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.