Updated: Feb 26
An Introduction to Form – Simple Forms
Our brains crave the familiar. Listening to music in familiar forms is one-way that our brains are able to comprehend music, even when the music itself is new to us. You can think of it like how stories in books or movies generally come in specified types.
For example, in literary and dramatic works a comedy has an amusing or satirical tone and features an optimistic, happy, or hopeful ending. While a traditional tragedy portrays the main character’s journey from fall renown to ruin or from joy to sadness. The ending is usually unfortunate, calamitous, or bleak. When we read or watch a comedy or tragedy, we know what to expect because we are familiar with the structural map that the storyteller is using. We know what the character will face an obstacle, try to overcome that obstacle, and triumph or fail. We know what to expect along the character’s journey and this makes it easier for us to relate to the characters and emotionally and logically understand them.
In the same way, musical forms serve as a structural map for comprehending the composer’s musical intent. A piece’s form acts as a guide that assists us as they interpret the story the composer wants to tell because we are familiar with what we will encounter along the way. Understanding musical form is important for all music lovers—dedicated music listeners, musicians who play or sing, as well as composers. Being able to see the "big picture" and follow a musical map is ones of the ways that music takes audio frequencies from being merely "noise" to being organized sound.
Even if you are not familiar with “classical” music, you are no doubt familiar with musical form. Most people can identify the form of a short and simple piece, such as a folk or pop song. Many of these types of songs are constructed of relatively short four to 16 bar ideas that repeat. Most pop songs use a form that feature a returning refrain along with verses that are either the same material or very similar material. Some pop songs also include a contrasting section called a bridge. The average listener can distinguish the different sections that make up this verse, refrain (often called chorus), verse, refrain, bridge, refrain form. There are variations on this form; sometimes an instrumental section called a “break” is featured rather than a bridge or a section that connects the verse to the chorus or refrain known as a “pre-chorus.”
In today’s post, we are going to start with one-part forms. One-part forms are grouped with two-part and three-part forms to create the subsection of musical forms also known as the “simple forms". In following posts, we will discuss two-part and three-part forms, the even bigger picture of how these smaller forms are combined to create even larger forms as well as zooming in, as well as discussing the musical grammar of phrases, sentences, periods, and cadences that comes together to make microforms within these smaller forms. If this seems a little unclear now, that’s okay, the musical map will become clearer as we go on.
When designating the sections that make up a form, musicians often use letters as names to label the different sections. This way of naming sections with letters is used to label the musical form for pieces of varying style and complexity from simple folk songs to multi-movement works. The first section is labelled as the “A section”. If the next section or subsequent sections are exactly the same as the first, they are also labelled with A. If following section is very similar to A, but with some differences, it will be labeled A’. The apostrophe is an abbreviation for prime, therefore, A’ is called “A prime”. A’ may also show up as a section later in the piece after other different sections, or in another variation of A known as A double prime or A’’.
When the next section of the piece is different from A, it is labeled B. Just as A and A’, there are sometimes sections that are similar to B but not identical that are labelled B’ or B”, etc. Following sections that are not the same as (or similar to) A or B are labeled C, D, E, etc. However, there are usually no more than five or A through E sections in Western music.
One-Part Musical Forms
Strophic form sometimes also called AAA song form, chorus form, or repeating-verse form is a song form that consists of one repeated section. Many children’s songs, traditional and contemporary folk songs, traditional holiday songs, patriot songs, and hymns are written in this form. Examples of one-part form include Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, twelve bar blues songs, and Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing. Sometimes a refrain is present in this form but rather than a separate chorus section, it is a short tagline occurring at the end of the verse, as in The Times They Are A-Changing. Listen to Dylan’s folk song in the video below and notice the form.
Not all strophic works are songs, some are written for instruments. Ravel’s Bolero is a famous example of this. In Bolero, the theme itself does not change. Ravel presents the same theme 18 times, only changing the instrumentation and not the theme. Listen to Bolero in the video below and notice how the theme is constant throughout.
Iterative and Reverting
The A section maybe constructed in an iterative manner where one repeated phrase of music is used for every line of the piece. For example in Gregorian chant, each line of a psalm is sung to the same melodic formula. Or, the A section may be constructed in a reverting manner where patterns of repeated phrases and a contrasting phrase are used as in many traditional songs, such as Erie Canal. Look at the way Erie Canal is written on the sheet music below.
Call and Response
Other AAA techniques include call and response, such as in Traditional African vocal music, Gospel, Jazz improvisation, where a lead present a line and then other musicians or singers repeated the line back. A great example of this is Ray Charles’ What I’d Say which includes call and response, a twelve bar blues harmonic progression, and a reverting melodic construction. Listen to Charles’ song in the video below and notice the form.
Theme and Variations
Sometimes a piece will be A A’ A’’ A’’’, etc. This is called a Theme and Variations. This is a common form used in classical music. Variations include changes to the melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, articulation, counterpoint, timbre, instrumentation, or a combination of these. Bolero is a case where the changes are only made in the instrumentation. Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 is a famous example of solo piano music written in this form. Beethoven takes the original eight-bar theme and creates 32 variations of it using many of the changes listed above. Listen and follow along in the video below.
A song that is Through-Composed may seem to be a one-part form. However, it is more like the opposite of strophic form as there is new music for each verse or stanza of text, rather than a repeated musical idea. A good example of this almost formless-form is Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. While a strophic form consists of AAA, a through-composed work may be described as being ABCDEFG… Listen to Bohemian Rhapsody and notice how the musical content continually changes and consists of many sections that do not repeat even though it is composed as one long, continuous section of music.
In the next musical forms post, we will continue to follow the musical map and explore more simple forms, two-part and three-part forms.
Study a Theme and Variations score.
Below is the violin score Beethoven's 12 Variations on "Se vuol ballare" from Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro", WoO 40. Listen and follow the score. Notice how the theme is presented and varied throughout the 12 variations. Pay attention to the way the theme is presented in both violin and in the piano accompaniment throughout.
Listen to Mozart's original theme:
Listen to Beethoven's Theme and Variations:
The Violin Score:
Create your own Theme and Variations.
1. Write a four-bar theme for piano in the key of G major, with a moderate tempo, and in 4/4 time. Use the following chord progression in a simple block chord accompaniment:
2. Create a variation of your theme by using arpeggios in the accompaniment rather than block chords. You may change the position of the chords as you see fit.
3. Create a variation by converting your theme and the chords to G minor. Use may change the position of the chords as you see fit and use arpeggios or block chords for the accompaniment.
4. Create a variation by changing the meter and rhythms to ¾ time. Use may change the position of the chords as you see fit.
5. Create a variation by adding articulation marks.
6. Create a variation by changing the register (the octave) for the theme.
7. Create three additional variations by using several of the techniques listed above. You may combine them as you wish.
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is passionate about tea and creating our own daily rituals. Visit www.PerennialMusicAndArts.com for more about music lessons and www.JanaeJean.com for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and more. Contact her via email@example.com for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.
Other Image Credits:
Sock and Buskin Masks, "Theater" by David Lopez from the Noun Project