A binary song or a song featuring the AB form is one that’s comprised of two distinct sections. It sounds simplistic. But you might be surprised by the vast array of popular songs that use this form.
In this guide, we look at an array of binary songs and AB form music examples.
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
Song year: 1984
Leonard Cohen’s immortal masterpiece echoes throughout musical history. Canadian singer-songwriter Cohen wrote many notable works throughout his career, but “Hallelujah” is up there so far as important songs are concerned (even though the definitive version is up for grabs – maybe Jeff Buckley’s?).
Of all the songs mentioned here, “Hallelujah” probably features the AB song structure in its purest form. It is that way by necessity, though, because Cohen had a lot to say, reportedly penning as many as 180 verses.
He managed to boil it down to five in the recorded version, but the song still lasts for almost five minutes. That doesn’t leave much room for added complexity.
All music students should become intimately familiar with “Hallelujah,” and it’s a good song for beginner to intermediate musicians to work on.
“Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus
Song year: 2013
You can hardly be blamed for liking Miley Cyrus’ relationship melodrama power ballad that goes by the rather obvious title, “Wrecking Ball.” Just as the title leaves little to the imagination, Miley’s wardrobe in the music video didn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination either. If you didn’t like what you heard, you at least liked what you saw.
As with many pop songs mentioned in this guide, “Wrecking Ball” is quite straightforward arrangement-wise, and I would generally agree that it has something resembling a binary form.
Fun fact – Miley didn’t have anything to do with the writing of “Wrecking Ball,” and in fact, it almost went to Beyoncé. Imagine that.
“Bad” by Michael Jackson
Song year: 1987
Michael Jackson couldn’t hold on to the bad image for long, but some might argue he was successful for a short period with the eponymous “Bad.” Produced in collaboration with Quincy Jones (a winning formula by this point in time), it would reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 almost effortlessly.
Rewatching the music video now, you can see why “Weird Al” Yankovic wanted so badly to parody it. A Michael Jackson video unveiling was always an event, but this one hams it up with a heaping helping of grilled cheese, at least seen through modern eyes.
The binary form is evident if you listen close, and this song is another great example of the AB structure in action.
“Hey Ya!” by Outkast
Song year: 2003
In 2003, the tag team of Outkast (André 3000 and Big Boi) brought us “Hey Ya!,” a song that for some reason consistently ranks high in greatest song lists. If you love it, you may want to forego the following paragraph.
In my opinion, the minor key four-chord clap-along is only barely danceable, and at its core, a very straightforward song. You can see exactly how hard they tried to amp up the energy in the music video (they used the same screaming sound effect multiple times too).
The song is a great study in the AB form though, so it merits a mention.
“Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen
Song year: 1963
“Louie Louie” was originally written and composed by Richard Berry. The best-known version of the song, however, is The Kingsmen version, which is now considered a pop and rock standard.
The catchy three-chord wonder was just what the 60s ordered. It was the right time and place for just such a tune, especially considering songs in the same vein that were yet to come, like “Wild Thing” by The Troggs.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan
Song year: 1963
Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was initially a sleeper. But that doesn’t seem to have done it any harm, because it was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and has consistently ranked towards the top of “greatest song” lists as well.
The song is necessarily simple, as many Dylan songs are. I only have the highest regard for the man, he is easily one of the greatest songwriters of all time. But as an instrumentalist, let’s just say he knows just enough to get his point across. And that’s not a bad thing.
If you’re just getting started in music, the binary form of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is well worth studying.
“Roxanne” by The Police
Song year: 1978
The Police certainly made a raucous with their reggae rock in the 70s and 80s. And despite its subject matter (a man falling in love with a prostitute), “Roxanne” was not held back on the charts.
Now, The Police is an incredibly talented and versatile band, and each member holds their own. Their songs typically have some underlying complexities not apparent upon first listen, but “Roxanne” is nevertheless one of their shorter, simpler tunes, especially in terms of the overall structure.
“Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
Song year: 1970
Speaking of sleeper hits, you might be surprised to learn that Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” didn’t immediately rocket to the top of the charts upon its release in 1970. The live version, released in 1974, ultimately reached a higher position than the original and ended up helping its popularity.
Thanks to Amy Grant, and Counting Crows, however, it’s a rare individual who hasn’t heard the hippie folk rock of “Big Yellow Taxi,” and that underlines its significance.
“Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates
Song year: 1977
Pop rock duo Hall & Oates have gone on to become one of the most important figures in pop music besides maybe The Beatles and Elvis “The King” Presley. “Rich Girl” sets forward a template for pop music that countless producers and artists would consider “perfect.”
Perhaps one of the qualities that made it an example worth following is its 2:23 length, which barely leaves enough room for an A and B section. There’s no pop radio format it’s not going to fit.
“Piano Man” by Billy Joel
Song year: 1973
The autobiographic “Piano Man” would become Joel’s first major hit. Of course, today it’s widely accepted as his signature song too. When Joel performs live, it has become common for him to let the audience sing the chorus.
For an audience that had started taking a liking to Elton John, you could certainly make the case that Joel’s “Piano Man” was timely.
“Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan
Song year: 1965
“Like A Rolling Stone” is the song that took Dylan from a folk singer to a rock star. The song was met with critical acclaim and was even described as “revolutionary,” with many elements coming together in just the right way, including the lyric “How does it feel?”
As history would have it, Dylan wrote the song after a grueling tour of England, and it seems he had a lot to say, because he had to distill his 20 pages of lyrics down to four verses and a chorus.
“Like A Rolling Stone” injected new life into Dylan’s career, which he was contemplating quitting before the birth of this pivotal tune.
Jimi Hendrix was a big fan of Dylan, and “Like A Rolling Stone” is among the handful of songs he ended up covering during his short lifetime and even shorter music career.
