Originally, I was going to pass on the letter Z, because I saw so many Russian tanks displaying this letter, and this was going to be way of protesting their invasion of Ukraine. Next, I decided that Z would be for zither, which is a stringed instrument, but then I came up with something better. It seems like the more I learn about music, the less I actually know about it, as there is always something else left to learn, so today Z is for zilch. Albert Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This post is dedicated to my good friend Fandango, who wrote about the Beach Boys song ‘Surfer Girl’ on Easter, and he wrote that the “Wilson song had the same 32-bar form, also known as the AABA song form, as The Dion & The Belmonts song had.” I responded, “Great choice Fandango, but looking at the lyrics, I don’t see the AABA rhyming pattern.” To which he said, “Well, I wouldn’t know an AABA rhythm pattern if it hit me in the head, but that ‘fact’ came from Songfacts, and I did listen to the Dion & The Belmonts song and there were similarities, so I ran with it.” I did some research and realized that I needed to apologize to my good friend, so I wrote back saying, “My mistake, as I just found out that you are correct. The song ‘Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys is in AABA form, and this has nothing to do with a rhyming pattern.” My bad assumption was that AABA form was comparable to poetry, and it related to a rhyming scheme, something like what is shown below.
I got out of bed
Fell on my head
I wasn’t hurt
And I wasn’t dead
Thus “bed, head and dead” would have the A rhyme and “hurt” was the B rhyme. In music, sometimes you don’t pick the instrument, sometimes the instrument picks you. Since I have never been able to play an instrument, perhaps my talent lies in writing about it, so others can learn along with me.
Since the AABA has nothing to do with rhyming, I have to figure out what these letters stand for, and my best guess is that these letters represent parts or sections of the song. I was not familiar with the 32-bar form of a song, but I have often heard of the 12-bar blues song. I know it when I hear it, but I don’t know it well enough to describe it yet. What I do know is that the beat is a single rhythmic unit of measurement in music. A measure or bar is a section of a piece of music that contains a specific number of beats, depending on the piece’s time signature, which is represented by what looks like a fraction. Bars are made up of beats in a segment of music, so you can look at the beat as being a letter, and a bar as being a word. Since the Time Signature identifies how many beats are in a bar of music and measures help group beats into patterns and organize the music for both the composer and the performer, this helps us count beats. Most songs have 4 beats in a bar, and this is called common time. If a 32-bar song is grouped into four parts or sections by the AABA form, then it is a good bet that each one of these four parts or sections is made up of 8-bars.
The object of the bar-line is to indicate the position of the strong accent, which it should immediately precede. Bar-lines and time-signatures, have no effect on the music, they merely draw attention to what is already there. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, composers started to write music in what was called free-rhythm style, without time signature and bar lines. In order to keep track of where they were, musicians started adding their own bar lines to the music. Composers eventually returned to the practice of incorporating both time signature and bar lines. If the Time Signature is 4/4, the top number in the fraction is telling us that there are four beats, or steady pulse, so this would have four steady pulses per measure. The bottom number tells us what type of note receives one beat, and since this number is also a four, the quarter note is one beat. The rest is just math, as the time signature indicates how many beats there are in each measure and what note counts as one beat.
In music, form designates the pace and manner at which we move through a particular piece. Every piece of music has an overall plan or structure, and this is called musical form and each major section is usually labeled with letters. The first section is the A section and the next piece that is very different from this A section is labeled B, so in our case of AABA form, three of the sections are very similar being repeated sections of music and the third section is different. If the A section deviates slightly, it will be labeled A’ (pronounced “A prime”). The A’ section can also incorporate another variation which is called A” (pronounced “A double prime”), and so on. Sections that are not like A are labeled B or C, and so on. Let’s say that the A section is a verse in a song, and the B section is the refrain which has a different melody, different chord progression, and often a bigger, more complex texture than the verse. Chord progressions are the foundation of harmony in Western music.
Different verses in a song will have the same melody, even when they have different lyrics, so these are often labeled as A sections. Refrains consist of a line or two (often at the end of each verse or the beginning of each chorus), so these could be considered to be B sections in songs. A bridge section is new material that appears late in the song, usually appearing only once or twice, often in place of a verse and usually leading into the refrain and it will start on a different chord from what the verse and chorus were using. The first two A sections (A1 and A2) are verses with similar chords and a similar melody, while the lyrics often change. The following bridge builds a contrast to the A sections using different chords, a different melody and different lyrics, before it transitions to another A. This last A section (A3) is a repeat of the first two A sections, with similar chords and a similar melody. This bridge section is usually 4-8 bars, and it could easily end up being a C section of a song. A verse can be 8 bars, 16 bars, 24 bars, or even 32 bars depending on how the music is structured. If a song has 3 verses or more, each verse will probably be 16 bars, and if a song has 2 verses, it will probably be 24 bars. A hook or chorus is 8 bars. An intro or outro is 4-8 bars. Music forms are not sets of rules that composers are required to follow, but when they exist, they give us important clues that help us understand and appreciate the music.
