Forms and Genre  

copyright © 1999 by Larry Solomon  

  Basic Definitions
Form The overall structure of a composition
Forms Pre-existing structural (formal) schemes used to compose new music
Function Extra-musical purpose for the music, e.g., dancing, wedding, funeral, military, etc.
Genre A classification of music by form, function, medium, or idiom, normally in some combination
Idiom Device used to explore the capabilities of the medium, e.g., Alberti-bass
Medium The instrument/s for which the composition is written

Sectional forms

Short Forms

These forms are used to compose short pieces

Binary, Simple. Two sections, labeled A and B, usually with repeats ||: A :||: B :|| . Each section commonly divides into two parts, with the second part of ||: A :|| focusing on the dominant when the first part is in a major key, or focusing on the relative major if the first part is in minor. The second part of ||: B :|| returns to tonic. In very short Binary pieces, a modulation or motion away from tonic may not occur. Many classical dances are in Simple Binary form. Examples: Beethoven, German Dances.

Binary, Rounded. Two sections, labeled A and B, usually with repeats ||: A :||: B :|| . Each section commonly divides into two parts, with the second part of ||: A :|| focusing on the dominant when the first part is in a major key, or focusing on the relative major if the first part is in minor. The second part of ||: B :|| returns to tonic. Additionally, the Rounded Binary brings back the first or second part (usually the second part) of the ||: A :|| section at the end of ||: B :|| . In very short Binary pieces, a modulation may not occur. Most classical dances are in Rounded Binary form.

Strophic. A vocal form in which the same music is repeated with different verses; i.e., the text changes, but the music does not. Thus, it is musically: A A A A A A . . . etc. Examples: most folk songs.

Strophic-Binary. A combination of Strophic* and Binary* forms, sometimes called the Refrain form.

||:   verses      A                    ||                       B                        :||
1.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~    Refrain or Chorus
3. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A Refrain, or Chorus, is sung after each verse. It contains the same music and text every time it repeats, while the || A || section changes the words and repeats the same music. Examples: many popular songs.

Ternary. A three section form: A B A. Each section commonly has repeats. Each section begins and ends in the same key, but the B section is normally in a different key from A. Additionally, each section normally subdivides into Binary. Examples: classical minuets and scherzi, Beethoven, Op 28, III. Scherzo.

Large or Long Forms

These forms are normally used to compose large works.

Arch. (Modern) An arch form is vaguely defined as one where the music starts with a soft and thin texture, has a climax in the middle, and returns to a soft and thin texture at the end. This is normally combined with one of the other Large Forms. Prototype: Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, first movement.

Chaconne. (Baroque) A special type of Theme & Variations*, normally in triple time, often in a minor key and a slow tempo. The theme occurs as a bass or harmonic progression, often with an accent on the second beat, and is usually four to eight measures long. Similar to the Passacaglia*. Prototypes: Bach's Chaconne in D minor for solo violin from the Sonata (Partita) for Solo Violin No. 2, Brahms's Symphony No. 4, last movement.

Ground Bass. A Theme & Variations* based on a repeating bass line. prototype: Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Passacaglia. (Baroque) A special type of Ground Bass* Theme & Variations*, normally in triple time, a minor key, and a slow tempo. The theme recurs as a bass line, usually four to eight measures long. Similar to the chaconne*. Prototype: Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor for organ.

Rondo. (Classical) An extended Ternary* form: A B A C A D A. . . . B A. The basic principle is a repeating A section alternating with new material, any number of times. Prototype: Beethoven's Rondos

Sonata. (Classical) A large instrumental work usually in three or four movements, in which one or more movements is in sonata form*. The Classical Sonata has a standard design, in which the third movement is optional::

Movement I II III IV
Key tonic related tonic tonic
Tempo fast slow moderate very fast
Form/s sonata sonata or
Minuet or
rondo, or
theme &variations

Sonata form. (Classical) An elaborate Rounded Binary* in which the first section is called the Exposition containing two contrasting themes in tonic and dominant keys (or tonic and relative major if in a minor key), commonly called masculine and feminine. The second section is divided into two parts called the Development and Recapitulation. The Development contains themes from the exposition manipulated in various ways, commonly fragmented, transposed, inverted, retrograded, etc. This section also contains rapid modulation and a contrapuntal treatment of thematic material and focuses around the dominant or relative major. The Recapitulation is a repeat of the Exposition, but both themes are presented in the tonic key. The first movement (allegro) of a Sonata* is normally in this form.

