SEE: Key to Formal Symbols        Plus: Key to Nonharmonic Tones       For Chord Symbols see: Solomon's Chord Chart

copyright 2002 by Larry Solomon

The analysis of musical forms may begin with small scale or large scale structures and proceed toward the opposite end. In many cases, standard forms are used, such as Binary, Ternary, Rondo, Sonata, or Theme and Variations, and the title of compositions often indicate which form is being used. A familiarity with the standard forms is essential and a survey of them and their related genres can be found in any good text on the forms of music. A detailed analysis of form should contain some verbal description of the structure. An analysis on a copy of the score itself is most valuable, but should be supplemented with a verbal description or summary.

Formal analysis here means one that examines the overall structure. Although form may seem to be different from harmony, the latter should be included in a formal analysis. Thus, formal analysis should include an examination of the harmonic structure, the melodic structure, motives, rhythm, variation techniques, and especially the relationships between small and large scale structures. Motives are the smallest recurring linear units, from one to several notes long. Subjects are one to eight measures in length and are composed of motives. Themes are the longest units, from four to several measures long.

The motive and phrase often form the basis of the small scale building blocks, or cells, in a composition. Thus, this is a good place to begin. Large scale divisions are usually clear and easy to establish; so, they should be outlined near the beginning. Cadences, the "punctuation marks" of music, help to define them. Although phrases can be of any length, the 2 or 4-bar phrase is a standard length found in most music and is used as a point of departure. Two phrases are often combined to form a kind of conversation: question and answer, which may be parallel (beginning the same) or contrasting (beginning differently). Phrases combine to form sentences, and sentences combine to form periods. Periods combine to form double-periods. The last may combine to form even larger units. Thus, the large scale structure is built from small cells, and the larger structures then echo the form of the small much in the way that a rectangular building resembles the brick from which it is made. This type of aggregated structure is called architectonic form. It is found abundantly in music around the world and resembles the self replicating structures found in fractals and in nature.

Self replication on ever smaller and larger scales, i.e., architectonic form, is a type of symmetry, and symmetry is the most important factor in establishing relationships of any kind. Thus, it is helpful to be familiar with the various manifestations and meanings of symmetry in music. (See Symmetry as a Compositional Determinant). Repetition, the most common type of symmetry, is found ubiquitously in music and serves to make music easily comprehensible, i.e., unified. The variation techniques that composers use serve to break up the symmetry to create interest. A compositional form can be described as a balance between unity and variation. Therefore, both need to be accounted for in an analysis.


A Key to Formal Analysis Symbols



Large, Bold, Upper Case letters, enclosed in rectangles or brackets [A], [B], [C], etc. = Main sections of form
Upper Case letter in brackets or rectangles + number [A1], [A2], [A3], etc. = subsections
Upper Case letter + decimal [A2.1], [A2.2], [A2.3], etc. = sub-subsections
m = motive m1, m2, m3, etc. = motive #
(slur) = phrase unit marks the beginning and end of a linear statement; these should be numbered
T = Theme T1, T2, T3, etc. = Theme #
decimal = variant T1.2 = Theme 1, variant 2; m3.4 = motive 3, variant 4
.a, .b, .c, etc. = part of Theme , subject or motive S.b = second part of subject
/tx or x = up transposition; (example: m13 ) superscript indicates transposition up by tonal interval, or semitones in atonal context T2/t3 or T23= Theme 2 transposed up a third 
/tx or x =  down transposition; (example: m23 ) subscript indicates transposition down by tonal interval, or semitones in an atonal context T1/t2 or T12 = Theme 1, transposed down a second
y or r = variant with same rhythm T1.2y = T1 variant 2 with the same rhythm
p = upright (original or prime) version T1p = Theme 1 returns in upright position
S = subject, Sa = answer used in contrapuntal analysis
i = inversion m2i = motive 2 inverted (upside-down); m2
r or = retrograde T1r or T1 = Theme 1 in retrograde (backwards)
ri = retrograde-inversion T2ri = Theme 2 in retrograde-inversion
= extension (notes added to end) T2 = Theme 2 with extension
+ = temporal augmentation m1+ = motive 1 augmented (slower notes)
+ = combination of figures (when joining theme or motive symbols) m1+m2 = motives 1 and 2 combined
 o (superscript) = temporal diminution T2o = Theme 2 in diminution (faster notes)
^ = interpolation (notes inserted) T3^ = Theme 3 with interpolation
 v = elision (notes subtracted) m1v = motive 1 with elision
< = interval augmentation m1< = motive 1 with interval augmentation
> = interval diminution m1> = motive 1 with interval diminution
f = fragment Sf = fragment of Subject
z = permutation m1z = motive 1 with permutation
rz = rhythmic shift or permutation m1.2rz = motive 1, variant 2 with permutation or rhythmic shift
u = one or more notes change direction m2u = motive 2 with change of note direction
or  = direction S = subject going down
, = delimiter m1+, m2v = motive 1 time augmented, motive 2 elision
(8) = octave displacement m1(8) = m1 with octave displacement

See a sample analysis of
Beethoven's Scherzo from Piano Sonata, Op. 28 using these symbols.
See an analysis of Brahms's Sarabande

Symbols for Nonharmonic Notes
Begin each definition with: "A (name)-tone is a nonharmonic tone that"
Abbrev Name Definition


moves stepwise between two different chord-tones
N Neighbor moves stepwise from a chord-tone back to same chord-tone
S Suspension repeats from a chord-tone; then resolves down by step to another chord-tone
Ped Pedal repeats through a chord change, usually in the bass
App Appoggiatura is approached by leap and resolved by step
Ant Anticipation is approached by step and resolved by a repetition
Esc or E Escape is approached by step and resolved by a leap
R Retardation repeats from a chord-tone; then resolves up by step to another chord-tone
Cam or C Cambiata consists of a pair of tones a third apart, approach by step and resolved by step to the note between the third
IN Incomplete neighbor moves by step to a chord-tone

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