In musical composition, we tend to reuse sections of a piece in patterns that are referred to as "musical forms". Some basic examples of these that I know of are ABA, AABA, ABAB, and the rondo form ABACAB'A. While I recently became interested in finding out about more varying musical forms, the only one I was able to find that somewhat matches what I'm looking for is the Sonata Rondo form's infinitely varying ABACADAEA... pattern.

In short, what I would like to discover (if any exist at all):

  1. A musical form containing a large number of variations.
  2. Ideally the musical form should have a set end, rather than formulaic variance into infinity like the sonata rondo.

With that said, are there any musical forms that meet both of these requirements and contain more variations than the Rondo form?

  • 1
    Would "symphony" or "opera" count as possible answers? If "rondo" is a candidate then there's definitely a case to be made for "symphony". Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 14:35
  • I feel like rondos are defined by their musical form, whereas symphonies and operas aren't. If they are, though, they would make an excellent answer.
    – Leslie P.
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 16:47
  • Sonata form is a large-scale structure (sometimes used by symphonies!) that has seen frequent use.
    – thrig
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 17:11
  • 2
    Your question still isn't quite straightforward, I think, because the first thing that comes to my mind is American Old time music, where the basic form is usually AABB, but it is repeated until the players run out of variations. So while it is AABBAABBA..., each AABB is different than the last. When good players are jamming, this can be 10 to 30 minutes with no identical repetitions. Anecdotally, I've heard of players spending an hour on the same song, with people leaving and joining in the middle. But it sounds like you want a more simplistic definition of complexity.
    – Karen
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 20:21
  • 1
    Look into the "formes fixes" of the 14th and 15th centuries, like virelai, rondeaux (not the same as rondos), ballatas, and madrigals. Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 17:47

2 Answers 2


According to the Wikipedia page for "Symphony", during the 17th century, the symphony had a fairly set structure:

The four-movement form that emerged from this evolution was as follows:

  1. an opening sonata or allegro
  2. a slow movement, such as adagio
  3. a minuet or scherzo with trio
  4. an allegro, rondo, or sonata

While it may not completely fit the above structure, Mahler's Symphony No. 3 often runs 90 to 100 minutes. So "symphony" is a candidate answer. Operas often run longer than 90 to 100 minutes, but might not have a clearly set structure.

Opera Seria is an Italian form of opera, also with a fairly set structure. From the Wikipedia page:

Opera seria built upon the conventions of the High Baroque era by developing and exploiting the da capo aria, with its A-B-A form. The first section presented a theme, the second a complementary one, and the third a repeat of the first with ornamentation and elaboration of the music by the singer. As the genre developed and arias grew longer, a typical opera seria would contain not more than thirty musical movements.

A typical opera would start with an instrumental overture of three movements (fast-slow-fast) and then a series of recitatives containing dialogue interspersed with arias expressing the emotions of the character, this pattern only broken by the occasional duet for the leading amatory couple. The recitative was typically secco: that is, accompanied only by continuo (harpsichord and cello, sometimes supported by further bass instruments). At moments of especially violent passion secco was replaced by stromentato recitative, where the singer was accompanied by the entire body of strings. After an aria was sung, accompanied by strings and oboe (and sometimes with horns or flutes), the character usually exited the stage, encouraging the audience to applaud. This continued for three acts before concluding with an upbeat chorus, to celebrate the jubilant climax.

  • I guess I wasn't exactly clear by what I meant by "longest" form- I really meant long as in the number of variations to the theme (ABACA being more convoluted than ABA, and so on). I'll edit the question to reflect this more clearly. This is informative, though- thank you.
    – Leslie P.
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 17:36
  • Oh, then I think Opera might win in terms of being able to repeat recitative - aria or recitative - opera - chorus as many times as necessary, so it's like a potentially infinite series of smaller structures. See: cfa.ilstu.edu/mhdicke/152/notes/operatic.html Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 19:16
  • 1
    Maybe the real confusion is what you mean by "form", not necessarily what you men by "longest". Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 19:18
  • I've been going by Wikipedia's definition of musical form here, particularly the passage on single forms.
    – Leslie P.
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 21:10
  • Based on that page, and considering a work like Pictures at an Exhibition to be a non-formal collection of through-composed sections, I still think it's either symphony or opera, depending on how you look at it. Opera is less complicated but has potentially more sections of similar structure. Symphony has a more multi-layered structure than opera but has a (mostly) fixed structural length. If you want the most complex form that has the least variations in its implementation, then the winner is probably sonata-allegro. Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 21:32

Sonata-rondo form is the most convoluted form I know of where you have something like this:


where C is the development and might have a form of something like this:

A B C A Close

Besides that, I think complex ternary form is the most convoluted of all the non-rondo forms.

On the large scale you have this:


A simple ternary form. You might not think that is complicated, but in complex ternary form, each of these large scale sections is itself in Ternary form. So the small scale form is this:


There is one famous piece I know of that is in Complex ternary form. It is Chopin's Military Polonaise. The large scale A sections are both in A major and the large scale B section is in D major. And each of these sections is itself in ternary form.

You wouldn't think the polonaise is simple at all just listening to it. But it is in complex ternary form and out of the forms that aren't rondo or sonata-rondo, it is the most complicated.

  • The Military Polonaise is just in compound ternary form, with each section being in rounded binary form. Now, for more complicated than even the (I-)A-B-C-A-B'(-Z) of sonata-allegro form...I've heard decent arguments that each outer section of the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony is in sonata-allegro form. (The inner section is in a binary form of some sort.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 6:50
  • I do beleive it is in complex ternary form because the A section comes back fully, not only half of it comes back. And that is the differing factor between rounded binary form and ternary form is whether or not the A section comes back fully. If it does, it is in ternary form. If not, if only part of it comes back, then it is in rounded binary form. Here in the polonaise, it comes back in its entirety both on the large and small scales.
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 15:46
  • ...Looked it up just now. Darn, I didn't previously know that ternary form could come with repeats a la AABABA.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 16:25
  • My understanding of the question is 'form' meaning a single movement, so not a multi-movement symphony. In that case sonata-rondo seems the standard form which is most complex. +1 Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 19:31

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