Ternary form is like a sandwich: two layers of similar material with something interesting in-between. Ternary form is represented as ABA, and “B” offers contrasting material. The third section may be a variation of the first, giving you a form of ABA’.
Each of the three parts is typically self-contained, both in terms of tonality and themes. Ternary form may appear in a “compound” form, and here, either A or B (or both) comprises two or more parts.
To help you learn more about this 3-part form, here are 12 examples of pieces in Ternary form:
Related: For more information, check out our guide to Ternary form here.
1. Andante in Eb Major – Mozart
Mozart’s London Sketchbook contains short pieces that the child prodigy wrote while on tour in London, and his Andante in Eb major is a great starting point for learning about ternary form.
The piece has a clear ABA structure, with each section being 8 bars long. As is customary, each section is repeated.
Section A begins in Eb major and ends with an authentic cadence.
Section B introduces a new theme with a contrasting melody and ends on a half cadence.
A repeats after B to complete the ternary form structure.
2. Nocturne No. 4 in F Major – Frédéric Chopin
A “nocturne” is a piece that is supposed to evoke the feeling of the night, and many of Chopin’s nocturnes are in ABA form.
His Nocturne No.4 in F major begins with a gentle, dreamy melody in the tonic major key.
The calm melody is accompanied by a triplet pattern in the left hand.
However, in what is the music equivalent of the saying, “after the calm comes the storm,” section B ushers in an extremely contrasting theme in the tonic minor key.
While A is marked “andante cantabile” or “in a flowing, song-like manner,” B is marked “con fuoco,” literally, “with fire”!
As opposed to the Mozart example above, here, each section is longer than 8 bars and of unequal length.
3. Winter Wonderland – Bing Crosby
Packed with jazzy harmonies and many modulations (key changes), Bing Crosby’s Winter Wonderland can be divided into two parts, each of which is in ternary form.
After a brief introduction, the song’s first verse starts in Ab major.
It repeats, and then you have fresh, contrasting material in C major.
The initial music in Ab major rounds up this section, leaving you with a structure of AABA.
The second part of the song follows the same ternary structure, but because of the modulations, it would be more appropriate to summarize it as A’A’B’A’’.
The song ends with a coda.
4. The Trumpet Shall Sound – George Frideric Handel
‘The trumpet shall sound’ by Handel is a ‘da capo aria’, a form of aria popular in the baroque era.
Importantly, the da capo aria is cast in ternary form.
The contrasting section provides an opportunity for a new key and texture, and within the context of an aria, this gives the composer a chance to paint different emotions of the character.
Handel’s setting starts in regal fashion, with the trumpet, an instrument evoking the divine, and a soloist that sings a joyous, uplifting melody.
The orchestra accompanies the A section. The second section, B, is in a minor key, is much more somber, and is accompanied by a “continuo.”
The original theme returns and ends in a triumphant fashion with Handel’s ornate melody.
5. Symphony No. 47 in G Major “The Palindrome” – Joseph Haydn
The third movement of Handel’s Symphony No. 47 in G Major is a minuet and trio, a dance form written in ternary form.
You have a “trio” sandwiched between two occurrences of the minuet.
Both trio and minuet are in triple meter, and the addition of the trio to the minuet is a way of extending the dance movement while also accommodating musical variety.
Haydn brilliantly constructs his minuet and trio as a palindrome, and the piece can be written as AA’BB’AA’.
The amazing fact here is that A’ is A in reverse, and B’ is B in reverse!
Section B is in the same key, G major, but starts with the horns and oboes, and thus with a different texture.
Because each part of the 3-part piece (AA’ and BB’) is in binary form, this is an example of compound ternary form.
6. Alleluia (Ostende Nobis Domine) – Gregorian Chant
Gregorian chants are another great type of music that usually demonstrates the ABA template of the ternary form.
The Gregorian Alleluia is an example. Here, it is not so much the melody or harmony that lends structure to the piece.
Rather, the text decides the sections.
