The strophic song form is primarily a song structure used to tell a story. It is commonly referred to as the AAA or one-part form. You will commonly see the song form in country and folk music, as well as in ballads, Christmas carols, and religious hymns.
I cover the strophic song form in detail, including 28 AAA song examples where I list the number of bars, the time & key signatures, and chords where possible. Finally, I have ideas and tips on writing your own AAA song.
Song structure & the AAA or strophic form
The AAA song form is also known as the strophic form which is just the Greek name for “verse”. And verse is the best description for this song form since it only has verses. You will not find a chorus or bridge section in the strophic song form.
Definition, characteristics, and structure of the strophic AAA song form
First, I cover the strophic song structure in general, then the verse and refrain. Finally, I have some tips for writing a song of this type.
- AAA song form is common in ballads, Christmas carols, religious hymns, and country and folk songs.
- The AAA song form is one of the oldest and simplest musical forms which first appeared as poems set to music.
- It is composed entirely of verse sections, and hence gets the name the one-part form. The AAA form does not have a chorus or bridge.
- You can contrast it the through-composed song where each section is somehow different (melody, harmony, and \ or rhythm).
- This song form is great for telling a story based on a character, especially changes in time, settings and events. That’s the big three of stories: character, setting, and plot (sequence of events).
- Variations: You may see the refrain repeated twice at the end of a verse.
- Each verse is identical with the same harmony (chords) and vocal melody. There is no set number of verses The number of verses can vary and is a function of the story being told.
- From the songs I looked at, I found that the most common verse length is 8, 12, or 16 bars \ measures with 18, 20 & 24 bars the next most common length. Though any verse length is used to tell the story.
- I found cut time (2/2), 3/4 and 4/4 to be the most common time signatures.
- The chords in each verse usually are triads and 7ths from the key the song is in, though I’ve seen V of V chord substitutions in a number of songs. You don’t have a lot of time for fancy chords and key changes, especially in the 8 and 12 bar versions.
The refrain (if present) & song title
- Often AAA songs have a refrain but a refrain is not a requirement.
- The title of the song is often repeated in either the first or last line of each verse. This repeating phrase is known as a refrain.
- Refrains occur at the same place within each verse. If the refrain is not the song title, it a major line in each verse – the “hook”.
- The title of the song is either the name of the main character, the setting of the story or a part of the refrain.
- You may also see the refrain in both the first AND last line of each verse.
- Sometimes the refrain only occurs in some of the verses. If that is the case, then you will definitely see it in the first and last verses, and somewhere in the middle of the song. The Grateful Dead’s version of Goin’ Doing The Road Feelin’ Bad is an example. They repeat the 1st verse throughout the song.
- Don’t confuse refrains with a chorus. A chorus is a new section and is noticeably different in both the music and vocal melody.
Tips for writing an AAA song
- The refrain is the “hook” in each verse so make sure it pops!
- Describe the setting, events and time scale of the song.
- Think of writing the scene your character is in (show, don’t tell). What setting is the character in? What happens to him or her? How much time goes by from the beginning to the end of the story?
- Have some kind of payoff in the last verse, like “justice”, “justice denied”, “moving-on”, “love found”, “love lost”, etc.
- AAA songs usually don’t have memorable melodies. It’s the refrain that is memorable. The music acts a rhythmic vehicle, carrying the story along. Keep that in mind.
- You can add interest by a crescendo in volume or by introducing new instruments for each new verse. You could also change key at a pivotal point(s) in the song, maybe by moving up a half-step to imply an increase in the intensity of the story or movement in time.
- And if you have a great voice, you can belt out some major emotions towards the end of the song only to bring it back down with a repeat of the first verse in low volume, maybe with a slight variation in the refrain.
Check out my article on Chords from Scales to see a list of the available chords built from the Major and the Harmonic & Melodic minor scales. I probably wouldn’t use 5-note chords, but all triads and 4-note chords are options for your harmony.
Examples of AAA songs
Most of the songs below, 28 in total, are from Silverman’s Folk Song Encyclopedia. Those songs are prefaced with “Vol I” or “Vol II” for the volumes they come from. I chose songs I knew or that are Christmas, Bluegrass or traditional Folk classics.
The songs are separated into 8, 12, and 16 bar \ measure sections with a final section called “Other” where the # of bars varies. I also added notes on the time signature, key and chords if possible. Where I use a slash “/” for the chord progression, it means 2 chords in the measure, not a slash chord.
I created an AAA Song pdf file with 6 of my favorite songs listed below: 1. Baby, Please Don’t Go, 2. Gallows Pole, 3. House of the Rising Sun; 4. Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad, 5. Jack-A-Roe, and 6. I Know You Rider.
Each song has lyrics, chords and roman numeral chords, bar length, time signature and notes on each song. Feel free to download it.
8 bar AAA songs
* Good for short storytelling or when you don’t have a lot of lyrics or much to say
1. The Gallows Pole, Vol I, 2/4 time, 8 bars in A minor. Chords: 4 bars of Am, then A7 > D7 > F7 > Am, 7 verses in total. The Led Zeppelin version has a different chord progression.
2. Baby, Please Don’t Go by Big Bill Broonzy, Vol II, 4/4 time, 8 bars in C major. Chords: C > C > C > F > C > C > C \ G7 > C, 6 verse.
3. In the Pines, II, Vol II, 4/4 time, 8 bars in E major with a C7 chord in the 4th measure. Chords: E > E7 > A > C7 > E > B7 > E > Am6 \ B7. I haven’t compared it to the Nirvana cover. There are only 3 verses, but you may be able to use the verses from the minor version (see the 16-bar songs below).
