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Sound and Silence Organized in Time

An apt definition for music, no? If you think about it, it really does cover just about anything you can consider music.

Organizing is key and that's what we're talking about today: organizing your music. We're discussing the basics of form and how it works. This is part two of my introduction to composition series, all about the foundations of the main musical forms with some relevant examples.

This post is not about analyzing form (though I will give you some resources for that before moving on because you should cultivate an interest in it). It's about getting an understanding of what the forms are so you can use them. We're going for the smallest amount of complication possible.

I highly suggest you get with your dear friend Google and look into each of the following forms more deeply and get into some analysis (that is, analyzing existing pieces for their underlying structure). It will help you to really understand what I'm discussing below. If you're going to be composing you need to have very solid knowledge of all of this. And hey, even if you already know form a little review never hurt anyone.

Owning a good text on form and analysis wouldn't be a bad idea, either. Check these out:

Musical Form and Analysis by Glenn Spring and Jere Hutcheson (the text I own and used in my classes)

Form in Tonal Music by Douglass M. Green

If you've got the money to spare you might also want to look into getting your hands on a Burkhart Anthology, which has all the examples you'll ever need for your form/analysis-related goals. Or (what I really recommend doing) get creative and Google pieces that use a particular form, head over to IMSLP to look them up, print yourself a copy for free, and mark it up to heaven. For the really major and well known pieces, there are YouTube videos that explain form as the piece plays (a few of them are linked below as examples).

You might also head over to your local university's bookstore or a used textbook shop and see what the music department is using for their form and analysis class. Either way, pick up a used copy (no need to spend $200 on a text you can pick up for $15, right?). Don't forget to price check on Amazon, either--you could save hundreds of dollars to acquire something that's just as good. If you're not taking the class you don't need the most recent edition. You just need a serviceable copy with solid information. Bonus: a used text might even have helpful notes in the margins and important details highlighted for you already. Professional musical pursuits are expensive enough already. Skimp where you can.

Now, on to the meat of things:

What is Form?

When we talk about form in music what we're discussing is akin to grammar. (What is a phrase, after all, but a musical sentence?) Any good bit of writing, from academic essays to Shakespeare, has a solid and easily discernible structure. It threads concepts and themes together for the reader or audience, creating cohesion and drama that hold their attention.

Music is only a different medium for this type of thought with different syntax. In writing you have to be careful about the way you repeat yourself; indeed, you should not repeat yourself too often or at all in some cases. Music, on the other hand, demands some kind of repetition for cohesion.

The conceptual genesis of musical form is delayed repetition. Themes or ideas are played in strategic positions throughout a piece in order to create drama and a sense of flow or progression.

You've got to let your listener know where to hang their hat.

A few basic forms (and their inherent variations) make up the majority of Western musical organization. These forms had, for the most part, come into being by the Classical period and are deeply rooted in the tenets of common practice period music.

So how does this apply to you, twenty-first century composer? To start with, all of these forms are still in use today. And, as I said in my post on basic compositional skills, one of the ways to make your music interesting is by breaking the rules creatively. You don't have to be totally married to form--don't let yourself be stifled. But you do need to know how to structure your music and traditional form is the absolute best place to start. From here you can come up with your own inventive ways of organizing your ideas.

Let's get started with the language of form.

Basic Labels and Terminology

In analyzing the form of a piece, we label major thematic sections alphabetically. Meaning that the first major theme you come across is A, the next is B, then C, and so on and so forth.

When themes or large sections repeat but are not exact repeats we refer to them as prime. This is denoted with an apostrophe. So when the main theme repeats but is different--even slightly--it is notated as A', which we say out loud as "A prime." If it continues to repeat with any new variations it gets additional apostrophes. So the third iteration of that theme would be A'', spoken as "A double-prime." The next would be A''', or "A triple-prime." And so on and so forth.

A few other terms to know:

Introduction - the opening, precedes the primary material (main theme). Can be short and simple or longer and more complex. Can be attached to any form.

Coda - literally, "tail." The end of a piece. Can be attached to any form.

Codetta - a small coda, generally at the end of a major section in a piece (especially the end of the exposition in sonata form).

Development - a section in which thematic, rhythmic, and harmonic material is transformed via variation of rhythm, interval, harmony, and orchestration.

Common Forms

The following are the main forms used by composers. They are diagrammed in their basic state along with the most common variations. I've either diagrammed the traditional harmonic structures with roman numerals under the form or considered it after the discussion on structural features in each section.

Binary Form

Binary form is a simple construction that has a lot of potential. It can be short and simple or extended into an entire symphonic movement. There are two main sections in binary form and they usually repeat. These can be very similar or totally different, as seen here:

This is known as simple binary form. A variation on this is rounded binary, where there is a digression before repeating the primary material in the second section:

Binary form is usually tonally closed--it begins and ends in the same key. The secondary material often dalliances with the dominant key, is a temporary tonicization, or is in a related key. It generally returns to the original tonic very firmly at the end.


