I'd like to learn the names of the different forms of classical musical compositions as compared to the literary work structure that has a beginning, the part where the plot thickens and the dramatic changes occur, then the part where mysteries get solved and the ending.

  • 1
    I think you'll have to define 'classic'. There is romantic, baroque, 20th century classic Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 22:12
  • Well, how different in structure are they? Maybe we could further narrow down the scope if it's still too broad :p Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 23:03
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    Please don't limit this question by a specific era of classical music -- that's not going to be useful because there are many similarities across eras for a given form. For example, Binary, Ternary, Sonata and Rondo forms are all used to some degree from about the Baroque and onward (or longer). What should be realized is that there are many different types of classical music forms, each possibly with their own structural terminology (though there may be some overlap). If you are not interested in any specific type (e.g. Symphony, Concerto, Opera), then this answer will become very long. Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 0:38
  • Agreed with Caleb here - there are many more questions the OP would need to answer before we could give a thoughtful response, and even then, the answer would be very long. In this instance, it is likely to be more helpful to suggest a book or two. Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 3:55
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    Your question is meaningful but you do not realize how vast the subject is. There are many different kinds of classical music pieces and they all have different structural elements. Answering your question would take many college textbooks. Google the term "form and analysis" (use the quote marks) with regard to music composition and music theory, and you will begin to see what we mean.
    – user1044
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 6:13

3 Answers 3


Okay... I'm going to take a stab at this. Note that while some of my answer will be from the perspective of Baroque music, much of it will still apply to some degree throughout the Classical and Romantic eras as well.

First of all lets differentiate between the type of composition, and the form of that composition. By type of composition (there may be a better word for this) I mean what kind of music is it, and what its texture and purpose is. By form, I mean the structural layout of its various developmental elements. Often, one will imply something about the other, but this is not a necessary or fixed correlation.

Some common types of classical compositions include (but this is not an exclusive list):

  • Vocal works
    • Opera: A long staged work of musical drama for choir & orchestra, usually of a secular theme.
    • Oratorio: Similar to an opera, but unstaged and usually on a sacred theme.
    • Cantata: Usually religious, similar to an oratorio, but much shorter. Suitable for inclusion in a church service.
  • Instrumental works
    • Sonata: A piece for a solo instrument (often with accompaniment)
    • Chamber music: Trios, quartets, etc... More instruments than a sonata, but not a full orchestra
    • Suite: A collection of shorter works, usually dances, or pieces with a dance-like quality.
    • Concerto: A piece that contrasts one (or more) soloists against an orchestra.
    • Symphony: A piece for the the full orchestral texture.

Structurally, the one thing that all of these types of classical music (generally) have in common is that they have multiple movements (but as with any "rule" there are always exceptions). A movement is a portion of a complete work which is able to stand on its own: it is (usually) separated from the other surrounding movements by a brief silence, (usually) ends with a satisfactory cadence, (usually) has its own distinct set of themes or motifs, has it's own tempo (or set of tempi), may possibly be in a different key from other movements, and, notably, has its own distinct structure. For the vocal works listed above, the movements will commonly consist of Recitatives (short declarative, narrative-like sections of almost sung-speech), Arias (lyrical songs with instrumental accompaniment), and Choruses. For the instrumental works, the movements will often be labeled for the mood that they are convey, which may be a tempo indication (Allegro, Adagio, etc...), some type of desired emotional effect (Maestoso), or another type of music with a similar mood (Minuet, Alla marcia). The important thing to realize is that each movement will have its own form or structure.

So now lets talk about form. Musical form is built around two contrasting techniques: Repetition and Contrast. That is, a piece's structure can often be defined in terms of which parts of it are repeated (and when) versus when new, contrasting parts are introduced. Repetition need not be exact -- Variation is an important element of music as well. Musical structures are often denoted with a series of capital letters, where a repeated theme is denoted with a repeated letter.

  • Free Form: There is no repetition, just a sequence of unrelated ideas: ABCD...

  • Theme & Variations: There is a single musical idea, repeated, but varied each time (note: variations are sometimes denoted by one or more apostrophes after a letter): AA'A''A'''. Example: Mozart's Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman". Note that in this example, the theme and each variation is individually in rounded binary form (described below). Granted, the Mozart example is somewhat broken up, with each variation as its own thing (which is often the case for this form). A better example of how a theme & variation can be used to unify the structure within a single piece might be Bach's Passacaglia in C minor. In this case, the theme is a bass line which gets constantly repeated throughout the work (which is not dissimilar to how some modern forms of electronic music get built), and the variations are usually in the upper voices.

