“Music theory” is to music as grammar is to language. “Theory” is the vast study of how and why everything in music happens.
Music theory is so complex and multi-layed it’s easy to get confused or feel overwhelmed.
But despite the complexity and initial learning curve, music theory can help us play more beautifully. Knowing grammar (while not necessary) does help us communicate. The same is true of music theory.
But some parts are more important than others, especially at the beginning.
Above All, Music is Storytelling
At its root, music exists to create a feeling. It’s a way to communicate. To play music is to tell an emotional story.
As such, the rules and terminology matter less than the end result. If the rules help us get a better result, great. If not, we’re not yet at a point where the knowledge is helping.
The Ingredients of Music
A piece of music, like a book, contains common structural elements.
In music, we have:
In the written word, we have
In each, small bits combine to form larger bits. These larger bits assemble into complete works or collections.
Musical Form = the Order of Sections
On a large scale, we use the word “Form” to describe the order of sections in a piece of music.
You’ll discover below how to find where one section ends and another begins. But for now, sections are the “chapters” of our tune.
The Musical Game-Plan
To keep with the storytelling analogy, the musical form tells us the broad strokes of the story line.
- Boy is happy at home.
- Something happens, Boy leaves home.
- Boy faces challenges (slays the dragon).
- Boy returns home a man.
This common storyline makes perfect sense. Each section naturally follows the last. Each section has its mood. There are high points and low points. The plot keeps us interested and engaged.
Music uses similar devices. The sections may not have such evident plots at first glance (just a bunch of notes on a page). But the storyline is still there. And if we understand and use it, music is more fun to play and hear.
How We Label Sections
We label sections using the alphabet. The first section is “A”. The next is “B”.
If 2 sections are similar, but not exactly the same, we may use the same letter, plus a subscript 1, 2, etc. (See illustration below)
Common Musical Forms
Following are some of the most common forms. Each tells a slightly different story. Each has its own character and pattern.
Note: It’s more important to notice the order of sections (ABAB etc.) than to memorize the name of the form. Don’t let jargon get in the way of your understanding.
Binary Form (AABB)
Binary form (AABB) was popular in the Baroque era (Bach and the like), but is still commonly used.
There is first one section repeated (typically written once, with repeat signs). Then a second section, also with repeat signs.
Ternary form (ABA) is the classic “There and Back Again” story. We start with the “A” section. Then we have an adventure in the “B” section. Finally, we come home again to the familiar territory of the “A” section.
Rondo Form (ABACA)
Rondo form resembles one of my favorite vacation styles. First, establish a home base. Then take side trips, returning home between each one.
There’s no limit to the number of sections in a Rondo. But for each, we always come back to the “A” section before going off again. The “A” section may be altered slightly, but we always know we’re home.
Arch Form (ABCBA)
Arch form (ABCBA) takes us first away, then even further away. We return by the same route.
By putting more distance between the two “A” sections, the journey “feels” longer. We get the welcome homecoming, perhaps sweeter yet for the longer road we travel.
Strophic Form (Verse-Chorus)
Strophic form is the favorite of popular music. This is the verse-chorus-verse-chorus format.
Chances are, if you sing a song with lyrics, it’s in the strophic form. Not always, but more times than not.
Medley Form (ABCD)
The Medley form is less of a form, and more a description after the fact. Each section was probably a full form unto itself, but has been reduced to an excerpt.
We combine a few snippets of larger tunes together, and we get the medley.
Each section may contain any number of subsections.
Sonata Form (a fancy ABA)
Sonata form is a crowning achievement in western classical music. At root, it’s a fancy ABA (ternary) form. But don’t let that fool you: It’s a Behemoth.
The composer takes each of the main 3 sections (ABA) and expands them. Each section may contain many different themes and musical ideas.
The composer may use surprising notes to take the listener on an adventure. The trip takes us further from home, through ever more trials and tribulations. Then it returns us (to the “A” section) deeply changed for the experience.
Through-Composed (ABCD Etc.)
Through-composed pieces have no repeated material. You start in one place and end in a different one. Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go. (The return home is not part of the story.)
