not including the intro) as “A.” The next complete melodic section that has a melody different from “A” is designated “B,” the third “C,” etc. Repeats of any melodic segment get the same letter they got the first time.

Count bars or measures starting at the downbeat as follows:

For 4/4 time: 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, etc.

For 3/4 waltz time: 1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3, etc.

When the next melodic segment starts, begin counting at bar one again. Enter the total number of bars in each segment. Be sure to include any instrumental breaks, using “inst.” or a dash or some other shorthand to designate them, along with the number of bars they run. You’ll end up with a diagram that looks like this:

A-8, A-8, B-8, A-8, or

A A B A Here’s a more graphic way to lay it out quickly so you can easily add extra bars and make notes. Each of the slash notes represents a beat (in 4/4 time).

INTRO 1 / / / 2 / / / 3 / / / 4 / / /

A    1 / / / 2 / / / 3 / / / 4 / / /
5 / / / 6 / / / 7 / / / 8 / / /

B    1 / / / 2 / / / 3 / / / 4 / / /

C    1 / / / 2 / / / 3 / / / 4 / / /
5 / / / 6 / / / 7 / / / 8 / / /

INS  1 / / / 2 / / /

Try this exercise with songs on the radio. It will give you a repertoire of basic forms and, more importantly, it will show you a wide range of variations that work, such as extra bars of music between sections and unexpected chord changes. Even though you’ll find the forms falling into predictable patterns, the variations often give the song the sense of surprise that makes it special and exciting.

Note how the form contributes to the memorability of a song by helping it achieve a balance between predictability and surprise, repetition and new information, all within a commercially acceptable time limit.



A Title/hook in first or last line unless there is a repeated chorus with the same melody
A ”
A ”

This is an old form, used commonly in traditional folk music but rarely with good results in contemporary songs, because there is no chorus or bridge to help sustain melodic interest. The title line usually appears in the first or the last line but occasionally, there are two repeated lyric phrases, one in the first and one in the last line. The form can have any number of verses. You might use this form if you had a lot of important lyrical content, but wanted to eliminate the time spent repeating choruses. In the absence of a chorus that “sums up” the song, you’ll want the verses to end with a dramatic kind of “payoff” line.

EXAMPLES: Johnny Cash, “I’ll Walk the Line”; Bette Midler, “The Rose” (Amanda McBroom); “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” (Jimmy Webb), Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin'” The following examples are AAA form melodically, although they contain a chorus lyric that repeats: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA,” “Achy Breaky Heart” (Don Von Tress), Goo Goo Dolls “Iris” (John Rzeznik).

VARIATIONS: There are variations of this form, like Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” which uses a short refrain between every couple of verses. It’s not a standard AAA because the refrain isn’t a part of the basic melodic structure of the verse, and the refrain isn’t a chorus because it’s very short and does not contain the hook line (which is contained in the verse).

Musically, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” is an AAA: although it has a chorus, its melody is the same as the verses. That’s very unusual, and if you had written this song instead of “The Boss” and you weren’t already a successful artist, your publisher probably would have demanded a rewrite. Without a powerful performance, the song would be musically boring.

Another variation of the AAA form is an extension created by repeating part or all of the last line. It’s usually referred to as a “refrain.” This special focus on that line however, makes it important that it be the title line. A short instrumental section or melodic instrumental hook can be used to break up the potential monotony.

CAUTION: You need to be very careful to make the melody as interesting as possible without making it too complex to be remembered easily. This is generally accomplished with a melodic variation in the last two melodic lines of each verse. Hum any of the examples mentioned to see what I mean.


Four 8-bar sections
A Title/hook in first or last line
A Title/hook in first or last line
B New melody and lyric (referred to as the “bridge” or “middle 8”)
A Title/hook in first or last line


A As above
B New melody and lyric
B Repeat B section with or without new lyric or make up a totally new bridge as Sting did in “Every Breath You Take,” (which would make it a “C” section)
A Repeat first A or part of first and part of second A or part of first A and new lyric
A Repeat second A

AABA is a classic song form with a long and popular history. At one time, it was considered the ultimate song form: it’s short, concise, melodically seamless and easy to remember. It is used in all styles of music and all tempos, but most frequently in slow or mid-tempo ballads, because its 32 bars (four 8-bar sections) make for a very short song at fast tempos. Variations have developed which can accommodate faster tempos and the need for more room to tell the story. You’ll find your own as the need arises. Hook/title placement is usually in either the first or last line of the verse but it can occur in both (like “Yesterday”). You’ll hear songs in which the title will also be recapped in the “B” section, although the objective is to go to a totally new place in that section both musically and lyrically.