4. I’m a Girl of Constant Sorrow, Vol I, 3/4 time, 8 bars in G major. Chords: G > D7 > G > C > G > D > G > C, 6 verses.
5. Matty Groves, Vol I, 2/4 time, 8 bars in G major. Chords: G > G > G > D7 > G > G > C > G, and unbelievably with 17 verses. I’d say play half of the verses you like and lose the rest.
6. Tom Dooley, Vol I, 2/4 time, 8 bars in G major. Chords: 5 bars of G then D > G > G with 7 verses.
7. Shady Grove, Vol II, 2/2 time, 8 bars in either D natural minor or D Dorian. Chords: Dm > C > Dm / C > Dm > Am > C > Dm / C > Dm with 6 verses.
12 bar AAA songs
1. Man of Constant Sorrow, Vol II, 2/2 time, notated as 10 bars in C major, but I think each F chord lasts for 2 bars, not the notated 1 measure, for a total of 12 bars. Chords: just C, F & G triads and there are 5 verses.
2. C. C. Rider, Vol II, 4/4 time, 12 bars with an A major key signature but it seems to change keys: D to G to F to A, which is interesting. There are 4 verses.
3. Deck the Halls, Vol I, 4/4 time, 12 bars in C major with lots of chord changes all with C major chords except a D7 as a V\V substitute before the G > G7 change, 3 verses total.
4. Little Birdie, Vol II, 2/2 time, 12 bars in C major. Chords: just C & G triads for 4 verses.
16 bar AAA songs
1. Scarborough Fair, Vol I, 3/4 time, 16 bars in A minor. It’s A natural minor except for 2 D chords, 8 verses. The Simon & Garfunkel version has a different bar count.
2. House of the Rising Sun, Vol II, 3/4 time, 16 bars in A minor with interesting chord changes not seen in the version by The Animals. There are 7 verses.
3. Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, Vol II, 4/4 time, 16 bars mostly in E natural minor with a few B7 chords for a beat before an Em triad. Chords: Em, Am, C & B7 with only 2 verses.
4. Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad, Vol II, 2/2, 16 bars in E major, close to a 16-bar blues tune in E given the E, A & B7 chords, 7 verses.
5. In the Pines, I, Vol II, 3/4 time, 16 bars in E minor. Given the A & B7 chords is more like E melodic minor, but there is also a C7 chord before the Em chord in the 4th & 12th measures, 7 verses. This minor version seems to double up on the 8-bar version above.
6. Freight Train, Vol I, 2/2 time, 16 bars in C major with an E7 chord in measures 9 & 10. Chords: C, G, G7, E7, & F with 4 verses.
7. Amazing Grace, Vol II, 3/4 time, 16 bars in E major with 5 verses.
8. Can the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol II, 4/4 time in E major with the last 8 bars notated as a chorus which I believe is incorrect. It is more like a refrain since the chord progression and the notated melody for the first 8 bars is the same as the last 8 bars. Chords in verse & refrain: E > E > A > E > E > E > E / B7 > E.
9. The Water Is Wide, Vol I, 4/4 time in C major with 5 verses.
Other bar lengths
1. Peggy-O, Vol I, 2/4 time, 18 bars in D major with lots of chord changes. Chords: all the triads from D major except for the ii and viio.
2. Jack-A-Roe, it sounds like it’s in 2/4 time, and I think it is 18 bars in A minor (natural & harmonic). I had to play the song since I could not find sheet music. Chords: Am > C > C > E > E > Am > C > F > C > C || Refrain: Am > E > Am > Am > Am > E > Am > Am. I love this song – all 10 verses of it!
3. O Come, All Ye Faithful, Vol I, 4/4 time, 20 bars in C major with an occasional D7 chord, 3 verses.
4. I Know You, Rider, Vol II, 2/4 time, notated as 20 bars in C major with a total of 7 verses. It’s actually 24 bars of F major (C Mixolydian) with a V\V substitute (G) for half a measure. The chords in the book are wrong, however, I’m .going off of the chord progression from the Grateful Dead’s version.
5. Silent Night, Holy Night, Vol I, 3/4 time, 24 bars in C major C & G7 chords only, 3 verses
6. Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan, 2/2 time, not sure if this is classic AAA because there are 24 bars in E♭ major then 8 bars of the refrain for a total of 32 bars, 3 verses.
7. The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan, 3/4 time, 28 bars in G major with 5 verses.
8. Barb’ry Ellen (or Barbara Allen), Vol I, 3/4 time, 9 bars (?) in D major. Chords: D > A7 > Bm > E7 > A > G > D > A7 > D with a whopping 12 verses. Not sure if the 9th bar of D major is correct or if it ties into the 1st bar of D major.
Songwriting books I own
Here are some books that have served me well with some Amazon prices and review ratings.
The Craft and Business of Songwriting by John Braheny- $18.55 on Amazon, 49 reviews with a 4.7 rating
Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison – $11.22, 110 searches month, 189 reviews with a 4.5 rating.
Songwriting: Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure by Pat Pattison – $11.35, 57 reviews with a 4.5 rating.
Successful Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis – $37.85, 20 reviews with a 4.4 rating.
Songwriting and the Creative Process by Steve Gillette – $4.99, reviews with a 3.6 rating.
Only the books by Sheila Davis and John Braheny have good descriptions on the strophic form \ AAA song. I will be covering other song forms and structures in future articles and I’ll share how these other books fare in those descriptions.
Check out the following pages which cover the various song structure types:
I grew up listening to rock and blues, so I had no idea about AAA or other song forms. If you ask me, Blues tunes are a type of AAA song, or at least they seem so to me.
I’m in the process of writing some AAA songs using the 8 and 16 bar lengths. I’ll play all the songs I mention above to get a feel for how the music flows to help me since this song form is not natural to me.
You should try writing some AAA songs as well – good luck!