Musical Form – Rubber Mould or Useful Framework
I believe that one of the best ways to unlock your latent creativity is through deep understanding of musical form. Not just on a surface level, but an understanding of why musical form works the way it does. Understanding musical form won’t make all your compositions come out like a rubber mould. Instead, they are like a guide, that gently nudges you to new possibilities.
Start With the Basics of Musical Form
Knowing that you need to understand musical form will put you miles ahead of most people just starting out composing. Learn the basic forms and you will be even further down the road. These forms run in order of size and are:
- Basic Idea
- Small Ternary
- Small Binary
- Large Forms
Let’s examine them.
Why Learn Musical Forms
Let’s start off with an example from another discipline. Speaking. What if you learned to speak words, but you never learned the right way to put those words into a sentence? Sure, you would be able to communicate, but how well? Think of a 3 year old. They can speak, but can they write a novel?
Musical form is the same way. We study it, not to stifle creativity, but to help us express ourselves. But studying it doesn’t just mean to learn the letter order. Ultimately, how useful is A-B-A. Not very useful. You need to know what functions that musical form is accomplishing.
Different Musical Forms
The Basic Idea
The basic idea is a 2-bar phrase that accomplishes several things.
- It establishes the tonality
- It presents the basic melodic-motivic material
- Creates interest with unique musical content
Practice writing your basic ideas in one harmony at first. Once you feel comfortable with that, then move to two harmonies, and three. See how many you can fit in. Experiment with tranformations.
A motive is the smallest musical form. It is a unique melodic or harmonic idea, commonly put together with several other motives.
Even though the motive is smaller than the basic idea, you really want the smallest thing you compose to be a basic idea. This allows you to have several different motives in one basic idea, and will give you the ability to fragment it later, while still keeping things coherent and connected.
The basic idea is also a complete musical thought. By that I mean it doesn’t need any more or less notes to sound like it gets through the musical idea it is trying to portray.
Sentences and Periods
The next step up is the sentence and the period. Both are typically 8-bar themes, start with a basic idea, and develop it in different ways.
The Musical Sentence
The sentence has two main phrases:
- The Presentation Phrase: This presents the basic idea and repeats it. It’s main purpose is to prolong the tonic harmony that the basic idea presents, confirming the key of the composition.
- The Continuation Phrase: This repeats fragments of the basic idea, usually with increased harmonic rhythm, ending in a cadence, to confirm the key. Sometimes this ends with a modulation, to confirm a new key. The main purpose of the continuation phrase is to give the theme a feeling of forward movement, in contrast with presentation phrase.
A cadence is basically a specifc “harmonic recipe” at the end of a phrase, that establishes a tonality. It does this by playing the V chord and then the I chord in succession.
The Musical Period
The period also has two distinct phrases called the antecedent and consequent.
- The antecedent presents the basic idea, and then a contrasting idea, ending in a weak cadence.
- The consequent repeats the basic idea, and then has another contrasting idea, which ends in a stronger cadence, usually a Perfect Authentic Cadence.
Small Ternary and Small Binary Form
Basically, what you want out of these forms, is an understanding that you can mix and match the smaller theme types to create interest.
Frequently you’ll see a small ternary form start with a period, then have a contrasting middle section with sentence. It will end with a recapitulation using the original period, but this time without the first contrasting idea and ending in a cadence.
Larger Musical Form
Larger musical forms include Sonata, Rondo, Variations, Fugue. What all of these forms do, is give you, the composer, a guide for developing your composition to its fullest potential. Some do this by varying the tonal center, as in the Sonata or by alternating the main theme with varying contrasting sections, as in the Rondo.
Put Musical Forms Into Action
If you want to learn how to put these musical forms into action, sign up for the Art of Composing Society. I am putting together a beginner’s course that will be coming out soon, and will go over everything I’ve discussed here, in a more practical way. They’ll be more examples, deeper discussion, and each lesson will have a worksheet to really cement the concepts.