music theory online : a practical guide to compositionlesson 41
Dr. Brian Blood

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If I don't practice for one day, I know it; if I don't practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don't practice for three days, the audience knows it.
Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), Polish concert pianist and president

Musical Form - A Summary :: Alan Belkin's Practical Guide to Composition

Musical Form - a summary :: top

The term 'musical form' is used in two related ways:

(1) a generic type of composition such as the symphony or concerto;
(2) the structure of a particular piece, how its parts are put together to make the whole; this too can be generic, such as binary form or sonata form.

Musical form (the whole or structure) is contrasted with content (the parts) or with surface (the detail), but there is no clear line between the two. In most cases, the form of a piece should produce a balance between statement and restatement, unity and variety, contrast and connection. There is some overlap between musical form and musical genre. The latter term is more likely to be used when referring to particular styles of music (such as classical music or rock music) as determined by things such as harmonic language, typical rhythms, types of musical instrument used and geographical origin. The phrase 'musical form' is typically used when talking about a particular type or structure within those genres. For example, the twelve bar blues is a specific form often found in the genres of blues and rock and roll music.

a cappellaa form of music that is usually vocal or sung without instrumental accompaniment, or a piece intended to be performed in this way. A cappella is Italian for 'of the chapel', a term that notes the restrictions on the use of instruments in medieval churches
A-formA-form emphasizes continuity and prolongation, flowing, unbroken, from beginning to end, in which the music has a recognizable consistency
aleatory musicsee 'mobile form' (below)
allemandeor allemanda, almain or alman, (from French, literally 'German') a type of dance popular in Baroque music, and a standard element of a suite, generally the first or second movement. In which case the first one is a sort of prelude, whatever its name (prelude, toccata, preambulum, ouverture, etc.)
Ambrosian chantSt. Ambrose (c340–397), bishop of Milan, is believed to have been the first to introduced the 'antiphonant' method of chanting (also called 'antiphonal chanting'), in which one side of the choir alternately responds to the other
arch forma palindromic form, as, for example, three contrasting sections arranged ABCBA
ariaa form that is generally longer, non-strophic and with an accent of musical design and expression, than that corresponding to the air, song or Lied
balladea fourteenth- & fifteenth-century verse form consisting of three (sometimes five) stanzas, each with the same metre, rhyme scheme and last line, with a shorter concluding stanza (an envoi). (The ballade should not be confused with the ballad)
balletthe name given to a specific dance form and technique. Dance works choreographed using this technique are called ballets and may include: dance, mime, acting and music (orchestral and sung). Ballets can be performed alone or as part of an opera. Ballet is best known for its virtuoso techniques such as pointe work, grand pas de deux and high leg extensions. Many ballet techniques bear a striking similarity to fencing positions and footwork, perhaps due to their development during the same periods of history, but more probably, because both arts had similar requirements in terms of balance and movement
Bar formthe modern term 'Bar form' derives from a medieval verse form, the 'Bar', consisting of three stanzas, each having the form AAB. The musical term thus refers to the melody of a single stanza, the A sections (called Stollen) having the same melody, and the B section (Abgesang) having a different melody
binary formmost strictly, a piece in binary form will be in two halves (AB or AA'), equal in length. The first half will start in a certain key (or on a certain tonic), and end in a different key. The second half of the piece begins in the key that the first half ended in, and ends in the original key of the piece. The second half may also be repeated. If the key at the start was a major one, the key at the end of the first part will generally be the dominant of it (a fifth above), so that a piece beginning in C major will end the first half in G major. If the starting key is minor, the music will generally move to its relative major key, so if a piece starts in C minor, it will end the first half in E flat major. The first half is often repeated. The gavotte, for example, is typically in binary form
canonin music, the strictest of all contrapuntal forms. It consists in the imitation or repetition of a given melody or theme in its exact melodic progression and in the same rhythmical form by one or more voices, not simultaneously, but one after another, at a half, whole, or two, measure distance, on any of its intervals
cantatafrom the middle of the 17th- till late in the eighteenth century, a favourite form of Italian chamber music for one or two solo voices, with accompaniment of harpsichord and perhaps a few other solo instruments. It consisted at first of a declamatory narrative or scene in recitative, held together by a primitive aria repeated at intervals. Fine examples may be found in the church music of Carissimi; and the English vocal solos of Henry Purcell (such as Mad Tom and Mad Bess) show the utmost that can be made of this archaic form. With the rise of the da capo aria the cantata became a group of two or three arias joined by recitative. George Frideric Handel's numerous Italian duets and trios are examples on a rather large scale. His Latin motet Silete Venti, for soprano solo, shows the use of this form in church music