The A sections have the word “Alleluia,” whereas the B section has an antiphon, which is generally a verse taken from the psalms.
7. Somewhere, Over The Rainbow – Harold Arlen
Sung by Judy Garland, the classic ballad Somewhere, Over The Rainbow by Harold Arlen was written for the movie “Wizard of Oz”.
The song is in ternary form with a coda at the end.
Section A begins with an octave leap in the melody as the singer sings, “Somewhere over the rainbow…”.
Section B introduces a contrasting, quicker melody as the singer sings, “someday I’ll wish…”.
When the first theme reappears, it does not repeat, and hence, the form of the song is AABA + coda.
8. Glasgow Kiss – John Petrucci
An instrumental track, “Glasgow Kiss,” is widely regarded as a masterpiece and broadly fits into the structure of the ternary form.
The composition starts with a solid theme that frequently recurs in section A (0:00-3:04).
In the second section, B, the texture of the piece varies, and the melody line is more “searching”, even soulful.
When section A reappears (5:00), the introductory theme begins and then quickly veers into a variation.
When simplified, what you have is a form of ABA’.
Interestingly, the first section, A, can itself be broken into three blocks of through-composed form.
9. Body and Soul – Billie Holiday
Many 32-bar jazz standards are in AABA format, and just like the minuet and trio in which A is not repeated when it reappears, these can be classified as being in ternary form.
The classic ballad Body and Soul as sung here by Billie Holliday, is a prime example.
For the purpose of analysis, the first 2:05 minutes of the recording are important.
Each block of section A ends with the words “body and soul.”
You have 8 bars of A, another 8 bars of A, 8 bars of B (the bridge), and finally, 8 more bars of A.
10. O Magnum Mysterium – Morten Lauridsen
Morten Lauridsen’s simple, splendid, and sumptuous setting of the text ‘O magnum mysterium’ can be reduced to an ABA structure.
Lauridsen begins with dense, inverted triads, setting the first two verses to the same melody and harmony.
The third verse (begins at 3:10 in the video) ushers in the contrasting section, B.
On the word ‘Virgo,’ Lauridsen uses a non-chord tone that does not belong to the key, a note he specifically chooses to highlight the pain of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This section introduces new melodies and harmonies.
When section A repeats, Lauridsen has the sopranos sing “Alleluia,” and while the harmonies resemble that of the opening, here, in A’, the choir begins with a root position chord.
A’ ends with an “Alleluia” coda.
11. Sonata in C, K. 545, Allegro – Mozart
The sonata form originally began as an extension of the binary form. However, today, we analyze it as having three different sections based on their thematic material.
You have the exposition, development, and recapitulation.
As you will hear in this recording (0:00 – 2:57), Mozart introduces two subjects in the exposition, one in C major and the other in G major (the dominant).
The development is rather short and ventures into new keys, G minor, D minor, and A minor.
The recapitulation has the exposition’s subjects reappear, this time in the keys of F major and C major.
The form of the piece, then, can be reduced to ABA’.
12. Everything is Awesome – Shawn Patterson & The Lego Movie
Everything is Awesome by Shawn Patterson is from the popular animated kid’s film The Lego Movie. And it’s a great example of music that is in ternary form.
If analyzing its form, we can see that it is A-B-A-(C-B)-A-D-A and thus can be categorized as a rondo. However, it is also an example of a compound ternary form.
Some may argue that the middle section does not provide sufficient contrast; however, on paper, a division into 3 parts, with the outer sections containing the choruses, looks neat.
Here, A-B-A forms what would normally be section A, and A-D-A becomes A’.
So, yes, A and A’ are themselves in ternary form.
The middle section, that is, C+B, comprises what would be section B, and C-B ends up being in binary form.
The ternary form offers composers a medium to convey a message by juxtaposing contrasting musical ideas.
You’re likely to encounter elements of the ternary form in songs you listen to.
Whenever you do, step back and think about what cohesive message the composer is trying to express through these contrasting ideas.