I'm not a professional musician (actually, I'm a computer programmer), but I'm playing Guitar and Recorder, and I also sometimes write some themes coming to my mind.

Thus, let's assume that I'm a little novice composer. Now, when a theme comes to my mind (or a simple motif), I start developing it, based on my intuition, and based on my sensational analysis. I only extend it, the way it sounds good to me. In other words, I don't follow any kind of musical form to extend (I can't find a better word for it) my theme into a more complete piece.

On the other hand, when I give the extended song to my close friends, or my wife, or people close to me, they might like it, only based on its aesthetic value, not based on its musical and technical analysis. In other words, they say like "oh, it's beautiful".

However, when I try to put my song in a musical form, and to my opinion, make a highly technical piece, I feel that it looses its beauty (of course, IMO), and people around me say "the way before it was more beautiful".

Now, I have a question. Should we follow musical forms? Why we have to confine ourselves to musical form at all? Isn't it true that we only create music, because of its aesthetic value? Does following form suppresses creativity in art, which in turn suppresses beauty and ingenuity of our work of arts?

  • Note that the "free fantasia" is itself a respected musical form - musicians of all ages have occasionally felt the need to break fundamental rules without starting a whole musical revolution about it. That's why such a paradoxical "catch-all" genre exists. Commented Aug 9, 2014 at 17:39

8 Answers 8


This is going to start off sounding off-topic, but I promise it's not. My mom was (before she retired) a high-school English teacher, and when she taught poetry, she used the following analogy: Imagine a game of tennis between top pros, how exciting and energetic it can be. Now imagine that same game, but remove the white lines on the court. Now remove the net. What do you have left? Just two guys hitting a ball back and forth. What she was trying to say was: the lines, the net, the rules---they all give structure to the game. There's plenty of room for creativity within that structure, but without the structure, the whole thing sort of loses the point.

Now, tennis is a competitive activity, unlike music. I get that. And in poetry, there's such a thing as free verse, and I get that, too. When you create a work of art, you don't have to follow the so-called "rules" if you don't want to. But the rules can be helpful. They can establish context, offer guidance, provide structure. As a jazz musician, I rely on the rules all the time, because I'm making up music on the spot together with other people who are also making it up on the spot. Without a common language, a common understanding, it would be chaos. We need at least some rules just to keep the whole thing from spinning out of control.

Don't forget, too, that the rules aren't handed down from God---they exist because musicians have found over time that certain things work well. Many many Beatles songs have the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus form. Is it because John and Paul weren't creative? No, it's because they found something that really really worked for them. As many people have noted, Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven (earlier in his career) all wrote pieces with essentially the same form, later called "sonata" form. But at the time Mozart was composing, he didn't know about sonata form, he just knew that certain things worked for him---it wasn't until much later that people like Czerny analyzed his music and found the same forms used over and over.

Beethoven is actually a great example here: In his earlier career, he followed the forms of the master composers he admired the most, namely Mozart and Haydn (in fact in his early twenties he studied with Haydn). As he got older, he found that those forms didn't work as well to express what he was trying to express, so he started diverging from them, and at first he encountered some resistance from audiences who thought he had lost his mind. But his music was so compelling, so full of intelligence and feeling, that eventually they came around. Towards the later period of his career, he was trying some really wild stuff, but it worked because he absolutely knew what he was doing.

The point is: of course you don't have to follow any specific musical forms if you don't want to. But that doesn't mean you can't be creative within a form. And in fact you may even end up creating your own musical form(s) without even knowing at the time that you're doing it.

Addendum: On Aesthetic Value

After re-reading your question and some of the comments, I feel compelled to elaborate on something. You say:

Isn't it true that we only create music, because of its aesthetic value?

The answer here is a resounding "Yes, but." What is "aesthetic value"? I get the impression that in this context, you understand aesthetic value to mean just "it sounds pretty". And that's fine, I suppose, but it's not what I mean by aesthetic value. You say people

might like [a piece of music], only based on its aesthetic value, not based on its musical and technical analysis

but I find the technical and musical aspects to be just as important to my overall sense of the aesthetic value of a piece than simply how pretty it sounds. These aspects increase my understanding and enrich my appreciation for a piece of music. Indeed, one can find great aesthetic value in music that one finds kind of ugly-sounding.

