Just like writing and speaking, music is a language with rules that govern how we can compose it. It has structure and grammar – just as you can’t put a punctuation mark in the middle of a sentence, for example, a cadential sequence should come at the end of a musical phrase. Music and language both also have multiple forms, and each form has its own guidelines and format to follow as well.
In this post, we’ll look at all of the different types of musical form, introducing you to each one and how they function.
Definition Of Form In Music
In music, form refers to the structure and organization of a musical composition.
There are many different types of musical form, and to analyze the form of a piece essentially means to place it in one of those prototypes.
If a new piece of music is written, it would have to follow certain guidelines about its melody, harmony, and rhythmic aspects in order to be considered part of a specific form.
There are a few levels of organization that can determine the form of a piece.
The smallest level is at the measure, or bar, level.
This deals with how a measure is broken up into accented and unaccented beats, and how one measure or a few can come together to create a melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic phrase.
This is like looking at one specific word or sentence in a book.
The next level is when you take a few phrases together, you get a passage.
An example could be the chorus or verse of a pop song – usually these are made up of about four lines of singing, each of which could be considered a phrase.
The ‘book’ equivalent to a passage would be a paragraph or a page.
Then, on the highest level, there’s the whole piece, or a movement.
For example, a 3-minute pop song would just have a few passages (verse-chorus-bridge, etc.).
However, a symphony would have 3 or 4 movements, and each movement would have many different passages, each of which would contain one or more phrases.
This level of organization is like looking at a whole book, or a long chapter.
How Form is Analyzed
Form is mostly looked at in terms of the above levels of organization.
Depending on the structure of a specific form, the units of analysis could be small (bars and phrases) or big (movements or entire pieces).
These units are usually assigned a letter – A, B, C, D, and so on.
For example, a verse in a pop song might get the letter A, and then chorus would be called B, because it’s different from A.
If the structure of the song goes verse – chorus – verse – chorus, then that song would be labelled ABAB.
Here’s an example, “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.
Now that we’ve got the idea of how form is analyzed and labelled, let’s take a look at the main types of musical form.
The Types of Musical Form
Almost all of the types of form in music, and all of the ones mentioned here, are called sectional forms.
A sectional form is when music can be broken down into sections and then labelled with the A, B, C letters mentioned above.
Here is a list of the main sectional forms, and we will link to posts that go into each of these in detail.
Strophic Form is a type of musical form when only one phrase or passage is repeated throughout the piece.
You might also see it referred to as verse-repeating form or chorus form.
Because it doesn’t vary at all, Strophic form is labelled as:
A A A A
A good example of a piece that uses stophic form is Amazing Grace.
For more information and examples, read our guide to Strophic Form here.
A piece with Binary Form has two sections that are approximately equal in length and importance.
They tend to be similar not only in length but will often harmonically too.
It is written as either:
A B or A A B B
A good example of a piece written that uses Binary Form is the folk song Greensleeves.
For more information and examples, read our guide to Binary Form here.
A piece separated into three parts, in which the third part repeats the main ideas and passages of the first, has a Ternary Form.
The three sections also tend to be very long and can even be whole movements or pieces.
Because the third part is a repeat of the first Ternary Form is written as:
A B A
A good example of a piece that uses Ternary Form is “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”
For more information and examples check out our guide to Ternary Form in music here.
Another type is Rondo Form which follows on from Binary and Ternary form by adding some additional sections.
It starts with a main passage or phrase that repeats in between different, contrasting sections, called “episodes”.
A B A C A D A
You can also carry on adding more episodes which would be written as
A B A C A D A E A
A good example of a piece of music using Rondo Form is Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”.
For more information and examples read our guide to Rondo Form here.
Medley or Chain Form
Medley Form is when each new passage or phrase is different than any that has come before it.
A B C D
Sometimes with immediate repeats, such as AABBCCDD…
Through-Composed Form is similar to Medley Form.
A B C D
Variational Form (a.k.a Theme and Variation)
Up next we have Variation Form which is also known as Theme And Variation.
This is when a theme is presented, and then each section contains a variation on that theme.
This form comes out similar to Medley Form but each section is more similar to the original than in a medley.
Theme and Variation form is typically written as:
A B C D or A A1 A2 A3 with the latter implying more similarities to the original theme.
A good example of a piece written using theme and variation is the piece “Ah, vous dirais-je, Mama” by Mozart which is the same melody as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
More further reading and examples check out our guide to Theme and Variation here.
Sonata Form is different from the other types of form that we’ve looked at so far as it does not have a letter structure – like A, B, A – that can be applied to it.
Instead, it’s always made up of three main parts:
- The exposition
- The development
- The recapitulation
It’s also probably one of the most important forms used in the Classical era.
One of the most well known examples of a piece written in Sonata Form is Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
For more information, read our guide here on Sonata Form.
12 Bar Blues
Lastly, we have another type of form that is common in Jazz and Blues music is 12 Bar Blues.
A standard Blues form takes place over 12 bars (or measures), hence its name 12 bar blues.
The form follows an ABACBA pattern in which A = I chord, B = IV chord, and C = V chord of a key.
Here’s the Wynton Marsalis Septet playing a 12 bar blues.
For more information and examples check out our 12 Bar Blues guide here.
That’s all for Musical Form
Form in music is one way to organize its structure.
You can organize music in many different ways, which is why there are so many types of form.
We’ll be writing an article for each of the 9 main types of form listed above, so keep an eye out for those