Nita, the Pop Song

I’m in the middle of rewriting Nita, breaking the scene down into beats and looking at the motifs and repetition, and I’m delighted to see that the scene has fallen into one of my favorite scene structures, the AABA structure, which is the basis of most pop songs. Then it occured to me that I’d never mentioned this before on Argh because it’s not a theory or a rule and because I’m complete idiot about music, so I’m reluctant to pontificate there. But the AABA structure can be so useful (for some scenes, not all, not a rule) that it’s a just good thing to know.

I use art theory all the time in my work, but my musical background is nil. Then one day, I was struggling with a scene and Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” came on the radio, and for the first time, I heard verse-chorus-bridge as structure, the same kind of structure the scene I was working on was shadowing, and I realized that a lot of my big scenes had that basic AABA structure.

What is AABA structure? Here, watch this:

Now here’s the breakdown of the scene in the version you all read:

Beat 1: Nita evaluates the scene and tries to go help her brother. Button says, “Wait.”
Beat 2: Nita tries to relieve Button’s fears and be a good partner, but she’s still gonna help her brother. Button says, “Wait.”
Beat 3: Frank shows up and then Mort and then Clint. The Clown car beat.
Beat 4: Nita finds out that the victim is Joey and focuses. Button says, “Wait,” and Nita gets out of the car.

Okay, at first glance, it would seem that Beat 3 is a problem, but it isn’t because that’s a classic bridge.
A. Nita tries to get out of the car (verse) and Button says “Wait” (chorus).
A. Nita tries to get out of the car (verse) and Button says “Wait” (chorus).
B. Frank and Mort and Clint show up with various opinions about whether Nita should get out of the car (bridge).
A. Nita finds out about Joey and gets out of the car (verse) as Button says “Wait” (chorus).

How does this help me?

First, I have to divide the scene into its four parts/beats and look at three of them as verses. That’s easy, just divide the scene into four docs. And I have to make sure that each verse increases in intensity for Nita (see “Let It Go” in the video).

Then, I have to strength the chorus with repetition. If Button says “Wait” exactly the same way each time, I have repetition but I don’t have escalation. And she doesn’t say it on the page in the last beat/verse, it’s just implied. So strengthen and escalate the chorus.

And then there’s the bridge: “New lyrics, new background music, new melody.” So the clown car shows up and keeps the repetition of the verse from getting boring. BUT the verse carries the juice of the scene, and the reader wants to get back to it to find out what Nita is going to do. So the bridge links the first two verses which set up the repetition of Nita trying to get out of the car and Button’s “Wait,” to the last verse where Nita gets out of the car, ignoring Button’s “Wait” and forcing Button to join her. I was just having fun with the whole clown car thing, so that bridge beat is all over the place when it needs to be a solid shift AND a link.

There are other things going on here. I have to cut the hell out of the bridge because even with some revision from the version you read, the word count is breaking at 730/673/1077/662. I’m fine with the first verse being slightly longer than the other two, but the last verse should probably be shorter for pacing. I’m even good with the bridge being the longest. Just not that long.

No, I don’t do this kind of analysis for every scene. No, I don’t use this kind of structure for every scene. But the first scene is a crucial one, and it fell naturally into this structure, and breaking it down into AABA and seeing that B beat as a bridge is hugely helpful as I pull this all together.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with the critique discussion as promised, and possibly with a rewrite. I should be going to laundromat now, but I really want to fix that bridge . . .

40 thoughts on “Nita, the Pop Song

  1. Oh, that’s my favorite Billy Joel song! Did you know Billy Joel was on Inside the Actors Studio? Season six, episode 1. If I recall right, he talked a lot about storytelling, since that’s the basis of a lot of his music, so you might find it of particular interest.

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    1. This is an awesome heads-up. I ADORE Billy Joel’s music, and I have no words for how much I respect his talent. I’m definitely going to check this out. Thanks!

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  2. Actually, that’s an ABABCAB form, as the bridge (break, refrain, middle 8, etc.) is the C in the form. But yes, the point is interesting, and I like using cross-area elements to look at things because it makes you see things in a different way. There are a lot of mysteries and detective stories that use a Rondo form, ABACADA (or more) with regular returns to a location or character group (Watson and Holmes, perhaps) analyzing the steps in the progression of the story as returns to the original setting or grouping. In art music the AABA form is also often conceptualized as a two part form, with a return to the original melody or chord structure at the end of the second half, which is another way of looking at it, and they call it Rounded Binary form. And just to add a couple more terms to the mix, any work that has repeated structure in it is called “strophic” while lack of such a structure is called “through composed”. We spent half a semester on this stuff in Music Theory III, and there’s also a semester long class in it that music composition majors took called Form & Analysis. Thanks for the chance to use my Bachelors of Music today.

