Edit: I took a look at the related question. The first answer illuminated me to free form ABCD... (let's not forget about free form!) and a good structure definition of Sonata. The other answers apparently did not have any ABC lettering description of forms (maybe I'm using a strict definition of "form"?). In any case, my question remains if any more basic forms exist (are well-established in baroque/classical/early romantic periods). I edited the title to include the word basic.

I only know 5 official forms:

  • ABCD... for Free Form

  • AA'A'' for Variations on a theme

  • ABA for the Minuet and Trio

  • ABACA for the Rondo (sometimes called ABA'B'A'')

  • ABABC(AB)' for Sonata

Surely there must be more? I could make up something like ABBA or any random combination of letters but I'd rather investigate the official forms first.

I wrote a Rondo and M&T years ago for the piano. I've wrote variations on a theme for a long time (they seem to be the easiest). Now I'm looking for other forms to try my hand, or I'll just make one up and consider it an exercise.

I'm partial to piano music, but official forms that are traditional for other types are okay too.

Edit: The baroque, classical, and early romantic periods are very long times with many, many works. I would be very surprised if only 5 basic forms existed there.

  • Any decent music encyclopedia or composition textbook will tell you all this. – Carl Witthoft Apr 12 '17 at 11:50
  • I would just like to clarify that Sonata form is NOT at all ABABC(AB)'. It's more like AB(Development)A'B'(Ending). – Ansel Chang Apr 12 '17 at 14:30

This is a huge question, because, as you say, form can be anything: ABACAAAABADAAACDBAAACD. Obviously I'm being ridiculous, but forms is that sense are literally infinite.

With that said, there are a few other standard forms that you should know about, and I'll mix in some further information about what you currently have:

  • Binary form is an especially important one, often labeled as AB. Within binary form, there are two broad types: simple and rounded. Simple binary forms are simply an A section (repeated) followed by a B section (also repeated); though it is technically AABB, we abbreviate it to AB. Since you're a keyboardist, check out basically any suite movement by Bach---I'm partial to the C minor French Suite---to get a sense of simply binary movements. Rounded binary, however, is labeled ABA', because the A section returns to "round" out the form. Minuet string quartet movements---I recommend Haydn's Op. 76---are very often rounded binary forms.

  • As history progressed, these rounded binary forms became larger and larger, and eventually ABA' evolved into Exposition -- Development -- Recapitulation, what we call sonata form. This is much too complex a topic to fully discuss here (as evidenced by a very famous 700-page book), but the first movement of Beethoven's Op. 49, no. 1 is a very clear example.

  • You mentioned the minuet and trio form an ABA form; you're correct, and we call this ternary form. Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish ternary (ABA) from rounded binary (ABA'), but there are a few ways. First, rounded binary forms often create higher-level ternary forms. Minuets, as mentioned above, are often rounded binary forms; trios are, as well. But then these individual rounded binary forms create larger ternary forms. In other words, in your ABA ternary form, the first A is itself a rounded binary (aba'), and the B is also a rounded binary (let's call it cdc'), the final A is a return to the initial aba'. Thus the complete "minuet and trio" package is something like aba'|cdc'|aba', which we simplify as ABA. Note also that ternary forms are often more harmonically separate from rounded binary forms, with full cadences separating the large sections (but not always!). Key areas and motive are also often more distinct in ternary forms than in rounded binary forms. Nineteenth-century character pieces (like Chopin nocturnes!) are good examples of ternary forms.

  • 2 things: Does the non-rounded "Binary Form" belong to a specific kind of work, like sonata/rondo/prelude/ballad? And the bigger question: All your examples are limited to AB or some kind of ABA. I'm hunting for something a bit more intriguing like maybe ABCA or ABCB? If it helps, I'm not looking to analyze all the parts taken together in a work. Like a symphony has 4 parts, but I'm only interested in the ABwhatever form of an individual part. Comparing all the parts forms and then all the parts together would be too complex (for now). – DrZ214 Apr 12 '17 at 12:23

Multiple "forms" as the question defines them can get named the same thing in classical music. For example, both ABACA and ABACABA are rondos, as is ABACADA. (In rare cases, a scherzo and double trio fits ABACA--or ABABA.)

There's also sonata-rondo form. Depending on which work you're listening to, it can be ABACB'A or ABACAB'AD.

For smaller forms within a work (e.g. the minuet in a minuet and trio), AABB or AB is binary form (either symmetrical binary or asymmetrical binary depending on how long A is compared to B), and AABA'BA' or ABA' is rounded binary form.

ABA is more commonly referred to as ternary form.

Arch form, which is ABCBA or ABCDCBA (etc.), also exists.

Sonata(-allegro) form with the recapitulation having its first theme group shorn off is best labelled as ABCB' (e.g. the first movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor), while sonata(-allegro) form without the development is best labelled as ABAB' (e.g. the overture to Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro").

March forms can get a wee bit complex--Sousa's marches often fit AABBCDCDC best.

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