Look, you're a programmer, right? Imagine you have two pieces of code, both of which have the same functionality, but one of which is spaghetti code and the other of which is clean, well-organized, modular, all that good stuff---well, there's aesthetic value to the latter code, isn't there? Even if the end result is the same? The end user may never know the difference, but anyone reading the code would see right away that one has greater aesthetic value than the other.

My point is: there are aesthetic values to the technical. There can be great beauty in the way that a composer handles the problems posed by a particular musical form. If you don't want to feel constrained by a particular musical form, well, no one is forcing you to write music a certain way. But there is (at least, there can be) a lot more to music than simply how beautiful it sounds.</rant>


You should certainly not feel confined to conventional musical forms. All the forms described in the Wikipedia article you link to were invented by somebody; you are free to invent your own. The list in the Wikipedia article is bound to be incomplete.

However, be aware that people enjoy the familiarity of certain forms.

To use the poetry analogy from the article, if I write

Twinkle twinkle little star

How I wonder what you are

Up above the world so high

Like a big lamp

... the final line is likely to be unsatisfying to most people, as it neither fits the rhyming pattern or the scansion that they expect.

Yet, there are poems written in free verse, which are perhaps not as popular, but popular enough to be considered as classics. The people that love these poems really love them.

Likewise, if you play a root chord, followed by a 4th, then the root again, then a 5th, then a 4th... it's going to make many listeners uncomfortable if you don't return to the root as experience has led them to expect.

Of course, subverting expectation can be very effective, and it's up to you and your audience to find the right balance between meeting expectations and lacking creativity.

There's a reason why so much rock and pop follows a predictable pattern of verse, bridge, chorus one of a few common orders. Mainstream audiences are comforted by it.

By the same token, there those who'll call anything that follows such a pattern lazy and boring.

  • thanks for your answer. I generally think that the beauty of a work of art should be the ultimate purpose in mind of an artist. As they say, the end justifies the means (or permissible means). Thus an artist should be free to produce a song of 10 seconds, if it's beautiful and if it has some listeners. Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 10:40
  • 2
    You shouldn't forget that beauty is not the sole possible outcome of a work of art. As slim pointed out in twinkle little star, "unsatisfying" may not be what the listener wants, but it might be your intention. Your intention is how you measure success. Of course, the listener has no idea what your intention is, so they will judge it based upon personal interest which is completely out of your hands.
    – horatio
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 17:49

Slim's answer is very good; there are pros and cons to both approaches. However, I wanted to add that following a particular form can be challenging and interesting, and can in fact add to the beauty and other aspects of a song beyond what one could do by ignoring them.

For example, someone who is a natural at writing 4-piece rock songs might never dream up a solo violin piece. But by studying classic violin pieces and experimenting within the forms used by them they could potentially make something wonderful. And their new knowledge may add to their ability to compose rock songs.

There are also some composers who can't work outside a framework. Without some reference point it can be hard to make your ideas concrete.

Finally, there is also beauty to be found in technicality. For playing, sometimes when you're told you're playing "expressively" it really means your timing is bad. The same idea can be extended to composition. Beauty and expressiveness are totally subjective and I see no reason to believe that what I enjoy and prefer should reign supreme.

  • 2
    I used to draw and paint a bit at school. Some of my best work was designing posters, which had to work when photocopied -- the school photocopier couldn't do greys, just black and white. Constraints are good for creativity.
    – slim
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 11:52
  • The "sometimes when you're told you're playing 'expressively' it really means your timing is bad" comment reminds me of agogic accents and how they often involve delaying accented notes.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 13:05

If you're not following any existing form, it becomes encumbant on you to construct the form anew. Without form, you'll have real difficulty making the song listenable beyond a certain length. It's the same with programming. Beyond a few thousand lines, the lack of structure makes the entire enterprise unweildy.

So it is very useful to learn how to follow this or that form, so you can steal little bits of structure.

