Form refers to the basic structure of a piece of music.

TL;DR (Overview)

  • 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:
    • Strophic (with verses)
    • Binary (two different sections, A and B)
    • Ternary (three different sections, A, B, and return to A)
  • Musical compositions can take many forms, among them:
    • Canon / Round
    • Verse and refrain/chorus
    • Theme and variations
    • Concerto
    • Rondo
    • Sonata
    • Fugue
    • Opera
    • Symphony

Go to the extras to test yourself!

There are many different types of form in music. This lesson is intended to be just an introduction. Here are some basic musical forms to remember:
  • 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)
There are other forms, but these are the three main ones to remember. Read below to see what the letters mean, and for more explanations of the three different forms.

Analysis using letters

The structure of a piece of music can be analyzed using the letters of the alphabet. We label the first section with the letter A. When a new type of section appears, we label it B. The next new section will be labeled C, and so on. We’ll explore this idea using a pop song. We’re going to use the Lady Gaga song “A Million Reasons” for our analysis. Before starting, look at the chart below. We’ll use A to designate the verses, B for the chorus, and C for the bridge:
While listening to the song, follow the structure below and try to hear how each part is similar or different from the others. The form of this song is AABAABCB.

We can use these letters to analyze a WHOLE SONG, or PARTS of the song. You’ll see how this works below.

Sectional Form

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
  • Verse
  • Chorus / Refrain
  • Bridge / Interlude
  • Coda or Outro (opposite of “intro”)

Strophic Form (AAA…)

“Strophe” = “Verse” Folk songs, or traditional music, often follow the structure AAA… This form, without a chorus or refrain, is good for storytelling; each verse adds to the story being told. A good example of this is the song “Farewell to Tarwathie”, a Scottish song that tells the story of a fisherman who says goodbye to his country and to his friends as he sets off to Greenland to hunt whales. Note that, while the structure of the WHOLE piece is strophic (AAA), or many verses with no chorus, each verse within itself is ternary (AABA) – two similar musical phrases, followed by a different one, with a return to the first musical phrase at the end.
Very often, traditional French songs take this form. Some examples are “Au clair de la lune”, « Aux marches du palais », « Le roi a fait battre tambour », and many, many others. Pop songs can also have the strophic (AAA…) form. An example of this is “The Rose”, by Bette Midler. There are three verses (each one, internally, is ternary: AABA) and no chorus.

Binary Form

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”.)

Greensleeves score
Listen to Greensleeves (a great a cappella cover version) and try to hear how the song takes the binary shape (AABB).

Ternary Form

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

We can also include different kinds of musical compositions in the definition of musical form. Some common composition types are:

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!


Form = structure; letters to analyze form (ABA, AA, ABAC…); strophic (verses), binary (two sections), ternary (three sections, the first repeating); musical composition forms: canon/round, verse and refrain/chorus, theme and variations, concerto, rondo, sonata, fugue, opera, symphony…