Note that despite it’s illustrious history, the AABA form is not usually considered the most commercially viable and most of the ones you’ll hear are written by the artists who perform them. When given a choice, most producers will choose to record a song with a repeating chorus.

EXAMPLES: “Yesterday” (Lennon/McCartney), “Just the Way You Are” (Billy Joel), Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” and “Streets of Philadelphia,” Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On”

The varieties of this most popular form provide a maximum of chorus repetition and two or more verses to tell your story.

#1 #2 #3 #4 #5
A Verse A Verse A Chorus A Verse A Verse
B Chorus B Chorus B Verse A Verse B Pre-chorus
A Verse A Verse A Chorus B Chorus C Chorus
B Chorus B Chorus B Verse A Verse A Verse
A Verse C Bridge A Chorus B Chorus B Pre-chorus
B Chorus B Chorus B Chorus C Chorus

Version #1 gives you a maximum verse and chorus repetition. A potential problem is that, if you have a lot of melodic repetition within each verse or chorus, such as an 8-bar section made up of three 2-bar melodies with a slight variation in the fourth 2-bar melody line, you may have too much repetition. In that case, #2 with the substitution of a bridge for the third verse helps to break it up. Version #3 with the chorus first can give you more repetition of the chorus in a shorter time. The choice of whether to start with a chorus depends on the lyric development of the song. If it’s important to generate a dynamic opening to the song, try the chorus first unless you want the verses to build interest and suspense and “set up” the chorus as a “payoff.” Many Œ60s Motown hits used variations of this form. It’s always a good idea to give it a test by switching the verse and chorus positions to see which works best.

#4 with two verses in front is also a much used form. Its workability depends on a very strong lyric continuity between the first and second verses to offset the delay in getting to the chorus. This is a much greater problem in a slow ballad than an up-tempo song because of the additional time it takes to get to the chorus. Every word has to propel the story forward. Repetition of information is deadly. If each of the two verses cover the same information in a different way and don’t depend on each other, this may not be the best form to use since you should have a very important reason to delay the chorus. If you do need to use two verses, you may want to look for some arrangement devices or write a variation of the first verse melody to help sustain musical interest in the second verse. You could also consider using your title in the first line of the chorus to avoid even further delay in reaching the hook line.

Variations of this form opening with three verses (AAABAB or AAABAAB) are rare and the two examples that come to mind; The Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” (Don Henley/Glen Frey) and Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” (Don Schlitz) both have such exceptional lyric continuity that a chorus any earlier would be an unwelcome intrusion.

You’ll also occasionally hear an AABAABB variation, particularly on up-tempo songs. Again, those choices will be different for each song but the guiding principle is that you don’t delay the chorus unless you have another good way to sustain the listener’s interest.

#5 offers the excitement of three different melodic segments. The pre-chorus is the segment that makes the difference here. This form works best in up-tempo dance songs where the three segments go by quickly. Many variations are possible with this form including repeated instrumental versions of any of the segments and instrumental breaks between segments. Here are some examples:
ABC ABCD ABCD, the “D” being a bridge with a new melody, with or without lyrics.

Even when your songs come spontaneously, there is a point at which you need to decide which form to use. Usually writers will come up with a single verse or chorus idea first. After that first flash of inspiration and an exploration of what you want the song to say, you’ll need to have an idea of the type of form you’ll want to use to help you say it more effectively. You may do that unconsciously, as a natural result of having listened to the radio all your life — you just feel where there ought to be a change without really making a conscious evaluation of the reasons. That approach can works just fine, but sometimes it doesn’t, like a beginning guitar player who writes monotonous two chord songs because he only knows two chords instead of learning a few more chords. You have to remember that what you already know or feel about form could be limiting.

Another problem in choosing form by “feel” is the songwriting equivalent of “painting yourself into a corner.” You might lock into a form that, by the time you’ve said what you wanted to say, has resulted in a five-minute song that you really wanted to be three minutes. You’re now faced with a rewrite that might include a restructuring of the whole song. It’s much harder to get out of a corner like that than it is to set it up better in the beginning. Even if you do have to restructure the song because the form you chose didn’t quite work — or you had another idea halfway through the song — the important thing is that you make those decisions on the basis of knowing your options.

So what do you consider in your choice of form? If you’re starting with the music, tempo is a major factor in dictating the form. If it’s an up-tempo song, you may need a form with many sections (like an ABCABCDC or AABABCB) to help you sustain musical interest. If it’s a slow or mid-tempo ballad, you can use either the shorter forms or the longer ones but may have to shorten the sections.

If you’re starting from a lyric, the mood and subject matter will dictate the tempo of the music. In other words, “Genie In A Bottle” wouldn’t work very well as a slow ballad, and the lyric to the Titanic theme “My Heart Will Go On” wouldn’t be as effective in a fast dance song.