Eg. I had a little guitar riff that was very catchy. You could speed it up, slow it down, add drones, lead lines. But I could not, for the life of me, make it go anywhere. When I finally began to wonder why, theory showed the way. The riff was essentially a 2-measure chord progression: I / / / | V / / /. I couldn't start a new phrase (bridge/chorus/anything "different but the same") on V because I was already there. So I had to steal pieces from other forms: deceptive cadence or "sitting" on I the last time round (of some binary repetitions) [this one actually makes the "new phrase on V" possible].

On the otherhand, it can be very interesting to start out following a form, and then radically depart from it. So you will find it useful to be aware of forms, so you can make conscious choices about when to follow, when to lead.

In other words, Knowledge of Forms is the glue you put under your shoes in order to stand on the Shoulders of Giants.


I like several of the answers here and I'll add my two cents.

A musical form is a constraint that you chose to adopt when you're composing.

This can seen as bad, but it may free your mind to explore some other ideas that just would not occur to you if you were following what "sounds good" to you. I believe that musical forms can suppress creativity, but so can the act of just playing away and picking what you think is good, most of the times you'll just revisit your old favorite ideas.

As Matthew pointed in his answer, getting out of one's comfort zone can help him compose something good. That is the beauty of exploring and studying, you'll be capable to innovate (as long as you remain open minded, I guess).

A great guitar player named Dave Weiner when asked about whether it's best to search the notes on your own or use scale modes to compose said (paraphrasing) that "modes are shortcuts that can spare you from the searching" and I find this very true.

So what I'm trying to say is, "feeling", aesthetic, technicality and forms are all tools you can use to compose. Different people will like some more than the others, but I don't advise you to disregard any of them for this reason or the other.


This is a nice set of answers, thanks for posting the question. Here is my contribution.

First, form is everywhere in music and communication in general -- form is information. This starts what instruments you chose and how you chose to play them -- diatonic vs. microtonal scales, tuning, pitches, etc.

Musical forms provide you temporal and/or harmonic structure that allows you to produce longer works that are greater than the sum of their parts, for example, the binary form with repeats: AABB. The mere fact that you are repeating can enhance the listener's enjoyment of the work.

It seems you are asking more about tradtional western forms in the context of making solo music rather than multi-part. I think that in solo work, strict adherence to a given form can be somewhat less important; truly free-form works can be long and beautiful but that's more of an improvisational approach to music making than a compositional one. One can argue that improvisation itself is a form with certain rules or cliches that are implicitly understood by the player and audience. If a improvisational player and audience do not have the same set of implicit understandings then the result can be less than optimal for both parties.

The utility of a particular form depends on what you are playing. For solo recorder, repetitions of a melodic theme are traditionally license to demonstrate creativity and perhaps technical virtuosity with diminutions or variations (AaBb), either written out or improvised -- c.f. Van Eyck. Guitarists, having chords at their disposal, can start from a ground like the passomezzo or the standard 12-bar blues progression and then apply melodic ideas on top of it, again either improvised or written out. In each case, the form chosen is useful both to the musician and the audience alike.

If you intend to sing and play, form is even more vital since you want beauty to arise from what you sing (presumably words) with what you're playing. Thus the form and rules of speech, poetry, etc. have to be considered. Humans don't seem to find a lot of beauty and pleasure when that does not occur or is purposely ignored, particulary with vocals, unless we're expecting it (i.e, in a larger form of a well-publicized concert of post-modern music).

So, answering your question more directly, I seems to me that form is vital to musical creativity and understanding the forms you employ gives you a better chance to create something you are proud of. In our western tradition, certain forms and techniques are much better suited for solo composition than others and a thorough understanding of them will enhance your compositions even when you choose to bend them a bit.


TO some extent, one doesn't so much follow a form as use that form as a model. All forms allow for some variation (random or systematic). To use a previous illustration, Lewis Caroll changed

Twinkle, twinkle, little Star. How I wonder what you are.


Twinkle, twinkle, little Bat. How I wonder where you're at.


Here's a short answer, but I think a sufficient one. And it's an answer I've offered several times before.

Theory, describes, it does not command.

Theory tells you what has been found to work well. It doesn't tell you how it MUST be done.

Having said that - as a computer programmer @Saeed Neamati will appreciate the difference between a page of rambling, formless code and a structured program. The unstructured code may include a brilliant algorithm! But, unless it's a very short program, it needs the support of a structure.


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