Exploring Music's Complexities

What is Musical Form?

What is Musical Form?

Over the past several weeks these posts have attempted to further the reader’s interest in music theory. To date, the basic elements of music covered include rhythm, melody, harmony and dynamics. Taken individually each of these basic elements plays an important role in building a piece of music. Together they provide the material to produce a form of music. The following pages will attempt to provide insight into how one can become able to recognize the architecture (form)to a piece of music as one listens.

It is generally accepted that music is the most difficult of the arts to define because of the subtle way it paints diverse moods and effects. Musical forms range from the simplest to the very complex. The Music Catalog at Yale lists over 70 musical forms in its basic glossary of musical terms (1). In the Western culture it is fairly easy to grasp the form of short and simple pieces such as verses of a refrain of pop songs. Classical music tends to contain longer, more complex forms that require a familiarity with the piece upon repeated hearings.

As noted above, form describes the overall structure of a piece of music (3). The Oxford Companion to Music (10thed) defines musical form as a “series of strategies designed to find a successful means between the opposite extremes of unrelieved repetition and unrelieved alteration” (3). Musicologist Richard Middleton describes form through repetition and difference: Difference is the distance moved from a repeat: A repeat being the smallest difference (2).

In simpler terms, every piece of music has an overall structure. While form is made up of rhythm, melody and harmony they can offer a great range of complexity from a verse to a sonata (1).

Wonderful clues to understanding a composition are presented by Professor Brandt’s “Sound Reasoning” course (2). The term music form describes the layout of a composition as divided into sections (3). Brandt suggests, “Informed listening begins with a grasp of the whole composition.” From here he suggests “moving from the whole into the details.” The smallest sections of a piece of music deals with the way musical phases are organized, such as a verse of a song.

There are two ways to describe a piece of music. One is labeling each large section with a letter. The other occurs when a musical form becomes so popular with composers that it is given a name (4). This also applies to many genres of music that tend to follow a preset form such as with “pop songs” or symphony form.

Labeling Music Forms with Letters

When labeling music forms with letters the major section would be labeled with an A. If the subsequent sections are exactly the same as the first it would also be labeled A. If these sections differ in some important way it would be labeled A’ (A prime). The first section that is quite different from A is labeled B with the sections that are like it with B, B’ and so forth. Sections that differ from A or B are labeled C and so on. Listen to samples of these various forms below.  .Recognition of sections is pretty easy with familiar kinds of music. If the piece, regardless of the genre, is unfamiliar, listen for repetition, changes in the rhythm, melody, and harmony. Listen for verses, refrains, bridges and instrumentals. Verses will have the same melody and the same words. Bridge sections will contain new material late in the song and frequently leading into the refrain.

Many musical forms can be produced with repetition, contrast and variation. A few common forms include:

Strophic – A AAA etc. – In this form the music is repeated sections with fairly small changes.

World On A String



 Binary – AB – Two different sections common in Western music

Pathless Journey



Ternary – ABA – Contains three main sections

When You Wish




Rondo – ABACA – One section returns over and over with a section of new music before each return

In Heavenly Peace



Sonata – sonata allegro first movement form, compound binary, ternary and a variety of other names

When You Wish


Theme & Variations – AA1A2A3A4 – (Baroque-Classical) A set of variations based on a theme

In Heavenly Peace


Brandt states the prime articulates of form are rhythm and texture (2). If you determine the rhythm and texture sound the same you are probably listening to an A Form of music. If you hear changes in either of these elements you are listening AB From More detail regarding these and other forms a comprehensive description of these and other forms log may be found at http://cnx.org/content/m11643/latest/

What has been described and listened to above relates to the extensional form of music construction. Following these traditions a composer will use theme and variations, counterpoint, and tonality to outwardly build a diachronically and synchronically musical form.

Much Contemporary music doesn’t follow these traditions. Abandoning the traditional form construction composers may choose not to combine musical units through space and time. According to http://www.wordiQ.com, more segmented approaches are being used through the use of stratification, superimposition, juxtaposition, interpolation, and other interruptions and simultaneities. (5). All existing genres and sub-types of the Afro-American tradition show various forms of combined traditional form and “intensional” development (5).

So, what does this all mean to a music lover? Bottom line is: While it isn’t necessary to recognize a piece of music’s form it helps the listener enjoy the music more.


1. Music Cataloging at Yale Music cataloging resources taken in part from the glossary of the The Classical Music Navigator by Charles H. Smith

2. Brandt Anthony. Sound Reasoning – Connexions (www.cnx.org/content/col10214)

3. Scholes Percy A. (1977). “Form”. The Oxford Companion to Music (10ed) Oxfore University Press.

4. wordiQ.com. Form (music) – Definition

5. Schmidt-Jones Catherine. Form in Music. Connexions. Retrieved March 7, 2012. http://cnx.org/content//ml10842/latest/


Brandt Anthony. Sound Reasoning – Connexions (www.cnx.org/content/col10214)

Kelley Robert T. Study Guide for Musical Form A Complete Outline of Standardized Formal Categories and Concepts. (http://wwwstudent.furman.edu/users/r/rkelley/form.html)


If you haven’t visited our catalog in a while, please take a few minutes to note the new direction some of our music is taking, Of course, we welcome any and all feedback by contacting us at relax@wonderofsound.com.

Purchase music from ITunes, Amazon.com or http://www.wonderofsound.com.

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