Tempo is also determined by the ease with which the lyrics can be sung. The problem usually arises when there are lots of words. If the tempo’s too fast, you may tie knots in your tongue trying to get them all in. If you want a rapid-fire one-syllable-per-8th or 16th note lyric, you have to be extra careful that the words are easy to pronounce and sing together. It’s a good idea to experiment with a metronome by singing the lyric against various tempo settings. Fewer words generally pose fewer problems, but the challenge is to phrase them in an interesting way against the rhythm. There are other tempo variables available, due to the fact that you can have a slow moving lyric and melody over a double-time groove.

Whichever way you choose, once you’ve set the tempo and determined how many lyric lines will be in each segment, you’ve begun to lock yourself into the form. If it takes one minute to get through a verse and chorus, and you’re looking for a three minute song, your options have already shrunk.

You must also consider the amount of lyric needed to tell the story. Though it’s always a good idea to condense, the AAA form gives you the most room to stretch lyrically, even though, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not the best form from a commercial standpoint. Any up-tempo three or four-section form can give you plenty of lyric space with strong musical interest, particularly if you use pre-choruses for new lyric information each time. One-section (AAA) and two-section (ABABAB) forms at fast tempos, though they allow for a maximum of lyric information, can be melodically boring because the melodies repeat so often.

With a spare, condensed lyric, you have many options. You can lay them over either an up-tempo track or a slow ballad and, in either case, have plenty of room to accommodate the individual phrasing styles of different singers. You can use any form and insure a maximum amount of both repetition and musical interest. However, a spare lyric at a slower tempo has more of an obligation to be interesting. You’re making the listener wait for that lyric to unfold, and it had better be worth the wait. The same is true of the music.

Eventually, like anything else, once you’ve worked with these forms, they’ll become second nature to you. You’ll also find that you will get yourself into problematic situations for which you will find creative solutions. A substantial amount of innovation in music is initiated by a need to find a graceful way out of a jam. If you already have a repertoire of solutions, you’re ahead of the game.


SongCrafting: Song Form (Part 1)

The form, also called the “format,” “structure,” or “formula,” is a song’s basic shape or organization. In the ’50s and early ’60s, there were hardly more than three different chord progressions (formulas) for any kind of rock music. If a song didn’t conform to one of them, the odds were heavily against its becoming a hit, so the chord progression formulas perpetuated themselves. The 1-6m-4-5 (eg. C Am F G) progression spawned hundreds of hits like “26 Miles,” “Silhouettes,” and “Earth Angel.” The twelve-bar blues format was also popular as it laid the foundations for rock and roll. (e.g. E- 4 bars/A-2 bars/E-2 bars/B7-1 bar/A-1 bar/E-2 bars)

Those old progressions were familiar enough to make us feel at home with new songs and new artists. They’re predictable: the chords, the words and the tunes are different, but the basic shape of the songs is the same, so we can learn them quickly. Some basic forms and variations will continue as they have for many, many years for a simple reason: they work.

People have an unconscious desire for symmetry, and the repetition of rhyme, melody and form satisfies that need. The repetition of form also sets up a degree of predictability that’s reassuring and comfortable to a listener. It sets up a solid base on which we can create surprises without taking our audience too far into uncharted territory.

The manipulation of form is a very important game to know. Classical musicians learn form as a basic part of their training, and for you, as a popular songwriter, to be able to make conscious choices about form is to be in control of your art. Once you understand the elements of form, what they do and why, you’ll be able to challenge yourself to go beyond the familiar as you write your own songs.

The verse is the major vehicle for conveying the information of the song. Its other major function, both lyrically and musically, is to “set up” (or lead to) the chorus, the bridge, another verse, or a title/hook line. If it doesn’t do one of those things well, it’s not working. Verses have certain basic characteristics:

a. The lyric, from verse to verse, is different or contains substantial new information each time. It may contain elements of previous verses (such as the title line if the song has no chorus).

b. The melody is essentially the same each time we hear it, although there is room for variation and some flexibility to accommodate the lyric. The reason for keeping the melody the same is because that familiarity makes it easier for the listener to focus on the changing lyric.

In contemporary songwriting, the chorus (sometimes incorrectly referred to as a “refrain”) focuses the essence, emotion and meaning of the song into a simple and easily remembered statement, like “I Can Love You Like That,” “Mo Money Mo Problems” or “You Were Meant For Me.” The chorus is also usually the segment of the song often referred to as the “hook,” i.e. the catchiest, most memorable part of the song. While verses usually concentrate on detail, the chorus can make a broader statement that bears more repetition. The basic characteristics of the chorus are:

a. The melody is the same each time we hear it.

b. The song’s title usually appears in the first and/or last line, and possibly more.

c. The lyric is usually the same each time, although you may want to use some new lyric information in subsequent choruses to develop the story. A good example of that would be a “turnaround”: a tactic commonly used in country music, where the “twist” is not revealed until the last chorus.