  • Binary Form: In Binary Form, there are two contrasting ideas: AB. Often, each segment will be repeated: AABB. A variation of this, called Rounded Binary Form, ends the B section with the material from the A section, so with repeats, it might look like: AABABA. This is similar to Ternary Form. Pretty much every dance form from the Renaissance, Baroque, and probably Classical Eras will have some type of binary or rounded binary layout, and there are very many types of dance forms (Allemandes, Sarabandes, Courantes, Bourees, Gavottes, Minuets, Gigues, etc...).

  • Ternary Form: Ternary Form contains two contrasting ideas, but the initial idea returns at the end: ABA.

  • Da Capo Aria: Initially very common in Baroque arias, but later in instrumental music as well. This is essentially an application of ternary form. The aria will have an initial section, then a second contrasting section (likely in a different key, and with a different mood), followed by the instruction "Da Capo al Fine", which means to go back to the beginning, and play through to the "Fine" ("fee-nay" = finish) which marks the end of the first section. This form gave rise to the wildly popular Sonata Form. Example: "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from Handel's Messiah.

  • Sonata Form: This is a very widely used form, and there is a previous question here about it. It is used quite often in the first movement of symphonies, concerti, and (unsurprisingly) sonatas, and can be seen as an elaboration of Ternary form. The initial section is called the Exposition; it introduces a Primary Theme (A), as well as a contrasting Secondary Theme (B) in a different key. The Exposition is often repeated. The middle section is called the Development, and it typically breaks down the themes into individual elements, and recombines them in different ways. The final section is called the Recapitulation, and it restates the original two themes, but in the same final key. They may be followed by a closing Coda. A full Sonata Form may look something like this: (Intro)(AB)(AB)(C)(AB)'(Coda). Example: Beethoven's 5th Symphony (1st movement only).

  • Rondo Form: There is one main theme that is repeated frequently, interleaved with multiple supporting ideas (which may or may not repeat): ABACADA... This is often used for another one of the movements in a sonata or symphony. Example: Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 8 "Pathetique", 3rd movement

  • Ritornello Form: Often seen in Baroque concerti. This describes an alternation of textures between tutti (full orchestra) and solo. Each tutti section is called a ritornello and is usually based on the same initial set of musical ideas (or some variation of them), while the solo sections, sometimes called episodes, tend to be more independent. This can be seen as somewhat similar to a rondo, but ritornellos are typically allowed more variation or development between entries than the main theme of a rondo. Example: Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, 1st movement.

  • Fugue: A somewhat technical form involving specific contrapuntal techniques and textures. A fugue involves a main theme called a Subject which enters separately in different voices at different pitches. There may be a Countersubect as well. A fugue opens with an Exposition, during which time all voices initially enter with the subject. After this, there will usually be additional subject entries separated by Episodes of more free counterpoint, which may or may not be based off of the subject material. Usually, the subject will undergo various forms of contrapuntal transformations, such as inversion, augmentation, diminution, and stretto. In the Baroque, it would not be uncommon for an entire movement of a work to be written as a fugue, but later, the technique is often confined to just a portion of a movement. Example: Bach's "Little" Fugue.

Note that this list is by no means complete, but it should cover the basics. There could be whole books written about some of these forms (Sonata Form and Fugue can be especially involved). Also note that structures can be hierarchical, or nested. A movement may have an overall ternary form, but each of the subsections might itself be in binary form. Or there may be a concerto movement in a ritornello form, in which each ritornello is a fugal entry. Or in the case of the Mozart above, you have a series of variations, each in rounded binary form.


It depends what kind of type you aim, because classical music can be very different in its structure and form.

Caleb Hines already posted a very detailed list about the forms. My answer is only an introduction and might not be suited perfectly for your question, but should give you a basic understanding about classical music.


Sonata form is characterized by tonal movement and consists of an exposition, development and recapitulation section. Sonata form is used in most first movements of sonatas and symphonies. It is considered the most important principle of musical form.

In the "Classical" period, the title "sonata" is typically given to a work composed of three or four movements. Often sonata form refers just to the structure of an individual movement. Outline of sonata form

Sonata-form, otherwise known with similar inaccuracy as first movement form or sonata-allegro form, developed during the second half of the 18th century as a principal form in instrumental music, from Haydn onwards.

