We pick up guitars or basses, sit down at our pianos or keyboards, and start hammering away, trying to learn the instrument. Most of us don’t give a minute’s thought to musical theory or if it is important.
When someone happens to ask, “What is form in music?” the majority won’t know or even care. I was learning a Joe Bonamassa song; what does that have to do with Classical music or music theory? But it does, as we shall see.
Music is a lot like a language. When we speak, we use certain rules so that people understand what we are saying. Likewise, when we play music, we do the same thing.
When we look at a piece of music, buried in the midst of it all is how we need to play it. To speak it, to continue the analogy. Instructions for musicians, conductors, anybody that uses it. Instructions on how the composer thinks it ought to be played. That is quite important.
It Has a Structure
Music, like language, has rules. And the rules that we use in music, as in language, need structure to them. If music is what we refer to as language, then its grammar is its form.
Just as in language, the rules for Form in Music have exceptions. But what language and music have in common is that the structure gives you the basis for composition, whether it be writing or music.
What is the Definition of Form in Music
So, we have seen that form in music has some relevance to its structure and organization. And to have both of those things, it needs to have rules. Having rules means we can then assign it to one of the musical forms and be able to analyze it.
If we are to consider a piece of music or a song to be part of a certain form, it would need to follow these rules about its melody, rhythm, and harmony. If we can understand this level of structure and organization, we can see how the music operates as a composition.
Levels Of Structure and Organisation
There are four basic organization levels. These are from the smallest to the largest.
- Movements, or the complete work.
Let’s look at each of them in turn.
The smallest level is made up of notes and rests. It shows how a measure is organized through the beats and accented or unaccented beats.
This would usually have anything up to four bars in length. It is where you will possibly find the basis of the melody of the piece. It can be a recognizable section of the music.
Passages are indeterminate in length and can be anything from four phrases to sixteen. This is what might be known as a chorus, a verse, or a bridge in modern music. Today, this might be just a few passages that would extend to the three and a half minutes song.
Movement or the Complete Song or Piece
Again, a section of indeterminate length. It could be a three and half minute pop song, or it could be something from Beethoven.
Although, if you take a Symphony, it could have several individual movements that make up the piece. Each of those movements will have quite a few passages, and each passage will have its phrases that, in turn, have their bars.
Using the Form organization of the piece, no matter how long, it can be laid out in front of you. You can read like a book. That makes it easier to look at and analyze.
What Is Form In Music – How Do We Analyze Musical Form?
To facilitate an accurate representation of the structure, we label the levels of organization with letters. In modern music, we might label the verse ‘A’ and the Chorus ‘B.’
In a song that was just a verse and chorus that could be represented as A, B, A, and B, depending on the length of the song. Or if the song ended with a double chorus, we could show that as A, B, A, B, and B.
Additionally, if there was a bridge in the song, we might label that as C. Therefore, if the song went Verse, Chorus, Verse, Bridge, Verse, Chorus, this would be represented by A, B, A, C, A, and B.
Nine Basic Types of Musical Form
There are nine different types of musical forms, although some do overlap others a little. Some are more common than others, but I have included them anyway.
These are what are known as being in a sectional form. This is a name given to a piece of music that can be broken down into its “A, B, C, etc.” constituent parts. Let’s start with the most basic.
Not seen that often these days because it has a very plain structure. It is the type of song or piece that repeats itself over. “Amazing Grace” would be a good example. You can label the first part as A, but then it repeats itself. So, the structure would be “A, A, A, etc.”
The Binary form is recognizable because there are two sections. These sections are about the same in importance to the piece and their length. Depending on the arrangement, it can be written in a form as A, A, B, B, or A, B.
Not a particularly interesting form to play as a musician, which I can vouch for, but it can nevertheless be influential. “A Horse With No Name” by America, recorded at Morgan Studios in West London, is a good example of a Binary form song.
This is a form that sometimes causes some confusion. It is a song or music piece that has three sections. The first and second sections can be easily distinguished.
The third section, however, is a repeat of the main idea of the first section but with some subtle differences. Because the third part is repeating the first, albeit slightly differently, it would be written down as A, B, and A.
Examples of a Ternary Form would be “Old King Cole” or “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.”
This form takes the Binary and Ternary forms and adds some extras. In Rondo form, you are introduced to “episodes.” These are contrasting music sections that sit between other passages.
