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Thirty-two-bar form

File:Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz trailer.jpg
"Over the Rainbow" (Arlen/Harburg) exemplifies the 20th-century popular thirty-two-bar song.[1]

The thirty-two-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 popular music, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. A standard thirty-two-bar form song or song section contains four 8-measure sections, with the third section (also known as the "B" section, "the Bridge", "Middle Eight" or "the Release") being musically and lyrically different than the other three sections (known as the "A" sections, or, in modern terminology, "the verse").

"In this form, the musical structure of each chorus is made up of four eight bar sections, in an AABA pattern... Thousands of Tin Pan Alley tunes share this scheme and Adorno is quite justified in arguing that to listeners of the time it would be totally predictable."[2]

Examples for the thirty-two-bar AABA form include "Deck the Halls":[3]

A: Deck the hall with boughs of holly! Fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.
A: 'Tis the season to be jolly. Fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.
B: Don we now our gay apparel. Fa-la-la fa-la-la la la la.
A: Troll the ancient Yuletide carol. Fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.

In the refrain, the A section or verse forms the main melody and is harmonically closed with a cadence on the "home" or tonic chord. The B section or middle 8 is also often referred to as the bridge and sometimes as the release.[4] In it a simple modulation is commonly found and at its end it remains harmonically open, often ending on the unresolved dominant chord of the home key and so preparing for the return of the verse.[5]


Though the thirty-two-bar form resembles the ternary form of the operatic da capo aria, it did not become common until the "late teens" of the 20th century. It became "the principal form" of American popular song around 1925–1926,[7] with the AABA form consisting of the chorus or the entirety of many songs in the early 20th century.[8]

Some Tin Pan Alley songs composed as numbers for musicals precede the main tune with what was called a "sectional verse" in the terminology of the early 20th century (and is different from the modern usage of the term "verse" to refer to the "A" section of the thirty-two-bar form). This introductory section is usually sixteen bars long and establishes the background and mood of the number, and is musically undistinguished in order to highlight the attractions of the main tune. The entire main thirty-two-bar section was called the "refrain" or "chorus" in early-20th-century terminology (as opposed to the modern usage of the term "chorus", which refers to the verse-chorus form). The sectional verse is often omitted from modern performances, and thus the refrain is often the only section remembered and heard.

The thirty-two-bar form was often used in rock in the 1950s and '60s, after which verse-chorus form became more prevalent. Examples include:

Though more prevalent in the first half of the 20th century, many contemporary songs show similarity to the form, such as "Memory", from Cats, which features expanded form through the B and A sections repeated in new keys.[4] Songwriters such as the Brill Building and Lennon-McCartney also used modified or extended thirty-two-bar forms, often modifying the number of measures in individual or all sections. The Beatles ("From Me to You" (1963) and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (1963)), like many others, would extend the form with an instrumental section, second bridge, break or reprise of the introduction, etc., and another return to the main theme. Introductions and codas also extended the form. In "Down Mexico Way" "the A sections … are doubled in length, to sixteen bars—but this affects the overall scheme only marginally".[9] Compound AABA form found in The Police's "Every Breath You Take" (1983), features a thirty-two-bar section, a contrasting bridge and then a repeat of the thirty-two-bar section, making a compound of ABA and AABA form: AABACAABA: a form of rondo. Other examples include:

Middle eight

See also: Bridge (music)

In music theory, middle 8 or bridge refers to the B section of a thirty-two-bar form.[11] It is often a passage from the tonic into the dominant, often subdominant,[12] or a major or minor key (see modulation (music)).[11]

This section has a significantly different melody from the rest of the song and usually occurs after the second chorus in a song (typically, a song in 32 bar form consists of first verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, middle 8, chorus).[citation needed] Such sections often consist of new chords, but also frequently just alternate between two chords. It is called a middle 8 because it happens in the middle of the song and the length is generally eight bars.

Middle 8s are often quieter than the main song, which contrasts with solos, which are generally more energetic. In slower songs, however, a middle 8 can be used to generate energy. By adding a powerful upbeat middle 8, musicians can add a great hook for an end chorus and finale.

A notable example of the middle eight is the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night", wherein the middle eight is sung by Paul McCartney.


  1. ^ Jazz: College Edition: Chapter 2: Jazz Form and improvisation | Jazz: W. W. Norton StudySpace
  2. ^ Middleton, Richard (1990), Studying Popular Music, Philadelphia: Open University Press, p. 46, ISBN 0-335-15275-9 .
  3. ^ Boyd, Jack (1991). Encore!: A Guide to Enjoying Music, p.31. ISBN 978-0-87484-862-5. "It is sometimes called ballad form because so many of our popular ballads, middle-of-the-road popular songs, and Country Western songs use this form."
  4. ^ a b Benward & Saker (2003), p.318.
  5. ^ Covach, John (2005), "Form in Rock Music: A Primer", in Stein, Deborah, Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 69, ISBN 0-19-517010-5 .
  6. ^ Benward & Saker (2003), p.122 & 318.
  7. ^ Wilder, Alec (1972), American Popular Song: the Great Innovators 1900–1950, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 56, ISBN 0-19-501445-6 .
  8. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.317-18. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0. "The popular chorus form is often referred to as a quaternary form, because it usually consists of four phrases."
  9. ^ a b c d e f Covach (2005), Form in Rock Music: A Primer, p. 70 .
  10. ^ a b c d e Covach (2005), Form in Rock Music: A Primer, pp. 74–75 .
  11. ^ a b Parkinson, Alice (2006). Music, p.125. ISBN 978-81-89093-50-1.
  12. ^ Powell, Neil (2000). The Language of Jazz, p.120. ISBN 978-1-57958-277-7.

Further reading