The comedian Father Guido Sarduchi noted that we could all save a little time if we trimmed the fat from the Happy Birthday song. He proposed:

Happy birthday to you

Happy birthday dear Guido

Happy birthday to you

After all, what’s really gained from that second “happy birthday to you?” Isn’t an ABA format as good as an AABA?

Most jazz tunes are AABA with eight bars per section and 32 bars for the whole song. The blues also is AABA both in its chord changes and first-line lyrics repeated. In limericks too the rhythmic pattern is AABA. In classical Indian music the AABA form consists of four “matras” or sections, the third of which is “empty.” At a classical Indian concert you’ll see audience members backhand-sweep the air on the empty third matra as though brushing away flies.

It’s not just “Happy Birthday.” Apparently ABA isn’t necessarily as resonant with us as AABA. And why?

Maybe AABA affords the maximum tolerable repetition. Two A’s in a row is fine but three is monotonous. Still, music isn’t about tolerability. It’s about enjoyment and a certain metaphoric resonance with the patterns of life. Life is full of patterns and surprises so we resonate with both. Music is full of tantalizing patterns and attention-teasing surprises. In music’s bait and switches the AA is the bait and the B that follows is the switch. You can’t have a surprise exception to a pattern until you have a pattern, and the minimal pattern is a single repetition: AA.

I’ve long been interested in two possible ways rules work. One version is that all rules come in opposing pairs. For example, sometimes you should accept things as they are and sometimes you should resist things. Assume a 50/50 probability an ABAB, like coin-flips on each of the rules.

The other interpretations is that one rule dominates but with occasional exceptions. For example, assume that you should generally accept things as they are, but that there will be the occasional need to resist also. The minimal way to express this would be AABA.

I think there’s an analog to AABA in child development, helping children develop deep resonance with the patterns of life. First a child must learn rules like “be nice” through repetition. Once the pattern is established, the child learns to diverge from the pattern when necessary. For example when someone asks for something inappropriate, a child shouldn’t feel compelled to be nice.

Indeed, split the AABA pattern into two patterns and you get the two versions of how rules work. AA implies that A is always the rule. BA implies that rules alternate 50/50.

Adulthood is living by the A-rules, knowing that there will be B-exceptions and wondering when those exceptions are. For example, there are times when we break the rule that one should be nice. We take note when we do, wondering, “Was that OK?”

We note the exceptions, and the noting shows that there was a rule in the first place. That’s the real meaning of “The exception that proves the rule.” More accurately we could say that by taking note of the divergence from the rule we prove that there was a rule we diverged from.

Classic psychological research shows that people who doubt their own beliefs are more inclined to proselytize in favor of them. Shakespeare’s “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” reflects this. If I say, “No, believe me. I meant to do that. That’s what I should have done,” I demonstrate that I’ve noticed that I’m making an exception from a rule. We say what we, ourselves need to hear. We need to hear reasons for making the exceptions we do.

And apparently we need to hear a fair amount of AABA, a pattern that reflects that there are both patterns and exceptions.