You may use the A and B or verse and chorus, but the other sections or “episodes” can be added that you might name C and D. In a format that has verse and chorus and with episodes that sit between the verses, this may look like this:-
A, B, A, C, A, D, and C and D are the episodes.
If the second episode were the same as the first, then you would write C instead of the D. You can add as many episodes as you like providing they have differences from other episodes. A good example of the Rondo Form is the “Fur Elise” by Beethoven.
The Medley or Chain Form
This is sometimes also called “Through-Composed Form.” This type of form is not very common in modern music. It occurs when every phrase or passage is different from the previous one or any that have gone before. That makes each passage or phrase unique.
Labeling each of these differently will give you a pattern of A, B, C, D, etc. Depending, of course, on how many passages or phrases there are.
You may sometimes have an occasion where each passage has an immediate repeat. This, when written down, would give A, A, B, B, C, C, D, and D. Famous examples include Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen and Jesus of Suburbia by Green Day.
Theme and Variation Form
A popular form in classical music, this form has an initial theme which is labeled as A. What follows contains a variation in that theme and might be labeled as B. C would be another variation on the theme.
Each variation, whilst bearing the idea and being similar, has its own characteristics. It is similar in some ways to the Melody and Chain form we have just looked at. But in Theme and Variation form, each section has a relationship with the first section. In melody or Chain form, it doesn’t.
Two Ways To Write This Form
There are two ways to write this form. Some people have used A, B, C, and D, etc. The problem with writing it like that is there is an obvious clash with the way you would write for a piece in Melody and Chain form.
It is more likely to be written down as A, A1, A2, A3, etc. Writing this way acknowledges the relationship to the first section by those that follow.
Don’t confuse this with “the Sonata.” That is a piece of music that is instrumental and composed of several movements which contrast with each other. The Sonata Form describes the structure of an individual movement.
In the Classical period, this was one of the important forms in music where themes were developed. Ironic then that it does not follow the basic A, B, C, etc., lettering process of the other forms. Instead, it uses names for the three main parts. These are:
This is sometimes called the “First Movement Form” because it is in the First Movement of a Symphony or Concert that you are likely to find it. It is also the most complicated form in music. Let me give you a brief explanation of the three names.
The theme of the piece is introduced by the composer. You might say the listener is “exposed” to the theme.
As the piece continues, the themes are explored and altered slightly in a variety of ways. The ideas from the Exposition stage, therefore, are being “developed.”
You could describe this as a “recap” of the themes introduced in the Expositions stage. They are played again, usually with some minor and subtle changes.
There could be a complete article about the Sonata Musical Form and its content. It is complex and all-encompassing. But understanding it is very rewarding and opens up a vista of thought on how the Masters composed music in the Classical period.
One of the most notable pieces in Sonata Form is “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” by Mozart.
The Final Form
What did I say at the beginning? I am learning to play a Joe Bonamassa song. Why do I need to understand Music theory? The final form is the 12-Bar Blues. Gulp!
Common in Jazz and early Blues, and later in just about everything, it covers twelve bars or measures, hence its name. It follows a pattern most of us are very familiar with. The A, B, A, C, B, and A form. This is where the A is the root chord, the B is the 4th, and the C the 5th in any key you choose to play it in. There was a method in all that madness that has gone before us after all.
So, that is a brief answer to the question, “What is Form in Music?” Whatever instrument you play or genre you are in, understanding form in music will be a big help. And if you’re interested in learning more, here are some books that will help you gain a deeper appreciation of Musical Forms…
- Practical Approach to the Study of Form in Music
- Form in Music (2nd Edition)
- The Shaping Forces in Music: An Inquiry into the Nature of Harmony, Melody, Counterpoint, and Form
Want to Learn More About Music Theory?
Our experts can help with that. Take a look at our detailed articles on What is Strophic Form In Music, What Is AABA Form In Music, What Is Homophonic Texture In Music, What Is Timbre In Music, What is Melody in Music, The Mixolydian Mode, The Phrygian Mode, and The Dorian Mode for more useful musical information.
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What Is Form In Music – Final Thoughts
Having Form in music is just one way to organize its structure. And having so many variations in form gives you different ways to write your music. From the complexities of the Sonata form to the 12-bar blues, they all play a vital part in making music what it is.
Until next time, let your music play.