An example of a song with a chorus that changes every time but still works well is Blessid Union of Souls’ “I Wanna Be There.” It has an eight-line chorus that repeats the title at the beginning of lines 1, 2, 4, 5 and 8, with the rest of the chorus lyric changing in every verse. A title repeated that many times guarantees that a listener has something to sing along with, and can easily learn. It also allows the writers to change other information in the chorus without worrying about losing their listeners.

Even though there may be reasons for you to change the lyric, there is a very practical reason for you to keep at least a substantial part of it the same: you want listeners to learn your song quickly and easily. If they hear the same chorus three times during the song, they can go away singing it. If you change all or even some of the lyric and music on each chorus, you make it harder for the listener to remember. If you have information in the verses that you want people to think about, the chorus should let a listener relax with its simplicity to allow the verse information to sink in. Be aware that, in a song, the listener’s attention is divided between the lyric and the music, making it extra important to retain simplicity. So even when you feel you need to change the chorus lyric, a substantial amount of it – particularly the title line – should remain the same and be repeated every time.

Also called a “release” or “break,” the bridge provides a variety of important functions in a song. Musically, it helps to relieve the “boredom factor,” and for that reason, it’s usually placed about 2/3 of the way into the song, (After the second chorus in a verse/chorus form) which is normally when people may begin to tire of melodic repetition. The bridge zaps the listener back to attention and helps them to refocus on the song, and can add drama in many other ways. Musically, you can use any of the devices used to achieve contrast described in the “Song Dynamics” segment that we’ll get to later.

The bridge can also be purely instrumental. The melody should sound as different as possible without sounding like it belongs in a different song. Lyrically, it offers you the opportunity to change gears. You can reiterate the philosophy of the song in a whole new way by changing the “person” (going from “they” or “you” to “I” for example), going from specific imagery to something more abstract (or vice versa), or using it as an “aside” or for outside commentary. The basic characteristics of a bridge are:

a. Its melody is different from the verse and the chorus, although occasionally a portion of the verse or chorus melody may be used in the bridge.

b. It usually doesn’t contain the title and/or hook, but that’s certainly not the law. That decision may depend on how many times you have repeated the title/hook in the song. If you haven’t done it much, it might be smart to use it again.

c. It usually occurs only once in the song, but it can be repeated in an extended verse/chorus form. Two things prevent that kind of bridge from sounding like a chorus:

1) it usually doesn’t contain the title and/or hook, and

2) if it is constructed correctly, its melody leads back into the verse or chorus.

d. It is rarely over eight bars long. After all, it’s supposed to be a diversion, not a whole piece in itself. It may be two bars or two lines or whatever is needed to fulfill the function of breaking up the song.

e. It is entirely optional.

Pre-choruses are melodic segments that are different from the verses, chorus or bridge. They are known by many other names (climb, lift, channel, B-section, pre-hook, setup), all of which give you clues about their function. They’re used extensively in contemporary music – primarily in pop and R&B – although they’re currently gaining popularity in country/pop. Producers seem to favor pre-choruses to help create an additional level of interest to keep a song exciting, particularly in up-tempo or dance songs where extra length and faster tempo make a straight verse/chorus form feel too repetitive.

When you first hear a pre-chorus, it almost sounds as if it is going to be the chorus, until you hear the chorus that follows. It should increase the tension to the point where there is a great sense of release going into the chorus. Some examples of hits that use a pre-chorus are:

EXAMPLES: “End Of The Road,” Boyz II Men (written by Kenneth Edmonds, Antonio Reid, Daryl Simmons); “Any Man Of Mine,” Shania Twain (Robert John Lange, Shania Twain); “I Can Love You Like That,” All-4-One, John Michael Montgomery (Steve Diamond, Jennifer Kimball, Maribeth Derry), “Every Day Is A Winding Road” Sheryl Crow (Sheryl Crow, Jeff Trott, Brian Macleod)

The basic characteristics of pre-choruses are:

a. They directly precede the chorus.

b. They usually precede each chorus, but may be dropped after the first couple of times if you can find a way (musically) to get back to the chorus without it.

c. Lyrics can be the same each time or different. Melodies are the same each time.

d. The length varies, like the bridge, from one line to four. Pre-choruses usually last no longer than eight bars.

e. Musically, they build tension to increase the feeling of release in the chorus.