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    1. We must keep in touch because I am an absolute moron about music.
      Got a good beginning book to recommend?

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      1. I’m trying to think of something geared toward a non-technical audience. There are several solid books on songwriting, but they’re aimed at songwriters of course. I seem to remember something that was great for the lay person on how to sound like you know something about music, and those are good starting places. I’m planning on using Six Steps to Songwriting Success as the foundation for a class on songwriting, and it’s got some good things to say about song forms. Also remember the concept of architectonic level, as it also can do interesting things in writing. For an example of this, take one of the most famous pieces of music, Beethoven’s 5th — short, short, short, long. If you start to analyze the symphony that little phrase based on the song of the yellowhammer, a common bird he heard on his constant walks, you find that every four phrase grouping consists of three fairly similar length phrases followed by a fourth long one, and this works its way up through the structure so that the fourth movement is the long one too, so that little bird song is realized throughout the structure of the piece. It’s easier to do things like this in music than it is in fiction, but it’s possible to do these things in other artforms too. I find this kind of structural development interesting, both because it adds some different feels to things and also because it can do wonders in fighting creative blocks.

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        1. Hi Nicole–I know even less about music than Jenny, so please bear with me. The songs that are used in the embedded video–are they AABA or ABABCAB?

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          1. Okay, I’m starting the song again to do a simple form analysis on it. So we’re on the same page, A=verse, B=chorus (Oh, For the Longest Timex2), and C=break/bridge/refrain. This one is a bit different because it starts with a chorus, which happens sometimes to set the hook of the song, that part you find yourself singing all the time. So the form is BAABACACABB(faded). I know that’s a long stream of letters, (and it sounds odd when my screen reader tries to translate it) but it’s not an unusual structure. That double A in the first verse is extremely common, sometimes with a slight transition chord or something different between them. (See Home by the Sea by Genesis for an example of that, with a little discordant chord between them) Note also that all vocal parts on the Billy Joel tune are sung by him, and it’s a bare-bones structure stripped down to the minimum — no guitar, keyboards, etc., and this can be extremely useful for multiple art forms, including writing. In this song it focuses the ear both on the lyrics and on the sound of the vocal pop groups of the 50’s, so it evokes a lot of feelings from how he chose to perform the song. For a writing parallel it could be an internal narrative where the character is carrying on a conversation with himself/herself/itself, and if it was a vision or a trance it could take place in someplace the reader could relate to, like the mall between the Capitol and Lincoln’s monument or on a state fair Midway. One more thing — the Billy Joel song is done in a very “classical” style, meaning that it’s got a rigid adherence to the form — there aren’t any extra things in different parts of the song musically, and it adheres to a tight structure with each section the same length and with the same chords and melody, (save for what it takes to make the lyrics work) and this works for songs but not so much for writing, as the story often needs some variance in the length and structure of scenes. Okay, now you’ve got me thinking about other musical elements that translate well to writing, and what could be useful concepts to think about.

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  3. This is great. I loved the structure section we did at McDaniel and this adds to it nicely. (Although I probably know even less about music than you do.)

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  4. Okay, here’s something else that should translate well. For all its diversity there’s only two types of music — The Song and The Dance. Eitehr something is driven by the melody or it’s driven by rhythm. That’s not to imply that rhythms aren’t important in songs and melody isn’t important in dance, but one has to take the lead. The difference between the two is timing — songs can have fluid time to support the flow of the lyric, but when you’re moving shoes you need something with a regular pulse to keep things gong. In writing this can show up in how action and reaction or internal issues flow. Is your character singing, or is she/he/it dancing? I’ve found this type of analysis helps to refine the scene so you are clear on what the goals are. And yes, music exists that switches from song to dance. Check out Tony Bennett’s rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Duke Ellington — the song starts with what’s called a recicitive (ress-ih-tah-teeve) before it goes into the groove centered AABA form. (And this one is a true AABA) If you can’t find the Bennett version, check out some on YouTube, and you want to get ones that start with the line, “When I’m not playing solitaire,” instead of the beginning of the verse, “Missed the Saturday dance.”