Music that is composed with repeating structures, or songs that repeat the same basic multi-phrase unit throughout are in strophic form (sometimes abbreviated AAA, because the same basic material, A, is repeated), and the basic unit that is repeated is called a strophe. Strophic form is more common in early rock-and-roll (1950s–1960s) than in the 1970s and beyond. The strophe can be thought of as being the musical equivalent of a verse in poetry. What is important in strophic form is that strictly speaking, the underlying harmony and melody of each strophe or musical block remain the same. The lyrics can change, and most often do. In strophic form (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.
For much of the 20th century, the dominant form in popular music was the AABA or 32-bar form, not the verse/chorus form as it is now. This form started becoming a trend after the first world war and by the mid to late 20’s this had become pretty much the form of choice for popular music. This 32-bar form, also known as the AABA song form, American popular song form and the ballad form, is a song structure commonly found in Tin Pan Alley songs and other American popular music, in the first half of the 20th century. Early rock-and-roll was often composed in AABA form, or 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 strophe to communicate the main lyric and musical ideas of the song, but it adds a contrasting bridge section in the middle. The A sections contain the primary melody we associate with the song while the B section provides contrast and is often called the bridge or middle eight.
Explaining a complicated topic is probably best done with an example, so we are going to look into the Flintstones theme song, which was used from season 3 on. This is one of the most recognizable theme songs ever, and it is an example of a 32-bar song form. It was inspired by Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 (movement 2), which was composed in 1801. This song was composed by William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, and Hoyt Curtin in 1961, and recorded with a big band and the Randy Van Horne Singers. ‘Meet the Flintstones’ conforms harmonically to the rhythm change structure (another name for classic AABA 32-bar form), derived from a chord progression that was contained in George Gershwin’s 1930 jazz standard composition, ‘I Got Rhythm’. In this song ‘Meet the Flintstones’, the first A section (measures 1—8) is immediately repeated (measures 9—16). It is then followed by a contrasting B section (measures 17—24), which, in popular music, is sometimes referred to as the bridge. This is then followed by a return to the A section (measures 25—32).
(A1, Verse 1, Measures 1—8)
Flintstones, meet the Flintstones
They’re the modern Stone Age Family
(A2, Verse 2, Measures 9—16)
From the town of Bedrock
They’re a page right out of history
(B, Bridge, Measures 17—24)
Let’s ride with the family down the street
Through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet
(A3, Verse 3, Measures 25—32)
When you’re with the Flintstones
Have a yabba-dabba-doo time
A dabba-doo time
We’ll have a gay old time
‘I Got Rhythm’ became the perfect vehicle for jazz improvisers. Swing and bebop musicians thrived on the formula of a memorable 32-bar AABA structure and irresistible chord progression, especially Charlie Parker. It’s amazing that ‘Meet The Flintstones’ is basically ‘I Got Rhythm’ with a different tune. Song form terminology is not standardized, and besides the bridge, the B section could also be the middle eight, the Release, or the refrain. This wraps up the 32-bar AABA song structure, and the next time that one of these songs hits me, or Fandango in the head, at least we will have a clue what hit us.
I am not trying to be like Columbo, but there is one last thing that I want to go over, since I mentioned the 12-bar blues song earlier in this post and said that I was not able to explain it, thus I will discuss it now. The term 12-bar refers to the number of measures, or musical bars, used to express the theme of a typical blues song. Nearly all blues music is played with a 4/4-time signature, meaning that there are four beats in every measure or bar and each quarter note is equal to one beat. The 12-bar form consists of three four-bar phrases and the lyrics create a call-and-response effect during the first two phrases with a conclusion during the third phrase. The 12-Bar Blues form is based on a chord progression that takes place over 12 bars, or measures. Simply stated, a chord consists three or more single pitches heard simultaneously, or a group of notes that are played as a basis of harmony. The chord progression uses only the I, IV, and V chords of a key, also called the tonic, subdominant, and dominant, respectively. These three chords get used more than any other chords in a major key, so they are called the primary triads or primary chords. The I chord is built on the first note of the key, while the IV chord is built on the fourth note of the key, and the V chord is built on the fifth note of the key.
Since there are 12 major scales, there are 12 major keys. The key of C major is spelled C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, where the first note is C, the fourth note is F, and the fifth is G. The I, IV, and V chords in the key of C are a C major triad, an F major triad, and a G major triad, but to simplify this, you would say, “The chords are C, F, and G.” The 12 bars are broken up into three groups of four. The progression, and form, of the 12-bar blues song is structured with bars 1-4 containing I – I – I – I, bars 5-8 having IV – IV – I – I and bars 9-12 being V – IV – I – I. The 12-bar blues form of music has influenced a lot of the stuff that I listen to and once you know this, it becomes easy to spot. We create and become the music, and we are, because we all have the music inside of us.
Since I love to end my posts with a song, but it is not easy for me to pick just one 12-bar blues song, as I could go with the Chuck Berry song ‘Johnny B Goode’, or the B. B. King song ‘Rock Me Baby’. I hope that everyone enjoyed my April A to Z posts this year and I decided that I will leave you with the Robert Johnson 12-bar blues song ‘Sweet Home Chicago’.
Written for the April A-Z challenge.