Following the Musical Map – Musical Form – Part 2

An Introduction to Form – Simple Forms

In this post, we continue our exploration of simple musical forms. You can find Part 1 on one-part, strophic, theme and variations and more, here.

Simple two part and three part forms originate in instrumental Baroque dance music. Baroque composers like J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel wrote many pieces in these forms. Later these simple forms became expanded upon and lead to more complex and compound musical forms used in larger works, such as compound ternary forms, piano sonatas or symphonic works. Two-part forms are called Binary Forms and are designated as AB or ABA'. Three-part forms are called Ternary Forms and are designate as ABA.

There are two different types of simple binary and ternary forms, sectional and continuous. In a sectional simple form, the A and B sections can not alone, meaning each ends with a sense of completion. This means they each end in the tonic key (I). While in a continuous simple form, the end of the A section will modulate to another key, usually the dominant (V) in major keys and the relative major (III) in minor keys.

Two-Part Musical Form or Binary Form

Binary Form – AB

A binary form consists of two approximately equivalent sections. One example of this are songs that feature a verse section followed by a refrain section. In Baroque instrumental dances, such as minuets, gavottes, bourrées, courantes, and others, and many other two-part forms, each of the sections may include a repeat so that the piece may sound like AABB. Binary forms often feature related thematic material between the A and B sections, often sharing similar rhythmic or melodic ideas.

Simple Binary

A binary form is categorized as a simple binary when it does not feature similar endings, such as in balance binary and does not include any return of the opening material as in rounded binary form. See and listen to the example below, Suite in E minor, "Bourée," BWV 996 by J.S. Bach.

Balanced Sectional Binary

When the cadential formula (ending harmonic and rhythmic pattern) from the A section returns at the end of the B section and remains in the tonic key, it is balanced sectional binary. This is typically a measure or two but could be an entire phrase. See and listen to the example below, “Greensleeves."

Continuous Binary

In continuous binary, the A section does not bring listener to sense of completion. The music feels like it must continue on to the B section. See and listen to the example below, French Suite 1, Minuet 1, BWV 812 by J.S. Bach.

Balanced Continuous Binary

When the cadential formula (ending harmonic and rhythmic pattern) from the A section returns at the end of the B section while each is in their respective keys, it is balanced continuous binary. This is typically a measure or two but could be an entire phrase. See and listen to the example below, French Suite No.6 in E major, Courante, BWV 817 by J.S. Bach. You will see the cadential formula before the repeat sign at m. 16 and at the end of the section.

Rounded Binary ABA'

The second type of simple two-part forms is rounded binary form. In this form, a small amount of material from the beginning of the A section will return at the end of the contrasting B contrasting thus "rounding out" the section. This small return of A material is labeled as A' (pronounced A prime). See and listen to the example below, Armes Waisenkind by Robert Schumann.

Three-Part Musical Form or Ternary Form

Ternary Form – ABA

A three-part form is called Ternary Form. It contains three sections with the middle or B section provides contrast through the use of different melodic material, texture, tonality, or some combination of these. Each section can stand on its own as its own piece. What distinguishes a ternary form from rounded binary is that there will be a repeat of the entire A section, not just a small amount of material. This form is also called da capo aria form, as this Baroque song form was written in this way. It is sometimes referred to simply as song form with sections verse, bridge, verse. See and listen to an example Trällerliedchen from Album for the Young by Robert Schumann.

Compound Ternary

A compound ternary is a ternary form in which one of the sections (or both) of the sections is itself composed in a binary or ternary form. This is the beginning of larger forms in music, and this leads us to a discussion for another post.


A Note on Form:

It may be difficult in some cases to distinguish the form of a piece of music and it can be open for interpretation in many cases. Studying form is important to understand the overall structure of a piece of music and to understand the composer's intentions. When trying to distinguish between rounded binary and ternary, for example, consider the criteria carefully. Ask yourself does this piece of music contain three sections that can each stand on their own? Is the return of the A material partial or complete? How are the A and B sections related? How are they different? There may be more than one appropriate answer. It is up to you as a musician to articulate how you interpret this form of the work. Let your musical instincts, your knowledge, and your musicianship guide you.

1. Listen and study the score below for "Wiegenlied" Op. 49, No. 4 by Johnnanes Brahms. This is the famous Brahm's Lullabye. What form do you think this piece is? List your reasons why.

2. Listen and study the score below for Mazurka, Op. 67, No. 3 by Frédérick Chopin. What form do you think this piece is? List your reasons why.

3. Write your own piece in a binary or ternary form. Decide whether it will be simple or balance

continuous or sectional; simple binary, rounded binary or ternary, etc. Label the A, B (and A') sections on your piece. Be able to explain why you chose the form you did. Have someone else listen to your piece. Ask them if they hear the different sections and ask them to point out where they think they are. If they read sheet music, you may wish to have them study the score as well. See if there answers are the same as yours. Have fun with it!

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 for more about music lessons and for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and more. Contact her via for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.


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