March in D from Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 122) (An example of a simple binary construction, very straightforward.)

Symphony No. 3, mvt. I, Vittorio Giannini (A larger use of binary form, in which there are two large sections with different tempo and mood that repeat, resulting in A B A' B', or if you want to look at it like the very first diagram with similar sections, you can look at the first A and B sections as the first section [A], which repeats for the second part of the form [A'].)

Ternary Form

Ternary form is divided into three main sections. Repetition gets trickier here--sometimes it repeats and sometimes it does not. You end up with something that looks like this:

A B A or A B A'

Or like this:

Compound ternary form is when you embed a smaller form (usually binary or a very simple iteration of ternary form) into each section. That would look something like this (with the bold letters above indicating the overall ternary structure).

Another common variation of ternary form is the minuet and trio or scherzo and trio. Formally speaking they're basically the same thing; the difference being mood and/or tempo. This generally means you have a courtly/dance-like/capricious section for the A sections, while the B section (the trio) is lighter and smoother in character, often using less instruments, returning to the tempo/character/harmony of the A section one last time. If there are repeats in the first section, they are not played when the A section is repeated for the final time. Much like compound ternary form, each section will often contain a smaller binary or ternary construction. (Remember pieces that use D.C. or D.S. al Coda or al fine notations? Much of the time they are minuet and trio/scherzo and trio form--simply having the musician(s) play through the A and B sections, then repeat back to the beginning and play the A section again. In the 1600s and 1700s paper and ink were sometimes hard to come by, so composers would use these notations to save on supplies.)

Harmonically, your structure is similar to binary here. You start and end in tonic and for your middle section you generally move to the dominant or another closely related key, moving back for the final section.


Piano Concerto No. 21, mvt. II, W.A. Mozart, K. 467. View a score here. (Note how each section, though it is not written out, repeats in its own way. You can tell when you move into the B section by the key change--it moves to minor, and then the A section returns, but is orchestrated differently. Perfect example of A B A' structure.)

Prelude in D-flat Major, Frederic Chopin, op. 28. View a score (open a full score and find no. 15). (Similar to the Mozart above, you have an A section, the B section is easily identifiable by the key change to minor, and then the A returns. Note how the final iteration of the A is truncated--an example of a composer slightly altering the rules of a form.)

Symphony No. 9, mvt. II, Ludwig van Beethoven. View a score here (open a full score and find movement 2). (An example of a scherzo. Google this one or read this post from the Music Salon for a bit more explanation on this one's form, which is a good example of doing more complex things with a simple form.)

Rondo Form

Rondo form is traditionally used for the finale of a sonata or concerto. It has a repetitive structure in which you have a primary theme (the refrain) and interjections of different material (episodes) that also repeat. Additional episodes can be added according to the composer's desire, but the basic format alternates Refrain-Episode-Refrain with each episode surrounded by an iteration of the refrain and episodes repeating in reverse order. A seven-part rondo would look like this:

A nine part rondo looks like this:

Rondos have a bit more harmonic freedom. Wherever you start is generally where you end up and everything in between is more fluid. Composers tend to have a bit of fun with their refrain here--sometimes the theme is truncated, sometimes expanded, and sometimes it shows up in minor keys instead of major and vice versa--sometimes even in completely unrelated keys.


Piano Sonata No. 9 in D Major, mvt. III, W.A. Mozart, K. 311. View a score here (open a full score and find movement 3).

Introduction et Rondeau Capriccioso, Camille Saint-Saens. View a score here (hit the Arrangements and Transcriptions tab and look at a piano reduction for simplicity's sake).

To see the the rondo form all you need to do is look for themes and harmonic sections that continue to reappear.

Sonata Form

Sonata form is the big daddy of forms. It's the most complex of the traditional ones and includes the most thematic and harmonic development of all of them. It is also known as compound binary form, sonata-allegro form, or first movement form (since most common practice period sonatas and symphonies begin with a movement in sonata form).

It begins with the exposition, which usually has two themes and is generally repeated. The primary theme is always in the tonic key, while the second is in a related key. In major keys it's most commonly in the dominant, while in minor keys it's often in the VI or III.

Following the exposition is the development section. This is where the composer shows off their creativity. There are no rules as to length, structure or harmony here--some composers even introduce new themes in the development. There is only one hard and fast rule and that is to develop, or vary and transform, the material you've already got.

After the development is the recapitulation. This is where the exposition is repeated, though this time it's entirely in the tonic key. Repeats are technically traditional here, though towards the middle and end

of the classical period this becomes less and less common. As with all forms, the piece may end with a coda (which would be in the tonic key). Diagrammed, it looks like this: