What Is Form In Music? A Complete Guide

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. 

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

Strophic Form is when only one phrase or passage is repeated throughout the piece. AAAA…

Medley or Chain Form

Medley Form is when each new passage or phrase is different than any that has come before it.

ABCD…

Sometimes with immediate repeats, such as AABBCCDD…

Through-Composed Form

Through-Composed Form is similar to Medley Form.

ABCD…

Binary Form

A piece with Binary Form has two sections that are approximately equal in length and importance.

It is written as either AB or AABB…

Ternary Form

A piece separated into three parts, in which the third part repeats the main ideas and passages of the first, has a Ternary Form. ABA…

Rondo Form

Rondo Form has a main passage or phrase that repeats in between different, contrasting sections, called “episodes”. ABACADA…

Variational Form (a.k.a Theme and Variation)

Variation Form is when a theme is presented, and then each section contains a variation on that theme.

The form comes out similar to Medley Form. ABCD… or AA1A2A3

Sonata Form

Sonata Form does not have a letter structure that can be applied to it.

A Sonata always has the main parts of an Exposition, a Development, and a Recapitulation.

12 Bar Blues

12 Bar Blues is a standard Blues form that takes place over 12 bars (or measures).

The form follows an ABACBA pattern in which A = I chord, B = IV chord, and C = V chord of a key.

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

Let us know if you have any questions or comments by posting below.

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.

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