Skip to main content

Musical Form describes the large and small scale sections or divisions of a musical work. Use this tag for questions about the analysis, history, notation, or other aspects of musical form.

Musical Form is a broad term that refers to the "shape" or "structure" of a piece of music. Common musical divisions are

  • Movement: A complete sub-part of a piece, frequently, but not necessarily, set off from other movements by silence. A piece-within-a-piece.
  • Phrase: A musical statement, similar to a grammatical sentence, typically identified by the presence of a cadence, or musical ending.
  • Period: A set of musical phrases comprising a complete unit in itself. Analogous to a grammatical paragraph.
  • Theme or Motive: A musical element that recurs throughout a piece, often in altered form.
  • Measure: a metrical unit of defined duration in terms of musical pulse.

Form is typically described using letters. The first section of a piece is the A section, followed by the B section, and so forth. Sections that are largely similar, but not identical, are given numerical identifiers. For example, a near-repeat of an A section, but with small differences, would be A1; a second similar, but distinct repetition would be A2.

Some examples of musical form are

  • Through-composed: a piece having no specific sections or divisions
  • Binary form: a piece comprising two distinct/contrasting sections, typically described as A B
  • Ternary form: a piece with three sections, typically A B A. Note that the sections need not comprise unique musical material.
  • Rondo form: a piece in which one section serves as a sort of refrain between other distinct sections. For example, A B A C A.
  • Song form: A A B A; with each section frequently, but not necessarily, 8 measures long.
  • Sonata form: a multi-movement work. The prototypical sonata has three movements in a fast-slow-fast arrangement, with the first movement being in Sonata-Allegro form. Sonatas, however, may take on many other shapes and sizes.
  • Sonata-Allegro form: this appears in one way or another, sometimes disguised, in Sonatas. It is characterized by three sections called the Exposition (in which musical material is introduced), the Development (in which musical material is varied), and the Recapitulation (in which the original musical material returns).

Musical forms may also be characterized by rhythmic or stylistic elements.