cantus firmusin music, a cantus firmus is a pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition, often set apart by being played in long notes
canzonaa 16th- and seventeenth-century instrumental genre in the manner of a French polyphonic chanson, characterized by a sequence of short contrasting sections
chain formbinary form extended with more sections, for example ABCD, and particularly when including repeated sections, AABBCCDD
chansonthe word chanson refers to a polyphonic French song of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Early chansons tended to be in one of the formes fixes, ballade, rondeau or virelai, though some composers later set popular poetry in a variety of forms
choraleoriginally a hymn of the Lutheran church sung by the entire congregation. In casual modern usage, the term also includes classical settings of such hymns and works of a similar character. Chorales tend to have simple and singable tunes, because they were originally intended to be sung by the congregation rather than a professional choir. They generally have rhyming words and are in a strophic form (with the same melody being used for different verses). Some chorale melodies were written by Martin Luther himself. Within a verse, most chorales follow the AAB pattern of melody that is known as the German Bar form
chorale preludea piece generally for organ designed to be played before a chorale. A chorale prelude includes the melody of the chorale, and adds other contrapuntal lines
choroa choro composition usually starts in a minor key, followed by a major key bridge, then a minor key finish (similar to a tango): AABBC. It is also common to repeat the first part, in accelerated tempo, to finish, thus AABBCA
concerto formin classical music, the word concerto is a label for a piece in which a small musical group and a large musical group are given distinct roles, with the smaller group to the fore. The most common kind of concerto pairs a solo instrument with a full orchestra. The term also implies the form of a piece as most concerti follow sonata form, typically found with three movements
cyclic forma technique of musical construction, involving multiple parts or movements, in which a theme, melody, or thematic material occurs in more than one movement as a unifying device. Sometimes a theme may occur at the beginning and end (for example, in the Brahms Symphony No. 3); other times a theme occurs in a different guise in every part (Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique)
da capoa da capo aria is in ternary form, meaning it is in three sections. The first section is a complete musical entity, ending in the tonic key, and could in principle be sung alone. The second section contrasts with the first in its musical texture, mood, and sometimes also tempo. The third section was usually not written out by the composer, who rather simply specified the direction da capo (Italian for "from the beginning"), which meant that the first section should be repeated in full
dancewhile the combination of dance and music is very ancient (for example Ancient Greek vases sometimes show dancers accompanied by musicians) the earliest Western dance music that we can still play with a degree of certainty are the surviving medieval dances such as caroles and the Estampie. The earliest of these surviving dances are almost as old as Western staff-based music notation. In the Baroque period, the major dance styles were noble court dances. Examples of dances include the French courante, sarabande, minuet and gigue. Collections of dances were often collected together as dance suites. In the Classical music era, the minuet was frequently used as a third movement in four-movement non-vocal works such as sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies, although in this context it would not accompany any dancing. The waltz also arose later in the Classical era, as the minuet evolved into the scherzo (literally, "joke"; a faster-paced minuet)
danzóna Cuban song style and dance form derived from the contradanza (brought to Cuba by Haitian immigrants), danza, danza Habanera and interpreted by the charanga orchestras and instrumentation. Miguel Failde has been credited with composing the first danzón, La Altura del Simpson in 1879. Originally an ABAC form (A, paseo (introduction); B, parte de (la) flauta (flute melody); A, repeat of the paseo; C, parte del violín (string trio). Later a D section (the nuevo ritmo) was added, creating an ABACD form. This nuevo ritmo section integrated elements of the Cuban son and generated the mambo as well as the development of the montuno section of arrangements, and later the cha-cha-cha
developmental formwhere the musical works are built, as a rule, from smaller bits of material - motifs - combined and worked out in different ways, usually balancing between a symmetrical or arch-like supporting structure of the whole, and a progressive development from beginning to end, for example, sonata form
dueta musical composition or piece for two performers, most often used for a vocal or piano duet. For other instruments, the word duo is often used. Two pianists performing together on the same piano is referred to as piano duet or piano four hands. Two pianists performing together on separate pianos is referred to as piano duo
durchkomponiertsee 'through-composed'
episodicalan example of ternary or ABA form, episodical form consists of three parts: statement of the principal theme, an episode (a theme or subject matter of secondary importance to the principal theme), and finally a repeat of the principal theme
estampieas a musical form, it consists of a series of verses, often of different lengths, and two refrains, sometimes called "open" and "closed", which alternate. The various verses can be of different lengths, and are often only faintly related in theme to the preceding and following verses. There can be any number of verses, though there must be at least three
etude(from the French word étude meaning 'study') is a short musical composition designed to provide practice in a particular technical skill in the performance of a solo instrument
fantasiaalso English fantasy, fancy, German fantasie, French fantaisie, a musical composition with its roots in the art of improvisation. Because of this, it seldom approximates the textbook rules of any strict musical form
first-movement formsee 'sonata form'
folk musicfolk music has been used as source material for composers of many eras. Composers of the Viennese classic period were influence by and used folk music in their compositions; for example, Haydn's use of Bohemian folk tunes or Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 which uses a Yugoslavian dance melody as a primary theme. Other composers who used folk material include Chopin, Smetana, Dvorák, and Mussorgsky. In Carmen, Bizet borrowed genuine Spanish folksongs, local rhythms, and tunes composed by Spanish composers Sebastián Yradier and Manuel Garcia. The pieces of Spanish origin in Carmen include the famous Habañera; Carmen's aria Séguidille, séguidille, séguidilla, and Choeur des gamins in Act I; Carmen's aria Chanson bohème, and Toreador Song in Act II; and both of the preludes to Act III and IV. The most interesting borrowing is Carmen's leitmotif, the 'Fate' theme, which is used repeatedly throughout the opera in two patterns, one for Carmen, and the other for Don José. This theme is derived from an Andalusian saeta (flamenco music). In the twentieth century, composers began to collect or study folk music in an attempt to integrate that music into their style. Three possibilities exist for the use of folk materials in Western art music. A composer can simply compose an accompaniment for an existing folk melody, a newly composed melody can take on folk characteristics, or folk music can be integrated into the style of a composer to such an extent that neither folk melodies or imitations of folk melodies are used, but the composer's works are imbued with the style of peasant music
formes fixes(French f. pl., literally 'fixed forms') three standardised musical or poetic forms used in French secular music from the 13th- to the mid 15th-centuries
the three, each distinguished by its overall musical structure, are:
AbbaA, where a capital letter designates a repetition of both text and music and lower case designates new text
balladeaabX, where a capital letter designates a refrain text and lower case designates new text
ABaAabAB, where a capital letter designates a refrain text and lower case designates new text
free formcertain pieces of music, for example, the early sixteenth-century ricercar, the fantasia and the prélude non mesuré, which are improvisatory in style, are said to be written in a 'free form'. Free fugues, which break many of the formal rules of fugue writing, and free counterpoint, which relaxes the strict rules of counterpoint, are not. However, just as many have argued that 'abstract ballet' is impossible 'because dancers are human, so no ballet can be entirely abstract', an analogous argument might be advanced about 'free-form music'; because music is the organisation of sound, and organisation implies form, so 'free form' music is an oxymoron
French overtureas distinct from the sinfonia, the French overture (or ouverture) had always been one-movement preluding pieces, usually in a ABA form, where the A sections had a slow tempo with a stately (double) dotted rhythm, while the B middle section was comparatively fluent and fast. By the time this type of overture was adapted from the early eighteenth century on by German composers like Bach and Handel, it could be as well the preluding movement of a (dance) suite, in which case overture was sometimes used as a synonym for the entire suite (e.g. Bach's French Overture, BWV 831)
fuguein music, a fugue is a type of piece written in counterpoint for several independent musical voices. A fugue begins with its subject (a brief musical theme) stated by one of the voices playing alone. A second voice then enters and plays the subject, while the first voice continues on with a contrapuntal accompaniment. Then the remaining voices similarly enter one by one. The remainder of the fugue further develops the material using all of the voices. The word 'fugue' comes from the Latin fuga (flight) and fugere (to flee). Variants include fughetta (a small fugue) and fugato (a work or section of a work resembling a fugue but not necessarily adhering to the rules of one)
galliardmusical compositions in the galliard form appear to have been written and performed long after the dance fell out of popular use. In musical compositions, the galliard often filled the role of an after-dance written in 6, which followed and mimicked another piece (sometimes a pavane) written in 4. The distinctive 6/8 rhythm can still be heard today in songs such as God Save the Queen
