Completing the Musical Form Puzzle – Small Binary Form
The small binary form is another one of those musical forms that is heard all over the place. Used for hundreds of years and still in use today, it gives you great flexibility. But there is some controversy. Sometimes the lines between small ternary and small binary form get blurred. To find out the differences and learn about how they are built keep reading.
To catch up with what has been said so far, check out my article on small ternary form.
Small Binary Form Terminology
Before I get into the specifics of the small binary, I want to take a moment and talk about some confusing terminology. You may have heard the term rounded binary form and thought that it sounds a lot like the small ternary. That’s because, it pretty much is. But the reason I like the term small ternary, is because you can easily see the recapitulation as a third part, instead of a continuation of the second part that is being repeated.
Rounded Binary Form vs Small Ternary Form
A small ternary form can be called rounded binary form. This is because normally the exposition repeats itself, and then the contrasting middle and recapitulation repeat together.
This gives it a feel of a two part composition instead of three distinct parts:
But there is one small difference. Sometimes, the original theme is not brought back directly in the recapitulation section. This would mean that it is not accomplishing the formal function of recapitulation, which requires a restatement of the basic idea in tonic. If you don’t bring back the recapitulation, you cannot definitively say there are three parts. Because of this, we really can’t be calling it recapitulation at all. This creates the need for a distinction?
Back to the Small Binary
The small binary form can be split up into two parts. Hence the name binary. It is most frequently found as 16 measures, with both parts being 8 bar themes. Because it’s functions are not quite as distinct as the small ternary form, we just label the two parts… first part and second part.
The First Part
The first part is normally a typical 8 bar theme, like the sentence or period. It can also end in any cadence, although half-cadences and perfect authentic cadences are the most common.
The Second Part
The second part of the small binary form is also usually a typical 8 bar theme. It can present a new musical idea, just as in the contrasting middle section of ternary form. Frequently, it keeps the melodic-motivic characteristics of the first part. This helps distinguish it from the ternary form. Which always has a contrasting middle section.
To truly distinguish itself as a binary form, it must not have the formal function of recapitulation. The small binary satisfies this because it does not restate the basic idea in tonic. Note that this is different from keeping melodic-motivic characteristics.
You can see why there are debates about the terminology here. It can get confusing and ultimately, is not that important. What you need to take away from this is how to use it for yourself.
Using the Forms
Next week, I am going to discuss functional harmony. I am really looking forward to this, because after discussing functional harmony, we will truly be armed with techniques to expand your composing.
For all of these simple themes we have discussed in the last couple of weeks, we have looked almost exclusively at the form. But music doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Putting it together with harmony will really allow you to open up creatively.
I’d love to know your opinions about this. Do you prefer binary or ternary labels?