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    1. Would that also apply to the Ella Fitzgerald rendition of Manhattan? The one that starts with “Summer journeys to Niagara” instead of “We’ll have Manhattan”?

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    1. Though it might be a bit technical, “The Oxford Companion to Music” can be useful to know what you’re hearing. Also check out the biographies of some of your favorite songwriters to get a feel for the mind set and some of the lingo. I can’t find the title at the moment, but I finished a book on Frank Sinatra in the recording studio that dealt with a lot of this stuff, and the book on the “Wrecking Crew” is a great one for getting the feel of the life of folks who do this stuff for a living. Unless you’re wanting to get into some serious nuts and bolts avoid books on music theory, as they’re aimed at in depth studies of elements of how notated music works and some complex elements of how it interacts with itself. I can draw analogies to all kinds of musical structures and elements in both a melody and chord motion, but that involves so much background (I took 5 semesters of theory for my degree) that it’s probably not much value to non-musicians to go through all of that, and there are probably a lot of simpler ways to put those elements in context. Most songwriting books have sections on form, and I’ve yet to run into one that fails to discuss the concept of the “hook”, something that the songwriter repeats enough times that it gets stuck in the listener’s mind. They often are less technical too, as they’re aimed at folks with a piano or a guitar who want to write some songs, not someone who wants to get a degree in music and become a professional.

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  5. Billy Joel does have a CD where he talks about writing and singing some of his songs. I think it’s disc 4 of the 4 disc compilation from the late 1990s.

    I know he talks about resistance to writing a certain song until he heard it bouncing off the shower walls. I don’t remember much of the CD anymore, it’s been years since I played disc 4.

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  6. Okay, here’s a couple more interesting things that translate to writing from music. In tonal music (translation: music people want to sing and hum) everything moves toward the primary note of the scale, what’s called the Tonic. This is the strongest note in any scale, as it’s home base. Thanks to some acoustical phenomena the second most resolved note in a scale is the fifth, called the Dominant. Most of all chord and scale motion involves these in some way or another. In writing terms the tonic is the point of resolution, and it can be in a line of dialog, an action, the end of a scene, the end of a chapter, or the end of a book. (or even possibly the end of a book series) But that’s where it all ends. For those of you who remember the song from Sound of Music, sing do re mi fa sol la ti and don’t sing the final do and you’ll get an idea of that unsettled feeling when something doesn’t resolve. (in fact, that ti is called the Leading Tone because it wants to resolve to do) This is mirrored in writing among other arts, in that we want a resolution to things. We want the bad people punished, we want the hero and heroine to get together, we want the conflict to end and return to a resting state. How does the dominant enter into this? It’s a stable point, but there’s still something to follow after it because though it’s somewhat resolved it isn’t really, and we want to hear it resolve to a final ending. Think of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and notice how that first phrase ends on a high note? That’s the dominant, and we know that it has to go somewhere, which it does at the end of the second phrase. (Because Mozart was a genius and he understood this stuff from a very early age, even when he wrote that melody) Notice also how the note before that first phrase ending wants to go to the next note? That’s because it’s resolving to the dominant. If you can hear the music in your head or if you can sing it you can also try out the jump from little to the end of the next phrase, the “are” note, and that seems more resolved. So there are levels of resolution, just like in writing, cuisine, or other arts, and how we handle them gives us an understanding of where the “melody” of a story is going. Now go look up cadences on Wikipedia and you’ll find even more interesting stuff about how phrases end and how musicians can give final resolutions that aren’t final after all and the wonderful world of deceptive cadences. That translates into some interesting concepts relating to scene structure.

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    1. I need to think about this–it’s a whole new world of theory for me–but I wonder if that’s analogous to center-of-interest/focal point in painting, the place where your eye is led to come to rest, everything in the painting supporting that point. Because that’s analogous to scene structure which seems to me to be completely analogous to what you’re talking about.

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      1. Yep, that’s the same kind of thing. Everything goes to the primary focus of the artwork. But take it to additional levels — it’s about structuring the scene, and also about the structure of the chapter, and of the section, and the book, and possibly even the series. And since music is math turned into art, it’s easier to see a lot of these things because they all cycle in ways you can decode numerically. And it also tends to cycle on multiple levels, too, so it gives everything a lot of structure those who’ve learned the theory can understand. But it’s one of those things you can’t push too much — it’s tempting to make melody the protagonist or protagonists, harmony the other characters, and rhythm the environment that they function in, but those analogies don’t track all the time, and that mapping can cause mistaken assumptions to crop into the thinking.