gigueor giga, a lively baroque dance in a compound metre such as 6/4, 3/8 or 12/16. As a musical form gigues frequently occurs as a movement in larger works such as concertos and sonatas, and it was the most common final movement in the baroque suite
Gregorian chantalso known as 'plainchant' or 'plainsong', it is a form of monophonic, unaccompanied singing, based on Eastern models of Byzantine chant, which was developed in the Catholic church, mainly during the period 800-1000. It takes its name from Pope St. Gregory the Great, who was believed to have brought it to the West
ground bassin music, a ground bass is a bass part or bassline that repeats continually, as an ostinato, while over it the melody and possibly harmony change. It was developed and used frequently in the Baroque era. A well known classical example is the ground bass employed in Pachelbel's Canon
group formthe successor to 'pointillism', and exemplified by his piece Gruppen, Stockhausen replaced the original idea of isolated points with clusters or "groups" of parameters and events. Zeitmasse and Carre are pieces in this "group form"
heterophonyone of various musical textures, heterophony is a kind of complex monophony - there is only one melody, but multiple voices each of which play the melody differently, either in a different rhythm or tempo, with different embellishments and figures, or idiomatically different. The term was invented to differentiate this from European polyphonic music of separate melodies; however, it can also be seen as a type of polyphony. The term 'heterophony' was coined by Plato and is used in many areas of the world, for example, Morton (1978) suggests, at least for Thai music, an alternative term 'polyphonic stratification'
impromptua free-form musical composition with the character of an improvisation, usually for a solo instrument, such as piano
isorhythmisorhythm (iso or same) consists of an order of durations or rhythms, talea ("cutting", plural taleae), which is repeated within a tenor melody whose pitch content or series, color (repetition), varied in the number of members from the talea. The term was coined in 1900 by Friedrich Ludwig to describe this practice in 14th- and fifteenth-century polyphonic motets but is also used in motets of the middle ages, the music of India, and by modern composers such as Alban Berg, Olivier Messiaen, and John Cage. It may be used in all voices or only a few voices. In motets, it began in the tenor voice but was then extended to higher ones
Italian overturesee 'sinfona' (below)
Lied (s.), Lieder (pl.)(German, literally "song") among English speakers, however, it is used primarily as a term for European classical music song, also known as "art song". Typically, Lieder are arranged for a single singer and piano. Sometimes Lieder are gathered in a Liederkreis or 'song cycle' — a series of songs tied by a single narrative or theme. The composers Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann are most closely associated with this genre of classical music
madrigala setting for 4–6 voices of a secular text, often in Italian. The madrigal has its origins in the frottola, and was also influenced by the motet and the French chanson of the Renaissance. It is related mostly by name alone to the Italian trecento-madrigal of the late 13th- and 14th-centuries; those madrigals were settings for 2 or 3 voices without accompaniment, or with instruments possibly doubling the vocal lines. The madrigal was the most important secular form of music of its time. It bloomed especially in the second half of the sixteenth century, losing its importance by the third decade of the seventeenth century, when it vanished through the rise of newer secular forms as the opera and merged with the cantata and the dialogue
madrigale spirituale (s.), madrigali spirituali (pl.)(Italian) a madrigal, or madrigal-like piece of music, with a sacred rather than a secular text. Most examples of the form date from the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras, and principally come from Italy and Germany. Madrigali spirituali were almost always intended for an audience of cultivated, often aristocratic amateurs. They were performed at private houses, academies, and courts of noblemen in Italy and adjacent countries, but almost certainly were not used liturgically. The madrigale spirituale was an a cappella form, though instrumental accompaniment was used on occasion, especially after 1600
massa form of musical composition, a choral composition that sets the fixed portions of the Eucharistic liturgy (principally that of the Roman Catholic Church, and also the Anglican Church) to music. Masses can be a cappella, for the human voice alone, or they can be accompanied by instrumental obbligatos up to and including a full orchestra. Sometimes the music in the Mass format was never really intended to be used as part of a real Mass. The mass as a musical form flourished during the Renaissance, where it served as the principal large-scale form of composition for most composers. Many important masses were composed by Josquin des Prez. At the end of the sixteenth century, a cappella choral counterpoint reached an apogee in masses by the English William Byrd, the Castilian Tomas Luis de Victoria and the Roman Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose Mass for Pope Marcellus is credited with saving polyphony from the censure of the Council of Trent. By the time of Palestrina, however, the mass had already been replaced by other forms, principally the motet and the madrigale spirituale, as the most significant outlet for expression in the realm of sacred music; composers such as Lassus wrote relatively few masses, preferring the greater latitude for expression offered by the other forms
