Form refers to the basic structure of a piece of music.
- Musical form refers to the structure of a musical piece or of a song.
- Music can be analyzed using the letters of the alphabet to designate each section (ABA, ABACA, etc.)
- Musical form can be:
- Musical compositions can take many forms, among them:
- Canon / Round
- Verse and refrain/chorus
- Theme and variations
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- Strophic Form – same melody for each verse, no choruses (AAA…) (“strophe” = “verse”)
- Binary Form – two different sections (AB or AABB) (bi- = 2)
- Ternary form – three different parts (ABA, AABA…) where the first section is repeated after the second section. (ter- = 3)
Analysis using letters
We can use these letters to analyze a WHOLE SONG, or PARTS of the song. You’ll see how this works below.
Sectional forms are built from various, different sections. Examples of these are the strophic form (AAA), the binary form (AB), and the ternary form (ABA).
Some of the sections might include:
- Introduction / Intro
- Chorus / Refrain
- Bridge / Interlude
- Coda or Outro (opposite of “intro”)
Strophic Form (AAA…)
Bi- = 2
Binary form is where there are only two different sections to a song or work. There is an A section (or there can be several A sections in a row), and then one or more B sections. There is no return to an A section in binary form.
The song “Greensleeves” is an example of binary form. The song alternates between a verse (AA) and a repeated chorus (BB). Look at the excerpt below to help you to see the patterns. (This musical example uses the terms “period 1” and “period 2”; some people call these “verse” and “chorus”.)
Ter- = 3
In ternary form, there are three separate sections; the first and third section are the same. This is written, for example, as ABA, or AABA, or AABBAA.
The VERSES of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” are ternary, even though the song itself is strophic:
In classical music, an example of ternary form is this short piece by Mozart (Andande, kv 15mm.) You can look at the score while you listen.
Types of Musical Compositions
Canon / Round – A melody is repeated by several singers or instruments, but they each begin singing or playing at different times. An interesting version of “Frère Jacques”, with overtone singing!
Verse and refrain / chorus – A song is made up of several (or many) verses. Usually there is a refrain, or a chorus (both words are correct), and sometimes an instrumental section or a “bridge” – a transition between two parts of the song. This is Bob Dylan singing “Blowing in the Wind”:
Theme and variations – A melody (theme) is introduced, and then it’s changed as it is repeated (variations). (A A’A”A’’’…) This is a Haydn string quartet, with annotations and a score to help you follow the structure:
Concerto – a work for one or more soloists, and an orchestra. It has three movements. Here is my favorite violinist, Hilary Hahn, playing the Beethoven Concerto for Violin and Orchestra:
Rondo – usually ABACADA. It’s when a melody is repeated, separated by contrasting sections. This rondo for violin, by Bach, has the following structure: ABACADAEA. The A section is repeated after each contrasting section:
Sonata (mostly from the Classical Era – Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven) – a piece written for a soloist, or small ensemble, in two to four movements. This is Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 for piano, with a score:
Fugue – One melody enters, then is modified and repeated, each different variation “chasing” each other around. Here is an example of a fugue by Bach, with a score to follow:
Opera – a dramatic composition – or a play set to music – for singers and instrumentalists, where everything is sung. “Carmen” is one of my favorite operas. It was written by the French composer Georges Bizet in the 1870s.
Symphony – a longer composition written for full orchestra, usually in four sections. Here’s a recording of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. I’m sure you’ll recognize the opening bars!
If you can answer all of the questions correctly (without peeking at the lesson) then you’ve mastered the basics of form in music!