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        1. Yeah, I think forcing it is a bad idea, but I think the global similarities are really helpful.

          I wouldn’t think of character as harmony or melody, I think I’d look more at mood and rhythm and metaphor and motif. I’d think characters would be like the instruments, and the underlying rhythms of the story would be the music. But I haven’t thought that through at all.

          Like in painting, I have an idea of what I’m painting toward, and then I structure the painting to serve that thing. I’m still painting and discovering as I paint, layering and texture and shifting color, but I know where my North Star is, if you will (sure, let’s bring astronomy into this, too) so even while I’m in the discovery stages of painting, I’m pulling it all together. Maybe the paint is the instruments/characters, the vehicles for the abstracts.

          But I’m not really interested in drawing direct parallels so much as I am seeing how the different disciplines echo each other, and seems as though writing and music would be the closest, both depending so heavily on sound and (sometimes in music) in the rhythm of words, too.

          Is there that kind of center in jazz, too? I ask because jazz keeps creeping into this story and I don’t know much about it aside from it being very freeform. It’s on my list to study (Ken Burns maybe?) but at the moment it’s not pressing me. The music in this story is all over the place, but that’s usual for me. Now I’m wondering if there’s something else going on that I’m just too musically ignorant to see. I’m assuming not, since it’s the words and the mood that draw me to soundtrack music.

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          1. Jazz is a unique study, because of how it’s performed and what it does conceptually. A jazz musician taking a solo is not only playing notes, he/she is also performing a theory analysis in real time to know what notes will fit in the current chord and in the next chords, or for the better players, the next group of chords. This involves a lot of theory knowledge and the ability to apply that theory on the fly. So many professional jazz solos are proof of the concept that chaos is highly flexible order. However, there are jazz musicians who don’t use that method, instead focusing on melodic lines and how the line moves, making slight changes as the chord changes evolve. Miles Davis was a synthesis of the two, and when Herbie Hancock talked to Harvard about the management style of Miles Davis, a lecture that also showed up in his autobiography “possibilitis”, (get the audio book if you can, Herbie reads his own work, and it’s fun to listen to someone so happy to be alive) he talks about a show in Stockholm where Herbie played the wrong chord behind Miles’ solo, and he was devastated at such a glaring error. He was sure everyone in the place knew he’d fornicated the canine, but then Miles played a note that made Herbie’s chord the right chord. It’s possible to read about jazz, as a lot has been written about it, but listening to Miles’ album “Kind of Blue”, and any good collection of Count Basie’s band will give you a solid feeling for the genre. And if you like soundtracks seek out Gil Evans. (full disclosure — my degree is in jazz studies)

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    2. I am not a musician or even particularly musical, but this made me think about how maddening I’ve found Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musicals, especially thinking about Les Miserables. It’s always felt that none of his songs were ever completed. It feels like it has to be deliberate, maybe to set his work apart from others? But it’s always made me slightly hostile to him; it’s definitely uncomfortable. Although this thought arose because I’ve been thinking about what you’ve been saying here, and then I just happened to be torturing my husband by singing ‘All Alone’ (real title?) from Les Miz to him. Is this a trend?

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      1. I haven’t analyzed any of ALW’s stuff, but that’s because I don’t get into it much myself. But yes, music in all genres moves toward complexity as what is surprising in one time period becomes mundane after its done a lot, and so the envelope is pushed with art.

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        1. I agree about ALW; I have felt a bit ‘used’ even after I’ve cried through a show. I feel the same way about books which kill off a child mid-stream to pull emotion in the same way. It’s not about the death, it’s about being integral and honest. I just finally understood why ALW’s music annoyed me so much.

          And now I understand why some jazz is so hard for me. I’ve been a jazz dancer, but a lot of jazz has been beyond me. I love that you are in conversation with Jenny here, but you are reaching a lot more of us too.

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          1. Okay, now to hear something very different from ALW’s stuff, take a listen to Dizzy Gillespie’s tune “A Night in Tunisia”. This one has so much in it worth thinking about, with its unusual form and the standard stop ending. But it’s also cool because it changes groove styles, with a Latin feel for the A sections and a swing jazz feel for the B section. And BTW, yes, this one is definitely a dance more than a song, but that’s common with Latin tunes. (And why Astrud Gilberto was so amazing, because she could sing songs over a dance groove)

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  7. Will have to come back to this when my headache is gone. I know something about music, but the headache is keeping my brain from understanding technical stuff at the moment. That, and the dialogue from the movie my husband’s watching.