minuetor menuet, a social dance of French origin for two people, usually in 3/4 time. The word was adapted, under the influence of the Italian minuetto, from the French menuet, meaning small, pretty, delicate, a diminutive of menu (from the Latin minutus; menuetto is a word that occurs only on musical scores. The word refers probably to the short steps, pas menus, taken in 'the dance'). Initially, before its adoption in context outside of social dance, the minuet was usually in binary form, with two sections of usually eight bars each, but the second section eventually expanded, resulting in a kind of ternary form. On a larger scale, two such minuets were often combined, so that the first minuet was followed by a second one, and finally by a repetition of the first. The second (or middle) minuet usually provided some form of contrast, by means of different key and orchestration. The minuet and trio eventually became a standard movement in the four-movement classical symphony, with Johann Stamitz the first to employ it in this way with regularity. A livelier form of the minuet later developed into the scherzo (which was generally also coupled with a trio). This term came into existence approximately from Beethoven onwards, but the form itself can be traced back to Haydn
mobile formthe term 'mobile form' is used for 'aleatory music' (Latin, alea meaning 'dice') a compositional technique, most closely associated with the American composer John Cage (1912-1992), where, through the use of dice, random-number generators, books such as the I Ching, etc. (called 'chance operations'), the choice of pitch, rhythmic value and order of events is left to chance, the music so produced being called 'aleatoric' or 'chance' music
moment formderived from 'group form' and as exemplified by Stockhausen's piece Momente, the 'groups' of 'points' are further organized, by dividing them up into 'moments'. The fundamental characteristic of 'moment form' is that a piece consists of a bunch of brief 'moments' which are larger than individual 'points' or 'groups', for example, each 'moment' has an identity as a gestalt piece-let in itself. But, necessarily, all the 'moments' in a piece in 'moment form' can all be randomly interchanged and re-assembled, to be performed in any order
motetthe name comes either from the Latin movere, ("to move") or a Latinized version of Old French mot, 'word' or 'verbal utterance'. The Mediaeval Latin for motet is motectum. If from the Latin, the name describes the movement of the different voices against one another. According to Margaret Bent (1997), "'a piece of music in several parts with words' is as precise a definition of the motet as will serve from the 13th- to the late sixteenth century and beyond. This is actually very close to one of the earliest descriptions we have, that of the late thirteenth-century theorist Johannes de Grocheio"
non-deterministic generative musicmusic that cannot be repeated, for example, ordinary wind chimes
open formsee 'mobile form'
operaan art form which originated in Europe, which involves dramatic stage performance set to music. Comparable art forms from various parts of the world are usually prefaced with an adjective indicating the region; for example, Chinese opera and Beijing opera. The drama is presented using the primary elements of theatre such as scenery, costumes, and acting. Although, the words of the opera, or libretto, are sung rather than spoken. The singers are accompanied by a musical ensemble ranging from a small instrumental ensemble to a full symphonic orchestra
oratorioa large musical composition for orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus, that differs from an opera in that it does not have scenery, costumes, or acting. Oratorio closely mirrored opera in all ages in musical style and form, except that choruses were more prominent in oratorio than in opera. The peak period for composition of oratorios was the 17th- and 18th-centuries
organuma technique of singing developed in the Middle Ages, an early form of polyphonic music. In its earliest stages, organum involved two musical voices: a Gregorian chant melody, and the same melody transposed by a consonant interval, usually a perfect fifth or fourth. In these cases often the composition began and ended on a unison, maintaining the transposition only between the start and finish. Organum was originally improvised; while one singer performed a notated melody (the vox principalis), another singer—singing 'by ear', provided the unnotated second melody (the vox organalis). Over time, composers began to write added parts that were more than just simple transpositions, and thus true polyphony was born
overture-suitethe 'classical' suite consisted of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, in that order, and developed, in France, during the seventeenth century. Although never totally fixed in form, the later addition of an overture produced the 'overture-suite' that was extremely popular with German composers of the eighteenth century
partitauntil the seventeenth century, a term synonymous with 'a set of variations'
from the sixteenth century onwards, a term synonymous with 'suite'
