ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

Musical Forms

Some newcomers to classical music worry that they do not know and understand the various “forms” of works. Learning the basic characteristics of musical forms is not essential for enjoying music. For people with a certain analytical mindset, however, learning a few principals of musical structure is fun and can enhance their enjoyment of a performance. Other people are more concerned with mood and emotion and the drama of a musical work. It’s a personal choice.

Before we get into any specifics, there are two general ideas to keep in mind. One is that the definitions or “rules” of musical form are like the “rules” of grammar—they came after the fact. Most languages were spoken for a long time before they were even written down, much less codified into the grammatical guidelines you learned in school. Similarly, composers didn’t try to follow specific instructions when they composed; it was the theorists who came after them who looked at what was produced and then formed generalizations about what they observed. As a result, very few sonatas, to cite but one example, rigorously adhere to the standard description of sonata form.

The other generalization is that most forms of tonal music are based upon the same principal: a migration (or what is called a modulation) away from the original key of the piece to a new one—most often the dominant or relative major or minor of the original key (see Key Signatures)—resulting in a musical tension that is resolved with the eventual return to the tonic, or home key at the end of the work.

Many of the earliest musical forms you are apt to encounter are simple binary forms, that is, a piece divided into two parts. By the end of the first section, the composer has established a “new” key, that is, one different from that in which the piece started. (It might not feel like a new key, because if the composer was skillful enough in his modulation, your ear will probably be tricked into thinking you’re still in the original key—unless you are one of the very rare people with so-called “perfect pitch,” meaning you can tell what note is being played just by hearing it). In the second half, the composer works his or her way back to the original key; how directly or indirectly the composer gets back to it depends upon his or her imagination and the period in which the work was composed.

This is the principal behind most Baroque dance forms, for instance, forms encountered most often in instrumental suites. The archetypal grouping is Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue, with countless alternatives. The tempo, meter and rhythm of the movements will vary greatly, but in general, they all modulate in the first half and return in the second.

The same principal informs “sonata” form. The term sonata has been applied to so many compositions over the years that it can be rather confusing. In its earliest use, in the 16th century, it simply meant a piece that was performed on an instrument rather than being sung. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was used for two different types of works, the sonata da chiesa, or “church sonata,” referring to a four-movement work (usually slow-fast-slow-fast) or the sonata da camera, or “chamber sonata,” which usually consisted of an introductory movement followed by a suite of dances. The fame of Domenco Scarlatti (1685-1757) rests primarily upon the more than 500 sonatas he composed for solo harpsichord, virtually all of them in the above-described binary form.

During the classical era it later came to refer both to a particular type of single movement as well as the entire multi-movement work in which it appears. Most sonatas by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, for example, are three-movement works of which the first is usually in “sonata form.” Again, not all sonata first-movements are in sonata form, and sometimes other movements of a sonata are in sonata form as well. The term is usually reserved for a solo-keyboard work, or one featuring a soloist and piano accompaniment, but the appearance of “sonata form” in the first movements of works for larger forces prompted the Harvard Dictionary of Music to point out that a string quartet is actually a sonata for four string instruments, a symphony is a sonata for orchestra, and a concerto is a sonata for soloist with orchestra.

What distinguishes a sonata form from a binary form is the appearance of two musical themes in the first portion (called the exposition), and the greater musical distance traveled before the final re-establishment of the original key. In broadest terms, the first theme of the exposition is in the tonic key, after which a second theme appears in another key (again, usually the dominant), which is established at the conclusion of the exposition. The development travels through various and sundry musical landscapes, at the end of which the first theme returns in its original key, marking the beginning of the final section, the recapitulation. This time, the second theme also appears in the tonic key, allowing the composer to end the composition in the same tonal area in which it began.

The introduction and reappearance of themes in a sonata movement take advantage of another principal of musical organization, and that is simple recognition of a theme or melody you have heard before. You are already familiar with this through most popular songs. It is also the basis of such forms as the Classical rondo (often heard as the last movement of a symphony or sonata) and the Baroque ritornello. Both forms start out with a section of music that will recur and that you should be able to recognize when it does. The main difference is that the recurring section in a rondo tends to return in pretty much the same form, while the refrain in a ritornello can return in other keys, or in fragments.

Another difference is in the use of the terms. “Rondo” may refer either to an entire movement in rondo form, or to the refrain section itself. Ritornello also refers to the opening portion of a concerto or opera aria, but you won’t see a movement with that title; it’s more of a compositional device than a form per se.

Recognition is also the basis of a theme and variations. Here the game is to follow what the composer has changed and what is maintained from variation to variation. It may be the bass line, a harmonic pattern, the melody or any combination of factors limited only by the composer’s imagination and ingenuity.

Yet another principal of musical organization is the sheer sensuous pleasure of musical sounds and the feelings they conjure. The orchestral tone poem, a genre created by Franz Liszt, is such a freewheeling creature, as are instrumental fantasias or works designed to dazzle the listener with flamboyant technique, such as the toccata or etude or any of the countless forms that have not even been codified yet.

Don’t worry about trying to memorize details of musical forms in order to enjoy a concert. If the composer created his or her work correctly, you will be able to discern what you need to just by listening. You don’t need to have taken a course in Greek tragedy, for instance, to be horrified when Oedipus gouges his eyes out. And when Ravel bumps the hypnotic theme of Boléro up a step toward the end of the piece, you can enjoy remarkable goosebumps without knowing intellectually that what he has done is called a modulation. True music-lovers listen not only with their ears and brains, but also with their hearts.