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Musical form

The term musical form is used in two related ways:

  • a generic type of composition such as the symphony or concerto
  • the structure of a particular piece, how its parts are put together to make the whole; this too can be generic, such as binary form or sonata form

Musical form (the whole or structure) is contrasted with content (the parts) or with surface (the detail), but there is no clear line between the two. In most cases, the form of a piece should produce a balance between statement and restatement , unity and variety, contrast and connection.

There is some overlap between musical form and musical genre. The latter term is more likely to be used when referring to particular styles of music (such as classical music or rock music) as determined by things such as harmonic language, typical rhythms, types of musical instrument used and geographical origin. The phrase musical form is typically used when talking about a particular type or structure within those genres. For example, the twelve bar blues is a specific form often found in the genres of blues and rock and roll music.

Forms and formal detail may be described as sectional or developmental, developmental or variational, syntactical or processual (Keil 1966), embodied or engendered, extensional or intensional (Chester 1970), and associational or hierarchical (Lerdahl 1983). Form may also be described according to symmetries or lack thereof and repetition. A common idea is formal "depth", necessary for complexity, in which foregrounded "detail" events occur against a more structural background. For example: Schenkerian analysis. Fred Lerdahl (1992), among others, claims that popular music lacks the structural complexity for multiple structural layers, and thus much depth. However, Lerdahl's theories explicitly exclude "associational" details which are used to help articulate form in popular music. Allen Forte's book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era 1924-1950 analyses popular music with traditional Schenkerian techniques, but this is only possible because pre-rock popular ballads are the genre most accessible similar to the Romantic music that those theories were designed to analyse. (Middleton 1999, p.144)

Extensional music is, "produced by starting with small components - rhythmic or melodic motifs, perhaps - and then 'developing' these through techniques of modification and combination." Intensional music "starts with a framework - a chord sequence, a melodic outline, a rhythmic pattern - and then extends itself by repeating the framework with perpetually varied inflections to the details filling it in." (Middleton, p.142)

Western classical music is the apodigm of the extensional form of musical construction. Theme and variations, counterpoint, tonality (as used in classical composition) are all devices that build diachronically and synchronically outwards from basic musical atoms. The complex is created by combination of the simple, which remains discrete and unchanged in the complex unity...If those critics who maintain the greater complexity of classical music specified that they had in mind this extensional development, they would be quite correct...Rock however follows, like many non-European musics, the path of intensional development. In this mode of construction the basic musical units (played/sung notes) are not combined through space and time as simple elements into complex structures. The simple entity is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony, and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes, and by inflexion of the basic beat. All existing genres and sub-types of the Afro-American tradition show various forms of combined intensional and extensional development (Chester 1970, p.78-9).

Syntactic music is "centres" on notation and "the hierarchic organization of quasilinguistic elements and their putting together (com-position) in line with systems of norms, expectations, surprises, tensions and resolutions. The resulting aesthetic is one of 'embodied meaning.'" Non-notated music and performance "foreground process. They are much more concerned with gesture, physical feel, the immediate moment, improvisation; the resulting aesthetic is one of 'engendered feeling' and is unsuited to the application of 'syntactice' criteria" (Middleton 1990, p.115).

Middleton (p.145) also describes form, presumably after Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968, translated 1994), through repetition and difference. Difference is the distance moved from a repeat and a repeat being the smallest difference. Difference is qualitative and quantitative, how far different and what type of difference.

In classical music, there are many labels applied to forms, abstract formal designs, as contrasted with the principals and procedures of combining materials: form. Typical structures used to shape a single movement include:

Sectional forms, the larger unit (form) is built from various smaller clear-cut units (sections), combinational, sort of like stacking legos (DeLone, 1975):

Developmental forms, larger unit (form) is built from small bits of material given different presentations and combinations, usually progressive (DeLone, 1975):

Variational forms, larger unit (form) is built from sections treated to one type of presentation at a time, but varying succesively (DeLone, 1975):

These structures are defined by the distribution of different thematic material, melodies, key centres, and other materials used. While many of the above forms are partly defined by their tonal schemes these forms may be applied to music which has a differing or no tonal scheme (DeLone et. al. (Eds.), 1975, chap. 1). More than one formal method may be used, including in-between types, and music which is not composed with the above or any other model is called through composed.

Especially recently, more segmented approaches have been taken through the use of stratification, superimposition , juxtaposition, interpolation, and other interruption s and simultaneities. Examples include the postmodern "block" technique used by composers such as John Zorn, where rather than organic development one follows separate units in various combinations. These techniques may be used to create contrast to the point of disjointed chaotic textures, or, through repetition and return and transitional procedures such as dissolution, amalgamation, and gradation, may create connectedness and unity. Composers have also made more use of open forms such as produced by aleatoric devices and other chance procedures, improvisation, and some processes. (ibid)

Types of piece which may or may not incorporate one or more of the above structures as part of their overall makeup include:

Forms of chamber music are defined by instrumentation (string quartet, piano quintet and so on). The structure of a chamber work is typically similar to a sonata.

See also

External link

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Musical form
  • Study Guide for Musical Form A Complete Outline of Standardized Formal Categories and Concepts by Robert T. Kelley


  • DeLone et. al. (Eds.) (1975). Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ASIN 0130493465.
  • Lerdahl, Fred (1992). "Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems", Contemporary Music Review 6 (2), pp. 97-121.
  • Horner, Bruce and Swiss, Thomas, eds. (1999). Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Malden, Massachusetts. ISBN 0631212639.
  • Richard Middleton (1999). Form. Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Malden, Massachusetts. ISBN 0631212639.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 11:35:44
Last updated: 02-26-2005 13:12:49