“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
Song year: 1988
I regard Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” as a foretelling of musical styles that would be pushed to the forefront of popular music in the 90s (think Matchbox Twenty, Goo Goo Dolls, Vertical Horizon, etc.), with an emotive guitar hook and dynamic lead vocal.
The song’s length didn’t exactly fit the radio format, but that doesn’t seem to have impacted its popularity any.
In terms of chord progressions, “Fast Car” only has two, and while the song isn’t constrained by the AB form, it follows it relatively closely.
“Hey Jude” by The Beatles
Song year: 1968
Paul McCartney’s Ode to Jules (Julian Lennon) boasts a seven-minute plus runtime, something that was quite revolutionary in its time. There’s little doubt it paved the way for “Stairway to Heaven,” “Layla,” and other lengthy epics though.
Some music experts say “Hey Jude” follows an AB form, and while I don’t think it fits the bill perfectly, the sentiment holds that it’s not a hard song to follow, and it is quite repetitive to boot.
And most importantly, for those studying music, it’s an important tune to add to your repertoire.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
Song year: 1988
This enduring 1988 hit probably shares more in common with folk or country music than hard rockers would lead you to believe or even like to admit. It’s a little too upbeat for a power ballad, but it’s not matching the energy of a hard rock banger like “Welcome To The Jungle,” and you’d be crazy to think it was.
Gun N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is one of their most recognizable. And while the post-chorus instrumentals might throw you off a bit, a case could certainly be made that it is following an AB form.
“Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran
Song year: 2017
It feels like only yesterday that Ed Sheeran’s tropical house of “Shape of You” was unleashed upon the listening masses. Sheeran did not originally write it for himself but as a duet for Rudimental and Rihanna. I admit, it could have been rather interesting as a duet.
Either way, not to insult the intelligence of Sheeran fans, but I’m not sure this song has a B. It follows the same chord progression throughout. Sure, there are some peaks and valleys thanks to changes in the melody and modern production, but there is very little artistry or sophistication on display arrangement-wise.
I don’t know if the “singular” form is a thing, but if it is, this song uses it.
“La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens
Song year: 1958
Historically, “La Bamba” is a Mexican folk song stemming from the state of Veracruz. Ritchie Valens was the one to turn it into an immortal Spanish rock and roll hit, however, ultimately reaching audiences all over the world.
Valens would, unfortunately, meet an untimely death in a plane crash just eight months into his music career. As a result, “La Bamba” stands as his most important contribution to music.
The song practically follows the same structure throughout, and I’m not sure if it even has a B section.
“Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish
Song year: 2019
Infiltrating the radio airwaves, sound systems, and car commercials of the world, Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” came disguised in “unique” pop clothing delivering the same electropop we’ve heard before, just in a whispered, stuttering package.
Female empowerment is big business, though, as the likes of Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga proved and continue to prove.
I suppose you could make the argument that “Bad Guy” follows a binary form. The song only uses three chords, though, and they repeat over and over. The only section that’s a little different from the rest is the drop in the outro, which only uses one chord.
“Someone Like You” by Adele
Song year: 2011
Cashing in on the melodrama of bad breakups, we find Adele’s “Somone Like You” a delightful guilty pleasure. The piano-driven ballad shares much in common with John Legend songs, though we dare not say who’s following who. Sorry if that hits you the wrong way, but it’s true.
“Someone Like You” is quite simple in terms of arrangement, and if I were to look at the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus as a package deal, then I could sort of make a case for binary form. Even, then, though, I think it might be closer to AABC.
“Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd
Song year: 2019
The Weeknd puts a modern spin on retro 80s music yet again with “Blinding Lights.” There’s something that sounds vaguely familiar about that description… what is it… oh yeah, virtually every Weeknd hit! But hey, at least he’s consistent.
The intro / verse / pre-chorus / chorus is effectively a package deal, as it repeats twice. Then the song moves into a bridge, repeated chorus, and an outro of sorts. So, from that perspective, you could say that it follows a binary form. I think it would still be AAB to be precise, though.
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson
Song year: 1983
Michael Jackson’s quintessential post-disco of “Billie Jean” was still danceable as his disco hits of the yesteryear while offering a much darker vibe than the sound fans came to know him for. The musical style fit Jackson to a tee, and it would propel him to icon status.
“Billie Jean” features three distinct chord progressions, and aside from some repeated segments here and there, it follows the same structure throughout. If I don’t analyze too hard and squint a little, I would agree that this nearly five-minute hit follows a binary form.
“Billie Jean” is also brilliant in its minimal but layered arrangement, something anyone who is looking to write or produce pop music should observe and study well.
“Mr. Brightside” by The Killers
Song year: 2003
Millennial partygoers went crazy over The Killers’ 2003 hit, “Mr. Brightside,” and still do, especially when they’ve been drinking. With distorted vocals, colorful high-pitched guitar arpeggios, and a speedy, rolling drumbeat, The Killers epitomized the early 2003 alt-rock / pop-rock vibe to a tee.
The song is structured very simply with an intro / verse / pre-chorus / chorus form (an intro repeated is just an interlude, isn’t it?). I would say some subtleties don’t make it an AB form, exactly, but being that the song is repetitive, I can settle.
Best Binary Songs In AB Form, Final Thoughts
The bottom line is most songs follow a similar form, especially Top 40 hits. All rules are made to be broken, but it is worth studying common forms before attempting to invent your own. Most things have been done, and it’s relatively obvious that some things don’t work as well as others.
So, engage with the music as a student, and always listen for the form. See if you can guess what it is without having to look at the sheet music or a lead sheet. Then, notice the songs that share forms in common.