The future of music

What Is Form in Music? Comprehensive Guide

August 4, 2023
musical form

If you’ve been around our site, you know that not only is music intensely logical and mathematical, but it also mimics language.

It has an internal structure, cadence, and grammar.

Discover the essence of musical form – its meaning and importance in music compositions.

What Is a Musical Form?

Musical arrangements come in multiple forms, each of which indicates different guidelines and logical sequences.

Form refers to the structure and internal organizing principles of a given composition.

A song must follow certain rules pertaining to melody, harmony, and rhythm to slot into one of the designated forms. 

A song is comprised of different components and levels of internal organization.

By familiarizing ourselves with these we can identify the different aspects of a song.

Doing so will allow us to determine whether the components conform to the guidelines of each musical form, and in so doing, we can label a given song and understand its logic more robustly.

Ultimately, form relates to how a song uses the components of music, like melody, harmony, and rhythm.

The Components of a Song

Songs are made up of both short and long components.

In order of length, the components are bars, phrases, passages, and finally movements.

The smallest component is a measure or bar.

An individual bar is made up of both notes and rests.

It can be compared to one word or sentence in our written language.

It is a small segment of music that holds a certain number of beats.

A phrase usually consists of 4 bars or fewer in length.

It could be compared to a paragraph.

A few lines of musical notation or lyrics would be a phrase, like a rock song chorus. 

When you combine a few phrases you get something called a passage.

A passage could be compared to an entire chapter.

In popular music, a passage would be a verse, a second passage would be a chorus, and a third passage would be a bridge.

For example, passages usually consist of 4 or fewer phrases but can consist of more, as many as 16.

Beyond a passage is something called a movement.

A popular song on the radio would be one movement unto itself, but large, expansive orchestral arrangements can consist of multiple movements, and span hours.

Analyzing Form

Understanding the components of a piece of music will help us determine what form a certain song conforms to.

We can analyze the smaller units like bars and phrases or look at the piece from a zoomed-out perspective to determine what structural guidelines it matches, and hence, what form it is. 

When it comes to analyzing a song, we typically designate a unit with a letter like A, B, and C.

Remember, a unit could be a bar, a phrase, a passage, or an entire movement.

We could describe the first verse in a song as A, for example, and the chorus as B.

So, a standard pop song may look like an ABAB form.

This is a familiar form for anyone who has ever listened to music.

The Forms

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, the main event – the fun and fabulous forms.

The forms we will learn about today are all examples of something called sectional forms.

It is a fancy phrase for a simple phenomenon.

Basically, it means that all these forms can be broken down into sections and given a lettered name to differentiate them. 

Strophic Form

Get ready to learn some wild and academic-sounding new terms.

The strophic form sounds complicated but is in fact the most simple of the forms and crops up in pop, rock, jazz, and every popular genre in between.

It is also extremely prevalent in church hymns and chants. 

Amazing Grace” is a famous example.

It is fundamental to the folk tradition.

A few resonant examples are “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart and much of Bob Dylan’s sixties output.

It refers to a form in which only one phrase or passage is repeated throughout an entire piece or movement.

The verse will have one melodic, lyrical, or harmonic structure.

You might also hear it referred to as the chorus form, one-part song form, or verse-repeating form.

We prefer a strophic, however, as it sounds fancier.

It can be visualized with repeated letters like AAA or BBB.

Binary Form

A word you may be familiar with, binary simply indicates that there are two elements involved.

The binary form has two sections, or passages, that are nearly identical in length, that are repeated throughout the piece.

They are often similar in harmonic elements.

This form is prevalent in classical and baroque music.

In the Baroque period, section A usually started in one key and then modulated to a different, but similar key.

Nowadays, the rules are not quite so stringent. An example is “Piano Sonata in D Major” by Mozart.

The main types are simple binary and rounded binary.

In the simple form, the B section does not play or repeat any part of the A section near the end.

The A section repeats, and then the B section repeats without playing part of the A section. 

The rounded binary form is when the B section ends with a little motif, or melodic element, from the A section.

It can be written out like ABAB or AABB.

Ternary Form

We label a song as having a ternary form when it has three parts, and the third part repeats the same ideas, harmonic components, and features of the first.

The three sections can be any length but are typically on the longer side.

Think of a full movement played by an orchestra, for instance.

Some examples include “The Trumpet Shall Sound” by George Frideric Handel and “Glasgow Kiss” by John Petrucci.

There are two types: simple and compound.

In a simple ternary form, each section (A or B) is thematically self-contained and separate from the other two – for instance in an ABA pattern each letter would represent a distinct entity.

In compound ternary form, each section is a movement unto itself, each movement of which is in binary form.

We would write out the ternary form as ABA or BCB.