pointillism(German, Punktuell was originally coined by WDR studio director Herbert Eimert, in a 1953 lecture), otherwise known as 'total serialism' or 'integral serialism'. In this form (practiced in those early 1950s by Stockhausen & others at WDR, plus by Pierre Boulez in Structures 1a), each and every smallest parameter of the music is to be as independent as possible, from every other one. Their goal as they all described it in a number of articles, for example, in Die Reihe, was to try and break every rule of the various prevaling musical forms, trying, therefore, to deny any possibility of theme, development, melody, repetition, etc. Basically the unstated but obviously recurring motivation is that they associated the horrors of World War II, which had just ended. John Cage showed them up by achieving the same result via 'chance operations' instead of all the painstaking micro-serialist calculations they were using
preludea short piece of music, usually in no particular internal form, which may serve as an introduction, for example, a preludio coming before a succession of dance movements. Since Chopin, the term often denotated a short piano piece, not necessarily an introduction, for example, one might play 24 successive preludes. In Baroque music, the prelude was often paired with the fugue
requiemor requiem mass, also known formally (in Latin) as the Missa pro defunctis or Missa defunctorum, is a liturgical service of the Roman Catholic Church and its Eastern Rite. Its theme is a prayer for the salvation of the souls of the departed, and it is used both at services immediately preceding a burial, and on occasions of more general remembrance. It is sometimes observed by other denominations of Christianity such as the Anglican Communion and Eastern Orthodoxy. Requiem is also the title of various musical compositions used in such liturgical services or as concert pieces as settings of the portions of that mass which have been traditionally sung in the Roman Catholic liturgy
rhapsodya one-movement work that is episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasted moods, color and tonality. An air of spontaneous inspiration and a sense of improvisation make it freer in form than a set of variations
ritornelloa short return or repetition; a concluding symphony to an air, often consisting of the burden of the song. Alternatively, a short intermediate symphony, or instrumental passage, in the course of a vocal piece, an interlude. In Baroque music, ritornello was the word for a recurring passage for orchestra in the first or final movement of a solo concerto. There was a passage for a solo instrument, usually the violin, between each ritornello. The most prolific Baroque composer in solo concertos was Antonio Vivaldi. When the Classical era started, the ritornello form was altered to resemble 'sonata form', and the piano replaced the violin as the most frequently used solo instrument
rondo formrondo, and its French equivalent rondeau, is a word that has been used in music in a number of ways, most often in reference to a musical form, but also in reference to a character-type that is distinct from the form. In rondo form, a principal theme (sometimes called the 'refrain') alternates with one or more contrasting themes, variously called 'digressions', 'couplets', 'episodes', or 'subordinate themes'. The overall form can be represented as ABACADA.... The number of themes can vary from piece to piece, and the recurring element is sometimes embellished or shortened in order to provide for variation
sarabandeor sarabanda, a slow dance in triple meter with the distinctive feature that beats 2 and 3 of the measure are often tied, giving a distinctive rhythm of crotchet (quarter note) and minim (half note) in alternation. The minims (half notes) are said to have corresponded with dragging steps in the dance. Later, it became a traditional movement of the Baroque suite
scherzodeveloped from the minuet, the scherzo came to replace it as the third (or sometimes second) movement in symphonies, string quartets, sonatas and similar works. It traditionally retains the 3/4 time signature and ternary form of the minuet, but is considerably quicker. It is often, but not always, of a light-hearted nature. A few examples of scherzi exist which are not in the normal 3/4 time, such as in Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18. The scherzo is in ABA form, known as ternary form. The B theme is a trio, a lighter passage for fewer instruments
sectional formwhere a piece is built by combining small clear-cut units, for example, strophic form, binary form, chain form, ternary form, arch form, rondo form and song form
sinfoniain the very late Renaissance and early Baroque, a 'sinfonia' was an alternate name for a canzona, fantasia or ricercar. These were almost always instrumental forms, all rooted however in a polyphonic tradition. Later in the Baroque period it was more likely to be a type of sonata, especially a trio sonata or one for larger ensemble. Still later in the Baroque era, the word was used to designate an instrumental prelude or overture. A specific form of such kind of preluding piece, in the early eighteenth century, was the three-movement sinfonia which became the standard type of overture to an Italian opera. Most of the time these pieces were in D major (for maximizing open-string resonance on string instruments), opening and ending with a fast movement, with a slow movement in the middle. Examples of this type of Italian sinfonia are the numerous three-movement opera overtures by Alessandro Scarlatti, all archetypical Italian overtures
sonata form
sonata-allegro form
first-movement form
