Lennon, Cetera, and the Art of the 3-Part (ABA) Song

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Peter CeteraThree part ABA songs are ones that usually have no chorus. They normally consist of one long “verse” that presents a main melody, a contrasting melody, and a return to the first main tune. There are two perfect models for this kind of structure: Lennon & McCartney’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” (1965), and Peter Cetera’s “If You Leave Me Now” (1976). Both songs embellish the form, extending it for mileage’s sake. Because neither song uses a chorus, it reverses the fragile-to-strong progression that we normally see in verse-chorus structures. Let’s take a look at how that works.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, we know that in songs that use a chorus, it’s normal to allow the verse to explore a bit, to allow the possibility of some ambiguity in the harmonic structure. Verse chords will take a journey, as the singer recounts a story or situation. By the time we get to the chorus, harmonies become much more predictable, and usually use a smaller chord set.

In 3-part songs that use an ABA format, we get a bit of a reversal of that: the first part of the verse gives us a melody and progression that fairly strongly and unambiguously point to one chord as the tonic chord. The harmonic journey typically takes place in the “B” section, after which we get a return to the A-melody.

The only problem with pop songs and the ABA format is that, followed strictly, you wind up with a fairly short song. In both “Norwegian Wood” and “If You Leave Me Now”, the format is extended through repetition.

Both Lennon and Cetera come up with the same solution:


In Lennon’s case, he inserts the song’s intro after the ABA format is complete, and then repeats B, returning to A.

In Cetera’s case, the return to A in the middle of the form is an instrumental. This solution is perfect for “If You Leave Me Now”, as the song is longer: it works well to drop the voice out, bringing it back for the final repeat of BA.

Harmonically, each song’s A section is simple and clear, and makes no attempt to venture away harmonically, or to add altered chords (with the exception of a secondary dominant chord in Cetera’s case).

Complexity happens in the B section. With “Norwegian Wood”, the harmonic direction is ambiguous. The abrupt change to Em (from the original key of E major), could be interpreted as a change of key to either E Dorian or D major, before returning to E major for the return of the A section.

With “If You Leave Me Now”, the B section (again abruptly) moves toward E as a tonic (from the original key of B major). And in the case of both songs, the B section uses a larger chord set.

So the main lesson to learn here regarding harmonic structure of 3-part songs that use no chorus is to start strong, then allow for harmonic development before returning to strength with a return to the original theme.

Here are some variations on the ABA format you may want to try in your songwriting:

  • A-B-Bridge-B-A
  • A-Bridge-B-A
  • A-B-Bridge-ABA

In each case, the bridge can be an extension of the section that came before it, or as simply a way to provide variation before repetition of the main thematic material.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. I would argue (in the case of Norwegian Wood), that the sitar solo after the first ABA is actually another A followed by the BA, thus making the song ABA ABA. The only difference is that the sitar replaces the lyrics in that iteration of the A section.

    Only one opinion!

  2. A-ha! I have a song like this; in this form!

    It remains uncompleted (still working on the lyrics and structure). Now I know where to go with it.

    Thanks, Gary!

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