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
I talked a little about the small ternary and small binary forms in the last article. If you want an indepth article, look at these, small ternary form 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.
Two excellent resources to get into depth on musical forms is Form in Music
by Wallace Berry and Classical Form by William Caplin.
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.
I can sing but cannot compose music
Pls I like music but I found it difficult to form it
Elo! I am talented i can part music but can not decipher my thoughts, feelings and imagination into music pls wat can i do abt it
As long as you can read music, you can learn to write down the music. Transcribing is a great skill (listening to music and attempting to write down what you hear). What you gain the skill of audiation. This is the ability to comprehend the music that you hear in your head.
I was wondering if you have ever thought of writing an article about sonatina form. I am interested in it but the info I have found online isn’t really clear. From what I understand, it’s a small simple sonata. It seems like this would be a great way to practice musical form.
I will add that to the list. Sonatina form, for the most part, is actually sonata form. It just tends to be shorter and simpler. If you are interested in the subject, you’ll probably enjoy my course on sonata form.
Be sure also to check out the podcast episode on form as well, because you can apply all of the concepts I talk about in relation to sonata form directly to sonatina form.
AOC Podcast Episode 8 – Understanding Musical Form
i also have won studio i iam comporsing music but difficult make tone of instruments. pls any idea about that . make tone of instruments..
I am not quite sure what your question is. If you are referring to how to emulate the sound of natural instruments, then sample libraries are able to do that. There are some really amazing ones out there but they come with a price. Hope that helps.
For me, writing a nice melody has never been a problem, and I also have a good understanding of harmony and form, but my question is How can I take my theme and develop it, lest I end up repeating the same material over and over again?
That is where a deep understanding of longer forms like sonata form come in very handy. There are plenty of tools to help you do that. I am actually working right now on a very in depth course in sonata form, which covers the topic of developing your themes quite extensively. Should be out in the next couple months.
Hello Jon, thanks alot for these articles. Do you have the course on sonata form available.
Failure is necessary, if you are to overcome your mistakes/weaknesses. If you don’t fail, you can never learn. Talent in my view is non-existent. Too many people base their conceptions of their own ability purely on ‘Natural Aptitude’. No one is born a composer, scientist or engineer. It is very simply down to individual effort and support from those around you. Most of the great composers, such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, were raised in highly musical families/environments.
To tell yourself you are not talented, thus have no hope or chance in achieving your desired goal, is simply a cop-out. This is often limited view is heavily influenced by failure. Mental strength and support from mentors is in my view, highly important, if you are to persist beyond self-negativity.
True. And believe me, I have failed many times.
I have attempted composition several times, but I ultimately fail due to my own self-critisism. Could you help me to overcome that? Also, I like opera a lot, but can never find the right melodies. How do “find the music within” so to speak?
Thanks so much,
Augustus, I am not going to lie, sometimes self-criticism can get the best of us. I myself suffer from this quite a bit, but, never fear. Self-criticism, while on the surface bad, can actually be a sign of something good. It means that you probably have good taste. The realization that you must have, is that you have a level in your mind of what you should be writing, compared to what you are actually writing. You cannot, I repeat, cannot get frustrated with yourself that you are not writing at the “ideal” level, meaning the ideal you have set in your mind. If you can come to grips with that, and force yourself to write “bad” music (I use that term in the softest sense), if you can do this you will improve.
Good luck, and I hope this site helps you.
Thank you so much for your helpful advice, and your quick response!