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Understanding the musical form of a piece is an important part of being a musician. Whether you’re a pianist or just curious about music, understanding the musical form helps with understanding the structure of a piece. It also speeds up the learning process.
Here is a comprehensive list of the most common musical forms
- Strophic (AAA)
- Through-Composed (ABCDE..)
- Binary (AB)
- Ternary (ABA)
- Rondo (ABACA) or (ABACABA)
- Arch (ABCBA)
- Sonata (Exposition, Development, Recapitulation)
- Theme And Variations
It’s important to understand how musical form works because it’s the basic structure of an entire work. In this article, we’ll analyze each form, give a clear definition, look at a few specific examples, and also the purpose of each musical form. Let’s start off with strophic form.
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What Is Strophic Form
Strophic form is one of the most common musical forms. It’s also referred to as song form or verse form. It’s the most basic of all the forms because of its repetitiveness. , typically featuring an AAA structure.
Strophic form is most commonly seen in popular music, folk music, or music that is verse based. This is because the material is repeated so much. Each of those A’s represents a short verse, normally 8 to 16 measures long.
It’s also common to see strophic form represented in blues music, chants, and in some instances of Classical music.
An example of the strophic form in a folk song would be “The Wheels On The Bus”. A church hymn such as “Amazing Grace” or even a simple nursery tune like “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.
Although strophic form is AAA, there are times where theme and variations can be applied to it. For example, a piece of music can be in AA’A” form. That means for me the most part the A material remains the same, although with slight augmentations to it. An example would be slight changes to the rhythm, changes to tempo, and different cadential material.
What Is Through-Composed Form
Through-composed form is a composition that is entirely continuous. Any large scale thematic material is not repeated, and each section sounds like something completely different. An example of this would be ABCDE.
In a sense, it’s non-sectional and everything operates independently of one another. Compared to strophic form this is a lot different because nothing is repeated. In song form, through-composed music gives each verse it’s own unique melody.
Through-composed music was widely popular in the 17-20th centuries. IT was also quite common to find it in Lieder works that were not strophic. In some instances, through-composed music may keep the rhythms uniform although the melodies use different notes. The purpose of that is to add a bit of continuity to the piece so that it does not come across so random to the listener.
In general, through-composed music is really interesting to listen to. None of the music is repeated, so you’ll only hear something happen once. Most through-composed pieces are quite short, although it’s common to hear it used in some opera works. An example of through-composed music in popular music would be the Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.
What Is Binary Form
Binary form is music with an A and B section. While the material is different in each section, it’s closely related.
Recognizing a piece of music in binary form requires you to identify where the contrasting material is. Things to look for include changes in rhythm, key signatures, cadences, and other harmonic adjustments.
There are two different versions of binary form. This includes:
- Simple Binary
- Rounded Binary
In simple binary form, the A material is followed by B material that has moved to the dominant. So for example, a piece that starts in C major will conclude in G major.
Now if the piece were in a minor key, then the B section would simply transition to the relative major key. An example of that is a piece that starts in A minor, but then transitions to C major.
In rounded binary form, the rules mostly remain the same. The difference is that there is more material added to the B section. That material is pulled from part of the A section. Unlike ternary form, it’s not a completely new section.
You mostly find this in theme and variations, especially in Classical-era music. Mozart was known for using rounded binary in the structure of his piano sonatas. Beethoven also made extensive use of this in his piano sonatas.
What is Ternary Form
Ternary form is defined as ABA structure. This means the piece starts with the main theme, goes to contrasting material, and then returns with that exact main theme material to end it.
Ternary form looks a lot like rounded binary form, however, the key difference is that the last section operates independently of the B section. Rather than having partial A material, the last section is an entire recapitulation of the main theme. Sometimes the recapitulation can be slightly varied either through rhythm or tempo.
The three sections of ternary form sound appear and sound like complete compositions in themselves. Each of those sections concludes on a perfect authentic cadence, which provides the most closure.
The mood is also an important characteristic of ternary form. The first section might be quick and lively while the B section is quiet and less intense. Composers who use this form put a great deal of effort ensuring that the B section has a well-defined character that allows each section to sound like their own separate compositions.
The sections work similarly to rounded binary when it comes to the key. When the A section starts in a major key, the B section will typically operate within the dominant key. If the first A section is in a minor key, the B section will operate in the relative major key.
A much broader version of ternary form is called compound ternary form.
In compound ternary form, each large section has a regular ternary form within it. For example, within the first A section, there is an ABA structure. The B section would include new material, so this would actually be CDC. The final A section will be a repeat of the first with ABA. Think of a Minuet and trio or Scherzo and Trio for example.
There are other forms of ternary such as closed ternary (also referred to as sectional ternary). In this form, both A sections will end on the tonic key. In continuous ternary, the cadence is typically the dominant key.
Piano sonatas use different types of ternary form widely, especially works by Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, and Scarlatti. It can also be traced back as far as Middle Age music such as the ancient Gregorian chants.