Theme & Variations. (Baroque-Classical) A set of variations based on a theme that is stated at the beginning as in: A A1 A2 A3 A4 . . . A. Often the theme is itself in Rounded Binary* form. Prototypes: Bach's Goldberg Variations, Mozart's Sonata, K. 284, III., Beethoven's Sonata 12, Op. 26, I., Beethoven's Variations.

Variations. See Theme & Variations*

Contrapuntal forms

Canon. (Renaissance) Music composed in continuous imitative counterpoint. Protoype: Bach's The Art of Fugue, canons.

Fugato. (Baroque-Classical) A fugue* that is contained in a larger work, e.g., a symphony. Prototype: Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, second movement (funeral march), B section.

Fugue. (Renaissance) A complex, strictly composed form employing imitative counterpoint. The fugue, literally meaning "flight", is a monothematic composition derived from one Subject, which is stated at the outset in all the voice parts in turn, in a specific tonal scheme, alternating tonic and dominant. The Subject is manipulated in a variety of ways, including transposition, fragmentation, inversion, retrograde, etc. It employs certain specific sectional types, including an exposition, stretto, counter-exposition, episode, etc. WSith the exceptrion of the exposition,nthese sectional types are not required to be in any specific order. For details, consult a counterpoint text. Prototype: Bach's fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier.

Round. (Renaissance) A circular (repeating) canon*. Prototype: "Frere Jacques"


Aria. (Baroque-Romantic) A self-contained song with instrumental accompaniment within a larger, dramatic or narrative genre, such as opera*, cantata*, or oratorio*. It is often in triple meter (17th C. on) or with a ground bass*, especially in laments. The "Da Capo aria" (A B A) became common by the late 17th Century. In opera, the function of an aria is to express a character's emotional response to the dramatic action. Prototype: Mozart's arias from his operas.

Arioso. (Romantic) Similar to an aria* but between an aria and recitative* in idiom*. Prototype: Wagner's operas.

Art Song. (Romantic) A song* set to a poem. Prototype: Schubert's Lieder.

Ballad. A strophic* narrative song*. Prototype: the English folk ballad.

Ballet. (Romantic) A highly stylized dance that pantomimes a dramatic narrative, normally with an orchestral accompaniment. Prototypes: Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Cantata. (Baroque) Literally, a "sung piece". A vocal narrative, yet non-dramatic work, i.e., without action or staging. It is similar to an oratorio*, but shorter and more allegorical in nature. Prototype: J.S. Bach's Cantata no. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden.

Canzona. (Italian Renaissance) Originally, a song* transcribed for instruments (Italian, late 16th C.). Later (17th C.) became an independent instrumental genre* (Frescobaldi).

Chamber Music. (Classical) Music written for small ensembles with one instrument per part, originally intended to be performed with friends, usually without an audience, in someone's parlor (thus, the name "Chamber music"). Prototype: Haydn's String Quartets.

Chorale. (Renaissance-Baroque) A German Protestant, metrical and somewhat homorhythmic hymn* with more or less symmetrical phrases punctuated by fermata cadences. Prototype: J.S. Bach's Chorales.

Concerto, solo. (Classical) A sonata* for a featured solo instrument and orchestra. Prototype: Mozart's Piano Concerti, Beethoven's Concerto No.5 for piano, the "Emperor".

Dirge. (Ancient) Funeral music, a lament for the dead. Prototype: Chopin's Sonata No. 2, Funeral March.

Etude. An exercise or study used to build technical skill on an instrument. Prototype: Czerny's or Paganini's Etudes.

Divertimento. (Classical) a light, free suite* of dances.

Fantasy. (Romantic) An instrumental composition in a free, quasi-improvisational style.

Gigue. (Baroque) a lively dance, usually in compound duple or quadruple meter with a skipping, syncopated rhythm and sometimes fugal. The last dance in a Baroque suite*. Prototype: J.S. Bach's Fugue à la Gigue, in G major for organ, S. 577.

Hymn. (Ancient) A song* in praise of God or a hero.

Impromptu. (Romantic) A short instrumental piece in an extemporaneous, style, often in ternary form. Prototype: Schubert's Impromptus

Intermezzo. (Baroque: vocal) A light dramatic musical entertainment inserted between the acts of opera seria (serious or tragic opera); later, it became opera comique, or opera buffa. In the Romantic period the Intermezzo became an short, but independent instrumental piece of a light, lyrical character. Prototype: Brahms' Intermezzo, op. 118, no.2.

Invention. (Renaissance) A short, contrapuntal instrumental piece based on a motive and constructed with strict rules. Prototype: Bach's Two Part Inventions.

Lullaby. A song* used to lull one to sleep. Prototype: Brahm's Lullaby.

Madrigal, Italian. (Renaissance) Vocal a capella contrapuntal composition, often with five voice parts. Prototype: Monteverdi's madrigals.

March. (Renaissance-Romantic) An instrumental composition with a pronounced repetitive rhythm in a duple or quadruple meter, punctuated by drum beats. Originally, it had a military function, to keep troops in line. Prototype: Sousa's Marches.

Mass. (Medieval-Renaissance) A musical setting of the Roman Catholic Mass. Prototype: Josquin des Prez's Missa Hercules D'Este

Mazurka. (Romantic) A Polish folk dance, from the province of Mazovia, in triple meter with accents falling off the first beat; i.e., employing syncopation. Prototype: Chopin's Mazurkas.

Minuet. (Classical) A stately court dance in triple time, a moderate tempo, and in ternary form. Baroque minuets were most often in Binary* form.

Motet. (Renaissance) A normally sacred, a capella, vocal composition featuring imitative counterpoint. Prototypes: Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium, Bach's Singet dem Herrn Ein Neues Lied.

Nocturne. (Romantic) Instrumental music about the night, or to be heard at night. Prototype: Chopin's Nocturne, op. 27, no.1

Opera. (Baroque-Romantic) A drama set to music with action, staging, singers, and an orchestra. Prototype: Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Oratorio. (Baroque) A sacred story set to music, without action or staging, but having singers and an orchestra. Prototype: Handel's Messiah

Overture. (Baroque-Romantic) Instrumental introduction to a large dramatic work, such as an opera. Prototype: Rossini's Overtures.

Polonaise. (Romantic) A Polish dance in triple meter and a moderate tempo. Although the Polonaise is known as a Renaissance folk dance, it is the later courtly version that has passed on to us from Chopin's examples. Its characteristic rhythm is: 8th + two 16ths, four 8ths, often with an accent on the second beat and a cadence on the weak third beat. Prototype: Chopin's Polonaise, op. 44.

Prelude. (Baroque-Romantic) An introductory instrumental piece that precedes the main fare.

Program Music. See Tone Poem*.

Quartet, String. (Classical) A sonata* for two violins, viola, and cello. Prototype: Beethoven's String Quartets.

Recitative. (Baroque) A vocal idiom used in dramatic and narrative works, such as opera*, oratorio*, or cantata*. The music is subservient to the text, with the vocal rhythm conforming to the textual, rather than metrical rhythm. The instrumental accompaniment is simple and consists of sparse, often blocked chords.

Rhapsody. (Romantic) A series of melodies strung together without any dependence or connection with each other. Prototype: Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies.

Ricercare. (Renaissance) An instrumental "motet*" with more than one subject, treated as in a fugue*.

Romance. (Romantic) A short instrumental or vocal piece expressing a sentiment.

Sarabande. (Baroque) A slow dance in triple meter, often with an accented dotted rhythm on the second beat and cadencing on the third beat. It was normally in binary* form.

Serenade. (Renaissance on) An evening piece addressed to a lover, friend, or a person of rank. Prototype: Mozart's "Deh vieni alla finestra" from Don Giovanni.

Sinfonia. (Baroque) a Baroque proto-symphony* which also applied to the sonata* and canzona*.

Song. (Romantic) A short composition for voice with text, normally accompanied. Prototype: Schubert's Lieder (songs).

Suite. (Baroque) a set of dances. Prototype: Bach, Partita No. 2 for Clavier

Symphony. A sonata* for orchestra. Prototype: Beethoven, Symphony No. 5

Toccata. (Baroque) Literally: "touch piece". A brilliant, virtuoso keyboard work intended to show off the ability of a performer. Prototype: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor for organ. Tone Poem* or Symphonic Poem. (Romantic) An orchestral work written with narrative prose or a poem, to be read before listening rather than during the performance. Prototype: Liszt's Les Preludes & Faust Symphony.

Tone Poem. Music composed to a story, but the words are printed in a program rather than in the music.

Waltz. (Romantic) A couple-dance in triple meter and a moderate tempo. Prototype: Johann Strauss's Waltzes

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