What is Musical Form?

Music, like any spoken language, has rules that affect how we write and compose it. Just like English has certain rules for punctuation (for example, you can’t? Throw a random question mark? In the middle of a sentence), music has its own forms that govern how it is written.

Music has multiple different forms, and each form has a different format and function. In this post, we will be taking a closer look at the different types of form in music and how they work.

First, let’s start off by defining musical form.

What is Form in Music?

pieces of sheet music

In music, form means the specific structure and composition of a musical piece.

In order to fit into a specific form, a song must match the guidelines for the melody and rhythmic aspects in order to fit into the form.

So in basic terms, the definition of form is a certain song structure that follows a particular pattern.

Like how some poems can be haiku’s, rhyming poems, or limericks, different songs can fit in different forms.

Every song can be broken up into phrases and passages.

By analyzing the pattern of phrases and passages, we can tell what form a song is written in, or if it has a form at all.

The Building Blocks of Form: Phrases, Passages, and Movements

When we look at the music as a whole, there may be certain phrases that stand out to you.

For example, a standard pop song chorus contains four lines. Each of those lines is a phrase.

If you have trouble finding a phrase, look for where the melody stops, or where the singer pauses to take a breath.

A phrase is the musical equivalent of a sentence in a book. It’s just a small part of the song, but it’s distinct and contained.

When we group several phrases together, we get a passage.

A passage is like a paragraph in a book. It contains multiple phrases. Usually, four phrases make up a passage.

For example, in the song “Firework” by Katy Perry, the chorus is four phrases, repeated twice. “Baby you’re a firework” is one phrase. “Come on let your colors burst” is a second phrase, and so on.

However, when you combine all four of these phrases, and repeat them, that forms a passage. We call this passage the chorus.

Phrases and passages are usually very easy to spot in pop songs. Most of the time, the verses, bridge, and chorus are all separate passages.

Then, the largest building block of a musical piece is a movement.

Movements are most common in classical music and symphonies. It is a self-contained part of the song that has many different phrases and passages.

A movement is like one book in a five-part series. You probably won’t see any movements in modern music, like pop.

However, it’s still important to know about movements, because all of these structural pieces (phrases, passages, and movements) affect the musical form.

How Form is Analyzed

sheet music (image by Pixabay)

So far, we’ve learned that form means a certain format of song. The building blocks of musical form are phrases, passages, and movements.

When analyzing the form of a musical piece, the song is split into units. These units could be small (phrases and motifs), or large (movements or the entire piece).

Each of these units is assigned a letter, such as A, B, C, and so on. Each different phrase is given a different letter.

For example, the verse might be A, and the chorus is B.

If our song goes verse – chorus – verse – chorus, the letters for this song would be ABAB.

Types of Musical Form

Most types of musical forms are known as sectional forms. This means the music can be broken into sections, labelled (A, B, C, etc), and then analyzed.

Other types of forms in music include cyclical forms. Cyclical form is a group of multiple songs that are related to each other, such as an oratorio.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll be focusing on the different types of sectional forms in music, and their definitions.

Strophic Form

Strophic form is a type of musical form where the same passage is repeated over and over throughout the piece.

It is usually labelled as:

A A A A

Since it doesn’t change, the strophic form might also be called verse-repeating form or chorus form.

One example of a song in strophic form is the folk song, “Barbara Allen.”

This song is in strophic form because it follows the A A A A pattern.

Another song in strophic form is the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

amazing grace sheet music (image by Wikimedia Commons)

Medley or Chain Form

Medley (also called chain) form is when every passage is different from the rest.

It can be written as:

A B C D

Sometimes each individual passage repeats:

AA BB CC DD

Medley form has different music and lyrics for each passage.

Through-Composed Form

Similar to medley form, through-composed form is non-repeating.

A B C D.

A good example of a song in through-composed form is “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Once a section of music is left, it’s never revisited.

Binary Form

In binary form, a piece is made up of two sections. These sections are about the same length, and they have equal levels of importance.

In letter terms, binary form looks like this:

A B, or A A B B.

A couple of songs written in binary form include the folk song “Greensleeves.”

Greensleeves sheet music with phrases, binary form. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Also, the song “Oh! Susanna” is written in binary form.

Ternary Form

Ternary form has three parts to it.

Remember, binary form has two parts, ternary form has three parts.

In ternary form, the third section repeats a lot of the same phrases and musical ideas from the first section.

In letters, this is written as:

A B A

A good example of a song that uses ternary form is the song, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Rondo Form

Rondo form is similar to ternary form, with a few added sections.

This form starts off with one refrain, then a new section, then return to the refrain, then a new section, refrain, section, and so on.

Rondo form can be symmetrical, or asymmetrical. In symmetrical rondo form, the verse is repeated as well as the refrain, so it can be written like this:

A B A C A B A.

If the piece is asymmetrical rondo form, there will be a different verse in between each main theme. Asymmetrical rondo form is written like this:

A B A C A D A

A well-known musical piece written in rondo form is Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”

fur elise intro sheet music rondo form (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Variational Form (Theme and Variation)

Theme and variation, also called variational form, is similar to medley form where the main theme keeps coming back in the song.

However, in variational form, the main theme has multiple different variations.

For variational form, you might see letters with little numbers next to them, like this:

A1 A2 A3

These little numbers tell us that this is a variation (slightly changed) version of the main theme.

So theme and variations form can be written like this:

A B A1 C A2 D A

A good example of variational form is Mozart’s “12 Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman’.”

32 Bar Form (American Popular)

A popular form in Western music, thirty-two bar form is made of four sections.

Each of the four sections is eight bars long, and it fits into this pattern:

A A B A.

One famous song that is written in thirty-two bar form is “Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz.

12 Bar Blues

As you can probably tell by the name, the 12 bar blues is a popular musical form in jazz and blues music.

This form is in the pattern:

A B A C B A.

In the 12 bar blues, A = I chord, B = IV chord, and C = V chord.

Sonata Form

And last but not least, we have sonata form.

This musical form was one of the most important forms used in the Classical era of music.

Sonata form is different than the other forms, because it doesn’t have any sort of letter structure. Instead, it’s always organized in three parts:

  • Exposition
  • Development
  • Recapitulation

A good example of a musical piece written in sonata form is “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” by Mozart.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik Mozart intro sheet music violin (image by Wikimedia Commons)

Forms in Music Summary

Form in music is a great way to organize a musical piece and give it structure.

There are many different types of musical form, and many ways to organize music. As you learn about the types of music forms, you will start to notice these forms in all types of music.

Do you have any questions about forms in music? Let us know in the comments!

Jessica Roberts
Latest posts by Jessica Roberts (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.