Thirty-two-bar form

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"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 American popular music, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.[2]

Examples of thirty-two-bar AABA form songs include:

"Over the Rainbow," "What'll I Do," "Make You Feel My Love," and "Blue Skies."[citation needed] Other examples include Willie Nelson's "Crazy".[3]

Basic Song Form[edit]

At its core the basic AABA / 32 Bar Song Form consists of four sections, each section being 8 bars in length, totaling thirty-two bars. Each of these 8-bar sections is assigned a letter name ("A" or "B"), based on its melodic and harmonic content. The A sections all share the same melody, and the recurring title lyric typically falls on either the first or last line of each A section. The "B" section musically and lyrically contrasts the A sections, and may or may not contain the title lyric.

(Note: Song Form terminology is not yet standardized. The B section is also referred to as the "Middle Eight," "Bridge," or "Primary Bridge."[2]

See below for a sectional outline of the song form of "What'll I Do" by Irving Berlin:

Name Lyric from "What'll I Do" by Irving Berlin
A1 What'll I do when you are far away and I am blue? What'll I do?
A2 What'll I do when I am won'dring who is kissing you? What'll I do?
B What'll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to?
A3 When I'm alone with only dreams of you that won't come true... What'll I do?


Introductory Verse / Sectional Verse[edit]

Some Tin Pan Alley songs composed as numbers for musicals precede the main tune with what was called a "sectional verse" or "introductory verse" in the terminology of the early 20th century. 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 sectional verse is often omitted from modern performances.

Here we see the introductory verse from "What'll I Do" by Irving Berlin:

        Gone is the romance that was so divine,
        'tis broken and cannot be mended
        You must go your way, and I must go mine,
        but now that our love dreams have ended... 

(Note: The introductory verse is not assigned a letter in the "AABA" naming scheme.)


See also: Bridge (music)

In music theory, the middle 8 or bridge is the B section of a thirty-two-bar form.[4] This section has a significantly different melody from the rest of the song and usually occurs after the second "A" section in the AABA song form. It is called a middle 8 because it happens in the middle of the song and the length is generally eight bars.

Terminological confusion[edit]

In early-20th-century terminology, the main thirty-two-bar AABA section, in its entirety, was called the "refrain" or "chorus." This is in contrast to the modern usage of the term "chorus", which refers to a repeating musical and lyrical section in verse-chorus form. To confuse matters more, "Verse," "Chorus" and "Refrain" all have different meanings in modern musical terminology. See the below chart for clarification:

Early Terminology to Modern Terminology Comparison[2]

Early Terminology Modern Terminology What It's Referring To in 32 Bar Form
Introductory Verse or

Sectional Verse

Introductory Verse or

Sectional Verse

The opening section, often 16 bars in length, which resembles recitative from Opera.
Refrain or


Verse-Refrain Form or


The 32 Bar section, composed of four separate 8-bar sections, taking the form [A] [A] [B] [A]
None Verse Any of the three individual 8 bar "A" sections.
Bridge Bridge or

Middle 8 or

Release or

Primary Bridge

The 8 Bar "B" section.
None Refrain Line This reoccurring lyric line is often the title of the song

("Yesterday," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Luck Be a Lady Tonight.")


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,[5] with the AABA form consisting of the chorus or the entirety of many songs in the early 20th century.[6]

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.[8] 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".[7]


  1. ^ Jazz: College Edition: Chapter 2: Jazz Form and improvisation | Jazz: W. W. Norton StudySpace
  3. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.122. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  4. ^ Parkinson, Alice (2006). Music, p.125. ISBN 978-81-89093-50-1.
  5. ^ Wilder, Alec (1972), American Popular Song: the Great Innovators 1900–1950, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 56, ISBN 0-19-501445-6 .
  6. ^ Benward & Saker (2003), p.317-18. "The popular chorus form is often referred to as a quaternary form, because it usually consists of four phrases."
  7. ^ a b c d e f Covach (2005), Form in Rock Music: A Primer, p. 70 .
  8. ^ Benward & Saker (2003), p.318.

Further reading[edit]