Rondo Form

A fun word and an even more fun form.

The rondo form was immensely popular during the Classical and Romantic eras.

A rondo form is a bit more complex at first glance.

It begins with a main refrain, which will then repeat between different sections, termed episodes.

The episodes will create a textured contrast with the main refrain.

It can be written out like ABACADAE, with a variable amount of episodes depending on the nature and length of the song.

It takes a main refrain, in this case, the letter A, and intersperses it with alternated episodes, in this case, B, C, D, and E.

You are free to repeat episodes throughout the piece –  not just the refrain.

In a Rondo, the A portion of the song is always in the tonic key.

B and C are typically in a different key than the tonic.

“Fur Elise” by Beethoven and “Every Breath You Take” by The Police are well-loved examples of this form.

Medley/Chain Form

Familiar words, right? A medley is exactly what it sounds like – a glorious mash-up of different themes and musical structures.

This form refers to a song where every section is different than the one that came before it.

It can be written out like ABCDE, with a variable amount of sections.

Keep in mind that medleys can also have pairs of sections, like AABBCC.

The through-composed form is similar to the medley form and is written out like ABCD.

Some examples include “Beach Boys Medley” by, well, the Beach Boys and “Seven Year Scratch” by Madness.

Variational Form

Also dubbed a theme and variation form, it does exactly what it says on the label.

A theme will be introduced and will be followed by variations on the theme.

These can be melodically, harmonically, or rhythmically related to the main theme. 

Theme and variation form was popular during the Classical, Romantic, Baroque, and Renaissance periods.

Examples include “Twelve Variations on Vous dirai-je, Maman” by Mozart and “Variations on La Folia” by Arcangelo Corelli.

The variational form can be written out like the medley form, except that each section maintains a certain fidelity to the original theme, whereas the medley form might have distinctly different passages.

You can write this form out like  A A1 A2 A3 to differentiate the sections from the more stylistically different sections that the ABCD pattern suggests.

The theme is usually between 8 and 32 bars in length and proposes a fundamental idea, passage, or melody as the basis of the piece.

Variations add intrigue, contrast, and new insights and can make for a satisfying and thought-provoking arrangement.

Sonata Form

The sonata form does not use letters to describe it.

It is a bit more intricate and is described in three parts, the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation.

Sounds kind of like a literary narrative, right?

Exactly.

It is kind of like a story arc in musical form.

It has a long heritage in music and was the most popular form during the Classical era, which brought us some of our most enduring compositions from masters like Mozart and Beethoven.

Some examples of the sonata form are “Quartet in G Major” by Mozart and “Sonatina for Violin and Piano” by Dvorak.

The exposition introduces the main thematic components of the piece and establishes the tonic.

The exposition is made up of four mini-parts:

  • The first subject group
  • The transition
  • The second subject group
  • The codetta

It is key to note that the transition phase describes the point when the piece moves from the first key to the second key.

If the first key is major, then the second one is the dominant (V), and if the first key is minor, the second key is the relative major (III).

The development is the second part and starts in the same key that the exposition ended in.

It contains a variety of similar or dissimilar “tonal centers.”

It reasserts the main theme but develops it in some way, adding heightened depth and texture.

It could contain a different key, or possibly scale, and have different harmonic and rhythmic structures.

The recapitulation reemphasizes the theme from the exposition but without a transition to the V.

The scale might be changed at this stage to give the song either a more uplifting or more melancholic tone.

12 Bar Blues

The name probably gives it away.

A 12-bar blues form takes place over 12 bars (or measures).

This form is popular in jazz and blues, two complex genres that are central to modern music.

Some examples are “Tush” by ZZ Top, “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin, and “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley.

The form follows an ABACBA pattern.

For this form, the letters take on a bit of a new significance, where  A = I chord, B = IV chord, and C = V chord of a key.

The chord progression only uses the I, IV, and V chords of a key – aka the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords.

The 12 measures are broken up into three groups of four.

There are a few different versions of the 12-bar blues.

In the “quick four” variation, you will move to the IV chord/subdominant on the second measure of the first 4-measure phrase/section.

In the elongated dominant, the V chord is played for both measures 9 and 10 – not just 9. 

An ending turnaround variation will have you play a V chord in the final measure rather than an I chord and sees a strong pullback to the tonic chord.

Many progressions will use seventh chords instead of triad chords.

Perfect Form

Forms can be a bit complicated and take some getting used to.

You didn’t learn sentence structure and syntax in a day, right?

Learning music theory is truly like learning a second language.

You’ll be in perfect form in no time if you pick through the different forms and see if you can find examples in your favorite tunes.

Happy formulating!

You may also like: What Are Dynamics in Music?

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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