sonata form refers to both the standard layout of an entire musical composition and more specifically to the standardized form of the first movement. The latter is also referred to as 'sonata-allegro form'. Sonata form is both a way of organizing the composing of a work and a way of analyzing an existing work. While described and named in the early nineteenth century, the models for the form were works of the classical period, most specifically Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and the form is rooted in the schematics described in the late eighteenth century. The standard description of the sonata form is rooted in the common practice period of harmony, though more modern descriptions of theorists such as Heinrich Schenker and Charles Rosen argue that there is a single tonal background which defines all sonata movements. This is not to be confused with the term 'sonata', which applies both to a genre of works, and to works which exemplify sonata form
sonata rondo formsonata rondo form was a form of musical organization often used during the Classical music era. As the name implies, it is a blend of sonata form and rondo form. Sonata rondo form is almost exclusively used in the finales of multi-movement works. It is considered a somewhat relaxed and discursive form. Thus, it is unsuited to an opening movement (typically the musically tightest and most intellectually rigorous movement in a Classical work), and too long for a slow movement (where the slow tempo would make the full sonata-rondo formula impossible to realize in a movement of reasonable length)
song cyclea group of songs performed in an order establishing a musical continuity related to some underlying idea
song forma term used to describe a simple ABA or ternary structure as employed in many slow movements, although it is best avoided as many songs do not have this structure. In popular music, most song forms are in the binary or ternary forms AABB and ABA respectively or, the standard jazz formula, AABA
stochastic processesin music stochastic elements are randomly generated elements created by strict mathematical processes. Stochastic processes can be used in music either to compose a fixed piece, or produced in performance. Stochastic music was pioneered by Iannis Xenakis, who used probability, game theory, group theory, set theory, and Boolean algebra, and frequently used computers to produce his scores. Earlier, John Cage and others had composed aleatoric or indeterminate music, which is created by chance processes but does not have the strict mathematical basis (Cage's Music of Changes, for example, uses a system of charts based on the I-Ching)
strophic form(Greek, from strephein 'to turn', 'to twist') or 'chorus form', commonly associated with folksong and art-songs based on folk-song, a sectional and/or additive way of structuring a piece of music based on the repetition of one formal section or block played repeatedly. It is the musical analogue of 'repeated stanzas' in poetry or lyrics: where the text repeats the same rhyme scheme from one stanza to the next, the accompanying music for each stanza is either the same or very similar from one stanza to the next. It may be considered AAA... or AA'A".... If different music is used for different stanzas, it is said to be through-composed
strophic variationsor 'theme and variations' form, where a musical melody (the theme) is followed by many altered versions of it (the variations). The variations are all altered forms of the theme; the theme is always present, in some form however disguised, in each of the variations. The theme may be either original or previously written by another composer
suitea term that first appears in the middle of the sixteenth century although the form's origins lie in the late fourteenth century, an organized set of instrumental or orchestral pieces normally performed at a single sitting. In the Baroque era, the pieces are all in the same key, and generally modelled after dance music. In the eighteenth century the suite could bear the title ordre, sonata da camera, partitaPartie, overture or ouverture. Estienne du Tertre published suyttes de bransles in 1557, giving us the first use of the term, although the usual form of the time was as pairs of dances. The first recognizable suite is Peuerl's Newe Padouan, Intrada, Dantz, and Galliarda of 1611, in which the four dances of the title appear repeatedly in ten suites. The Banchetto musicale by Johann Schein (1617) contains 20 sequences of five different dances. The 'classical' suite consisted of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, in that order, and developed during the seventeenth century in France, the gigue appearing later than the others. However, it was never totally fixed in form
symphonic poemor tone poem, a piece of orchestral music, in one movement, in which some extra-musical programme provides a narrative or illustrative element. This programme could come from a poem, a novel, a painting or some other source. Music based on extra-musical sources is often known as program music, while music which has no other associations is known as absolute music. A series of tone poems may be combined in a suite, in the romantic rather than the baroque sense
an extended composition usually for orchestra and usually comprising several movements each having its own particular structure or form:
first movementquick, in a binary form or later sonata form
second movementslow
third movementminuet and trio (that later developed into the scherzo and trio), in ternary form
fourth movementquick, sometimes also in sonata form or a sonata-rondo