Structure of the Sonata:

  • Introduction -In music, the introduction is a passage or section which opens a movement or a separate piece. In popular music this is often abbreviated as intro. The introduction establishes melodic, harmonic, and/or rhythmic material related to the main body of a piece.
  • Exposition - The exposition is "the very first major section, incorporating at least one important modulation to the dominant or other secondary key and presenting the principal thematic material."
  • Development - The development generally starts in the same key as the exposition ended, and may move through many different keys during its course. In this process, certain central ideas are repeated in different contexts or in altered form so that the mind of the listener consciously or unconsciously compares the various incarnations of these ideas. Listeners may apprehend a "tension between expected and real results", which is one "element of surprise" in music.
  • Recapitulation - The Recapitulation is an altered repeat of the exposition
  • Coda - Codas may be quite brief tailpieces, or they may be very long and elaborate. Main purpose of the Coda is to bring a piece to an end. A famous example for an extended coda is the one to the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (no. 3 in E flat).

Sonata sample: Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2 No. 1 - I. Allegro


A symphony is a musical composition usually for orchestras. Many symphonies are tonal works in four movements with the first in the sonata form, and this is often described by music theorists as the structure of a "classical" symphony.

The opera sinfonia, or Italian overture had, by the 18th century, a standard structure of three contrasting movements: fast; slow; fast and dance-like. It is this form that is often considered as the direct forerunner of the orchestral symphony. The terms "overture", "symphony" and "sinfonia" were widely regarded as interchangeable for much of the 18th century.

The Italian overture opens with a fast movement, followed by a slow movement and a final fast dance-movement in triple metre. The function of the symphony as an overture continued into the second half of the 18th century, to be replaced more generally by its new function as an isolated orchestral form.

The classical symphony of Haydn and Mozart is generally in four movements, opening with a sonata-form allegro, followed by a slow movement, a minuet and trio and a rondo finale.

With Beethoven the symphony grew in size and ambition, an example followed later by Brahms, Bruckner and others. In the 19th century and into the 20th century the symphony, now much expanded, remained the most respected and demanding form that a composer might tackle. A symphony may loosely be defined as an orchestral composition generally in several movements.

Symphony sample: Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 - I. Allegro vivace e con brio


The term concerto usually refers to a musical work in which one solo instrument is accompanied by an orchestra. The concerto arose in the Baroque with the concerto grosso, which contrasted a small group of instruments with the rest of the orchestra. While the concerto grosso is confined to the Baroque period, the solo concerto has continued as a vital musical force to this day.

The Baroque concerto

  • In the late 16th century there was often no clear distinction made between a concerto and a sinfonia. Both of these terms were even used throughout the 17th century, in Italy, to describe vocal music with instrumental accompaniment; Giovanni Gabrieli published motets using either of these terms indiscriminately.
  • Starting at about 1675, composers started to write works for divided orchestra, often called concerto grosso. The smaller division, which was effectively a group of soloists, was referred to in these works as the concertino and the accompanying instruments were called the ripieno, while tutti was used to indicate the two groups playing simultaneously.

The Classical concerto

  • The concertos of Bach’s sons are the best links between those of the Baroque period and those of Mozart. Bach’s keyboard concertos contain some brilliant soloistic writing. Some of them have movements that run into one another without a break, and there are frequent cross-movement thematic references.

  • Mozart, as a boy, made arrangements for harpsichord and orchestra of three sonata movements by Johann Christian Bach. By the time he was twenty, he was able to write concerto ritornelli that gave the orchestra admirable opportunity for asserting its character in an exposition with some five or six sharply contrasted themes, before the soloist enters to elaborate on the material. He wrote one concerto each for flute, oboe (later rearranged for flute and known as Flute Concerto No. 2), clarinet, and bassoon, four for horn, a Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, and a Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra.

It is conventional to state that the first movements of concerti from the Classical period onwards follow the structure of sonata form. Final movements are often in rondo form, as in J.S. Bach's E Major Violin Concerto.

Concerto sample: Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102 'Double Concerto' - I. Allegro


An étude (a French word meaning study) is a short musical composition designed to provide practice in the performance of a solo instrument. For example, Frédéric Chopin's étude Op. 25 No. 1 trains pianists to play rapid parallel thirds.

The études that are most widely admired are those which transcend their practical function and come to be appreciated simply as music. For example, Chopin's études are considered not just technically difficult, but also musically very powerful and expressive.

Etude sample: Étude No. 1 in A Flat Major, WoO


An overture (from the French word, ouverture, meaning opening) in music is the instrumental introduction. It is frequently an opening to a larger dramatic work such as an opera. Earlier usage of the word also referred to collections of movements, known as suites. Later works, such as Beethoven's overture Leonora No 3 mark a transition between the concept of overture as introduction to a dramatic entertainment, and musical forms such as the symphonic poem, which are work .

Overture sample: The Marriage of Figaro - Overture


If by "classical music" you mean the music before the second half of 20th century then there's not an easy answer for your question... While, if you mean music of classical period, I think you should give a look to the Sonata Form.

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