What Is Rondo Form
Rondo form is ABACA or ABACABA. The most common forms are the 5-part and 7-part Rondo. What you’ll notice about rondo form is that each section returns to the A section. However, as the sections progress, new material is added in between each A section.
Those contrasting sections are often referred to as episodes while the main theme is called the refrain. Sometimes the material is varied either through rhythm or articulations. It will still fall on the same cadences each time.
It can also be viewed as an extension of either ternary form or binary form. The additional sections help define it from other forms, especially through-composed which only introduced new material.
Sometimes Rondo form can be much broader and be ABACABA or The first B section of a piece in rondo form is usually in the dominant or relative major key. The second B section can trail off to whatever key it needs to.
In the C section, completely new material is introduced. Each of the refrains can be different thematically and tonally which is what makes Rondo form so unique.
In general, rondo form music sounds lively to the listener. It’s often at a fast allegro tempo. It is also very rhythmic and repetitive in some spots. Occasionally you’ll discover pieces that have a slow rondo in an Andante tempo.
It’s easy to tell if a piece is in Rondo form if you continue to hear material from the A section returning.
Examples of pieces that use rondo form include:
- Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony
- Mozart’s Eine Kleine Natch Musik
- Bach’s E major Violin Concerto
- Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 13 (final movement)
What Is Arch Form
Arch form is ABCBA. It carries this name because the structure of the music moves in the form of an arch. There is new material in each of the first three sections. Once it reaches the C section, the music simply moves in reverse order. It goes back through the B material and concluding with the main A theme.
While those sections playback in the reverse order, they can be varied. They can have changes to rhythm and style as long as the thematic material is the same.
This musical form is entirely symmetric. While arch form is not as common as ternary or binary, there are some popular instances of this happening in music.
Bela Bartok used it widely in his string quartet music, most notably the fourth and fifth. It’s also present in his second piano concerto. Samuel Barber also used arch form in his Adagio for Strings. Arch form is essentially a rondo form, but symmetrical.
What Is Sonata Form
Sonata form is a musical composition that’s organized in three distinct sections. Sonata form consists of:
It works a lot like ternary form actually, and it’s easy to get the two mixed up. The exposition and development have very distinct themes and key areas. Each half of the form is harmonically enclosed. The exposition is considered the first half while the development and recapitulation are considered the second half.
In the exposition, we are presented with two subjects, basically binary form. The first subject is in the tonic key while the second moves to the dominant. If it’s a minor key sonata, then it’ll work from within the minor key moving to the relative major.
Usually, the development section is thicker in musical texture and full in unstable harmonic structure. Instead of just settling in one key, this section will sometimes travel through multiple modulations. The development section features a completely new theme.
In ternary form, the middle section is closely related. However, in sonata form, the middle section does not have to even be remotely related to the exposition. The rhythms are more diverse, the chords are more complex, and the dynamics are much broader compared to the exposition.
The recapitulation is a clear restatement of the exposition and rolls in effortlessly out of the development section. It’s often varied. Usually, it returns with a different dynamic than it’s the first appearance in the exposition. This helps set a new mood.
Sometimes the recapitulation returns in a different key, which is actually a false recapitulation. In this case, the development section is teasing the return of the exposition material because the harmonic structure is still unstable. Once the recapitulation is heard in the tonic key, then and only then is it a true recapitulation.
Occasionally, pieces in sonata form will have a short tag added on to the recapitulation. Sometimes a sonata form piece will open up with an introduction section just before the exposition.
One change you might also notice is that both subjects from the exposition will operate in the tonic key instead of the second moving to the dominant.
Choose pretty much any Beethoven piano sonata, and you’ll find that most of the first movements are in sonata form. Sonata form structure was widely used in the 18th century by Mozart and Hadyn as well. It’s also very present in solo, chamber works, and symphonic compositions of the Classical period.
Have a listen to the Waldstein piano sonata by Beethoven for a sonata form example.
What Are Theme And Variations
In theme and variations, the main theme is developed throughout subsequent sections. In the first section, the main theme is first introduced. After that section comes to a close, the first variation is introduced.
This variation along with the rest will follow the same harmonic progressions. In each new variation, there can be changes to the rhythm, articulations, and style of the piece. In some instances, the key signature can also change, however, it will still follow the relative harmonic structure in the new key.
Countermelodies are also quite common and continue to add on and change in each variation. There are also changes to the meter, dynamics, mood, and even the instrumentation.
Beethoven’s 32 variations in C minor are a great example of this in action. Take a look at the video below to get an idea of how this works.
Other piano compositions such as Brahms Variations on a Theme by Rober Schumann and the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star variations by Mozart are also great examples.
Style-Specific Musical Forms
Now that you have a grip on the main different musical forms, it’s important to understand that there are other variants of each form. Each form can be adjusted to expand, condense, or in a way switch to a new form. Below is a list of some other forms you may run into in musical compositions that you analyze.
- Sonata Rondo
- Scherzo and Trio
- Minuet and Trio