ternary formternary form is a way of organising a piece of music. It is usually found in classical music. Ternary form is a three part structure. The first and third parts are identical, or very nearly identical, while the second part is sharply contrasting. For this reason, ternary form is often represented as ABA. The contrasting second section is often known as a trio
through-composedor durchkomponiert, music which is relatively continuous, non-sectional, and/or non-repetitive. A song is said to be through-composed if it has different music for each stanza of the lyrics, as opposed to 'strophic form', in which each stanza is set to the same music
trecento-madrigalan Italian musical form of the fourteenth century (c.1300–1370). It was a composition for two (and rarely three) voices, typically on a pastoral subject. In its earliest development it was simple construction: Francesco da Barberino in 1300 called it a "raw and chaotic singalong". In its later stages of development the uppermost voice was often highly elaborate, with the lower voice, the tenor, much less so. The form at this time was probably a development of connoisseurs, and sung by small groups of cognoscenti; there is no evidence of its widespread popularity, unlike the later kind of madrigal. By the end of the fourteenth century it had fallen out of favor, with other forms (for example the ballata, the virelai, the rondeau) taking precedence, some of which were even more highly refined and ornamented. The centre of musical activity apparently moved at this time from northern Italy to France, particularly Avignon. The text of the madrigal is divided into three sections: two strophes called terzetti set to the same music and a concluding section called the ritornello usually in a different meter
trioa term used to refer to the middle, contrasting section of a piece in ternary form. This usage gives rise to the 'minuet and trio' (or, later, the 'scherzo and trio') which appears, often as the third movement, in a symphony, sonata or similar work
variation form
variational form
or 'theme and variation', is a musical form of several types. For example, a cantus firmus or 'constant bass' which is repeated may be modified or accompanied in a different manner in successive parts. Passacaglias and chaconnes are forms where a basso ostinato or 'constant bass' is heard through the entire piece. A further type of variation incorporates a 'fixed' harmonic structure, often derived from an ancient source, for example, folia or romanesca. Fantasia variations have repeated elements but incorporate additional material freely
variation-forms fall into a number of historical categories and can be characterised as being structured, in which case sections and phrases in the theme are preserved in the variations, or free, in which case basic relationships of sections and phrases in the theme are disregarded:
Renaissance and Baroquestructured'constant-melody' variation based on a popular song, dance, or some other pre-existing tune
Renaissance and Baroquestructuredcantus firmus variations based on pre-existing plainchant and chorales
Baroquestructuredthe basso ostinato variation, as, for example, 'ground bass', chaconne or passacaglia
Baroquestructuredthe 'fixed harmony' variation, as, for example, that on the folia or romanesca
eighteenth and nineteenth centuriesstructuredthe 'ornamental melodic outline' variation, using borrowed themes including dance pieces, popular songs and operatic excerpts
nineteenth centurystructuredthe 'character' or 'characteristic' variation, where composers used instrumental works (such as suites and sonatas) and instrumentally conceived themes from members of their own circle
nineteenth centurystructuredthe basso ostinato variation
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuriesfreethe free 'fantasia' variation, which might used borrowed themes, including folk songs
twentieth centurystructuredthe 'serial' variation, where the 'tone-row' provides the thematic material
verse-chorus forma musical form common in popular music and predominant in rock since the 1960s. In contrast to AABA form, which is focused on the verse (contrasted and prepared by the bridge), in verse-chorus form the chorus is highlighted contrasting melodically, rhythmically and harmonically with greater dynamics and added instrumentation
a simple triple time dance derived from the old German ländler; the dance generally has an introduction, a number of different melodies, before finishing with a coda. Harmonically, the dance has one strong chord on the first beat, with two weaker chords on the second and third beat, this pattern repeated from bar to bar. There are a number of variations in the form:
Viennese waltzfeatures a slight anticipation of the second beat (called the Atempause) which gives a characteristic lilt to its performance
French waltzplaces the emphasis on the first beat of the bar (or measure)
'English' or 'Boston' waltzplaces even emphasis on all three beats of the bar (or measure)


Alan Belkin's Practical Guide To Composition :: top

Alan Belkin's A Practical Guide to Composition is an excellent introduction to the subject. Belkin's aims are to discuss fundamental principles of musical composition in concise, practical terms, and to provide guidance for student composers. Many practical aspects of the craft of composition, especially concerning form, are not often discussed in ways useful to an apprentice composer; that is to say, ways that help to solve common problems. Thus, this will not be a "theory" text, nor an analysis treatise, but rather a guide to some of the basic tools of the trade.

The guide is in three parts:

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