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 20th century.
As its alternate name AABA implies, this song form consists of four sections: an eight-bar A section; a second eight-bar A section (which may have slight changes from the first A section); an eight-bar B section, often with contrasting harmony or “feel”; and a final eight-bar A section. The core melody line is generally retained in each A section, although variations may be added, particularly for the last A section.
Examples of 32-bar AABA form songs include “Over the Rainbow“, “What’ll I Do“, “Make You Feel My Love“, “Blue Skies“, and Willie Nelson‘s “Crazy“. Many show tunes that have become jazz standards are 32-bar song forms.
Though the 32-bar form resembles the ternary form of the operatic da capo aria, it did not become common until the late 1910s. It became “the principal form” of American popular song around 1925–1926, with the AABA form consisting of the chorus or the entirety of many songs in the early 20th century.
The 32-bar form was often used in rock in the 1950s and ’60s, after which verse–chorus form became more prevalent. Examples include:
- George Gerschwin “I Got Rhythm” (1930)
- Jerry lee Lewis “Great Balls of Fire” (1957)
- The Everley Brothers “All I Have to Do Is Dream” (1958)
- The Shirelles “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (1960)
- The Beach Boy “Surfer Girl” (1963)
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. Songwriters including Lennon-McCartney also used modified or extended 32-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”.