Merriam-Webster defines form as: the shape and structure of something as distinguished from its material. In construction, wooden forms are used to shape poured concrete. Literature is written in different forms depending on the nature and purpose of the work. Poetry is written in stanzas. It contains a particular rhythmic flow, and often a rhyme scheme. Business letters start with a date and address. This is followed by a greeting, body and closing. Essays are written in paragraph form with an introduction, main body and conclusion. Each of these three examples have a different look, structure and flow on the page.
Music is also composed in a variety of forms. There are basic elements that act as the building blocks to every musical form. Being able to identify these elements will aid one in identifying the form.
Good music is composed of patterns that repeat. These patterns become the main ideas that orient the listener and help him/her to relate to the piece. These patterns are also what causes the music to be memorable.
Musical ideas and patterns are expressed in phrases. A musical phrase starts, picks up momentum and then comes to an end in a similar fashion to the flow of sentences. Phrases normally end with a longer rhythm or rest to cause a sense of pause like a sentence's ending punctuation. Multiple phrases can be combined to form larger musical sections in the same way that sentences can form paragraphs. The structure of these larger sections of music defines the form of the music.
One of the simplest types of musical forms is binary. The prefix "bi" means two, so binary form is a music form composed of two sections. The "A" section states the opening idea. The "B" section states a second idea. The "B" section also often travels to a different place musically, and then returns for the final cadence. The most common "traveling" device is to temporally establish the dominant as a new key center. As the key change develops and then resolves back to the original key, the listener can picture the entire section as one large scale dominant to tonic cadential progression.
The use of antecedent and consequent phrases in musical composition is a common practice, especially in "A" sections. An antecedent phrase is a musical phrase that feels unresolved and acts like a question. Resolution is supplied by the consequent phrase which acts as the answer to the question posed in the antecedent phrase. The unresolved nature of the antecedent phrase compels the listener to listen for the resolution.
There are many other types of musical forms such as: rounded binary, ternary (or song form), rondo, sonata and theme and variations. These forms can be more complex in nature. A detailed explanation of each of these forms will be pursued in future lessons.
Ray Melograne received his BA and ME in music education from Queens College. He is currently teaching music in the NY public schools. He also teaches privately on the Zoen.com network.