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  8. Something just occurred to me in this discussion about form and the mention of jazz. A typical jazz standard starts with the “head”, which is the song itself. In big band and other larger settings you get variations next, often by adding countermelodies to the head, while in small group jazz you repeat the head, often with an additional player. Then you get into improvising, and the basic order is with the leader of the group playing the first solo, then soloing down through the membership, though sometimes in big band settings the first solo is from the saxes. (interesting thing about these roles in a moment) then when it gets to the drum solo the other instruments often play “hits” to accent the drum solo, in a reversal of roles. In some tunes you get into something called “trading fours”, where different musicians will play four bars and then hand it off to someone else, and this is a common way for the leader and the drummer to play with rhythm. Note also that with the other instruments playing the accents it’s an inversion of the normal state of things, where the drummer is the one hitting the accents most of the time. After the improvisation is done the group plays the head again, this time ignoring any repeats, and plays a conventional ending. (The “Lewis Carrol” say it three times ending is one, but others exist, like a half speed ending and the classic “Basie” ending which you’ll hear all the time if you listen to the Count Basie band) And here’s the interesting thing — all of the stuff I just mentioned involves a repeat of the form, so if the tune is AABA, it’ll follow that form throught the solos and may only become ABA on the last pass as the band ignores the repeat of A. So it’s often very formal. Now, on to the other thing — different members of a big band have different roles. The lead players are often the ones with the high notes, but they’re not the soloists unless the tune needs a fast high solo. Second Alto Sax, Lead Tenor Sax, Second Trombone, and either Second or Fourth Trumpet tend to be the “jazz” players who get all the solos. This specialization of roles is so common as to be considered convention, and it’s rare to break it. (I played a tune in high school with a Third Trombone solo, and to make its point it was called “First Time Ever”) I’m sure you can think of ways this interaction between the leader and the improviser shows up in writing, and how the melody may change but the same tune is going on underneath.

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      1. Yeah, Wynton is a great one for keeping the past alive, and this version is an echo of Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and similar records. And jazz versions of rock tunes do some interesting things. I’m working on a big band version of “Like a Virgin”, and it’s worth checking out Brian Setzer’s big band version of “Rock This Town” to hear how much translating a rock tune into jazz can crank up the energy. In some ways I think of style (rock, jazz, country, etc.) to fall into a similar category with perspective, so changing a tune from jazz to country is like changing from third person limited to first person. And I’m glad to be able to share some of these things and turn others on to some new stuff.

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    1. Trading fours! There’s a name for it!
      Years and years ago I was dancing in a bar with a not at all memorable band, and the drummer was doing a fancy beat followed by an oom-pah oom-pah, and I would copy what he’d just done in the first half. After sixteen bars of this he laughed and pointed a stick at me and I started doing fancy beats that he copied. One of the most enjoyable musical exchanges of my life.

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      1. Actually, what you did was another great musical exchange, which seems to have started in Africa and came over with the enslaved. It’s called a “Call and Response” pattern, and it’s extremely common. You also get it in some churches, where the minister will say a line and the congregation says it back. And yes, it can be a lot of fun, and I use it when I’m teaching improvisation or extemporaneation (what art musicians call improvisation) to small groups of musicians. Translate that to a heated discussion or an argument in writing and you can tap into that same rhythmic energy. If you have one character mocking another that’s the more common version of it, but making the dialog follow similar patterns as it goes back and forth, getting more complex over time, could be interesting to read (or in my case, hear) as the rhythm of the words draws the reader/listener into the drive to the climax of the scene. But yeah, it’s a blast to participate in these kinds of interactions, and if it’s someone you know well and have played with for a while it can initiate trance or flow states.

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        1. I never thought to call it Call and Response (that’s awkward to say) because it was so much more complicated than what I’m use to in call and response. You’re right; that’s what it is.

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        2. Like banter, which so many writers misinterpret as trading insults but is really about falling into a rhythm and bouncing dialogue back and forth. Banter isn’t an argument because nobody want to shut the other person down, it really is verbal intercourse.

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          1. Which is why “Moonlighting” was so incredibly sexy back in the day. God, I loved that show. The whole show was foreplay.

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