Theme and Variations (A A1 A2 A3)
Theme and variations is less a form and more a compositional device. We start with a main “A” section. Then the composer offers variations on that section.
Common variations include changing the rhythm, the underlying harmony, the mood, the speed, the note density, or a number of other alterations. (Imagine repeating the same story, but changing your voice and facial expressions each time.)
Each variation may contain one of the above forms. And/or, the composer may group multiple variations together into a larger form.
Theme and variations are often easy to spot, because they usually have the word “variations” in the title.
How to Identify Musical Form
To identify the musical form, we identify the main sections of the piece. There are few ways we can do this.
Look for Double Bar Lines and Navigation Symbols
To find the sections, we can first look for common landmarks. Double bar lines, repeat signs, and other navigation symbols (D.C., D.S, coda, etc) may mark the end of one section and beginning of another.
Look for Contrasting Material
Looking over the sheet music, we often find areas of great contrast. The rhythm may be steady at first, then change completely.
At a glance, something may be obvious. If not, we can move to another method of identifying sections.
We can also listen. When familiar material comes around, we’re probably repeating a section.
When we come to what sounds like the end of a complete idea, and the start of something new, we’re changing sections.
Why Musical Form Matters
When we understand music theory (the anatomy and physiology of music), we can make more informed decisions. We can also better appreciate the subtle beauties of design, balance and structure. Like a fine watch, we can marvel at how all the pieces work together.
There’s an old example of several blind men examining part of an elephant and describing it. Each examines only a small part. So they all have different descriptions (“It’s like a tree!”, “It’s like a big snake!”, “It’s an enormous tiger!”).
Music theory includes the small parts (scales, chords, intervals, etc.) as well as the big picture (form). When we know the full shape of the music, we can then appreciate how the smaller components fit within the whole.
Music theory is a vast subject. We could spend lifetimes exploring it. But it’s most useful when we know what to do with it.
Information Informs Decisions
So music theory, including form, is nothing more than information. It’s a map of the music.
We can roam new cities without a roadmap and have lovely times. Likewise, we can play music with no knowledge of the theory behind it, and also have lovely times.
Information is only useful when it informs our decisions or adds to our appreciation. As such, music theory is a tool with which we can better understand music. (In the same way we don’t all need to know every miniscule grammatical detail about a language, we don’t all need to learn every detail of music theory.)
How to Use Your Knowledge of Musical Form
Our main goal is to enjoy the rich world of music. As a bonus, it would nice to share beautiful music with others.
We can use our understanding of musical form in the following ways (in no special order).
When we know the overarching path of the music, we can better track our current location within it. Our awareness of the different sections creates “boxes” or “files” in our mind. These divisions help us to store the smaller details and keep them in order.
More Organized Practice
Whether we’re memorizing a piece or not, we can work through the music section by section.
Each section is likely an entity unto itself. We can practice each section on its own. Section endings make natural stopping points, and we can use these in our practice. (Of course, we also need to practice the transitions from one section to the next.)
Appropriate Expression (Storytelling)
When we know the route we are to take, we can lead our listeners through a more exciting adventure.
When we know the form, we can base our musical decisions (such as when to be loud or soft) on the needs of the moment.
For instance, if a piece is in ternary form (ABA), we can arrive triumphantly back in the “A” section when it returns. We can build (get louder) to that moment and create excitement around it.
Likewise, if we are in the middle of a section, we may not want to create a climax at that point. We know that we still have a long way to go and would rather save the big moment for later.
Challenge: Name the Forms of Your Music
At first, it may be difficult to “tell the forest from the trees”. But with time and attention, we can find the form of our pieces.
For fun, and to put this information to use, can you identify the form in the pieces you currently play?
Can you label the sections, and name the form? Remember, the technical names don’t matter. Suffice it to say, “AABB” (or whatever it happens to be).
Next, can you use the “musical roadmap” in your practice, or to create a storyline around the music?
Once you’ve played with these ideas, how does this affect the way you play your piece? What more could you do with it? How could you demonstrate the form more clearly to someone listening? (Make good on this last one, and you’re playing more beautifully already!)