Forms in Western Classical Music

[This post is #5 in the West­ern Clas­si­cal Music Series]

After under­stand­ing a few key musi­cal con­cepts, let us now famil­iar­ize our­selves with some of the Forms used in WCM. What exact­ly is Form and what is Style? I like to think of Form as the ‘struc­ture’ of a com­po­si­tion and Style as a clas­si­fi­ca­tion based on var­i­ous fac­tors like form, instru­men­ta­tion, pur­pose, etc. We will dis­cuss Forms in this post and move on to Styles in the next.

For me, the Form of a work indi­cates the archi­tec­tur­al struc­ture on which a com­po­si­tion is built. Why is Form impor­tant? This is best expressed by Per­cy Sholes “Form is a series of strate­gies designed to find a suc­cess­ful mean between the oppo­site extremes of unre­lieved rep­e­ti­tion and unre­lieved alter­ation.” Let us pro­ceed to under­stand Forms.


A sim­ple form where a motif or sec­tion ‘A’ is repeat­ed inter­spersed with new motifs between each rep­e­ti­tion: ABACADAE

Here is a sim­ple Ron­do from Beethoven’s String Quar­tet in C Minor, Opus 18, 4th Move­ment (I chose this video as it shows the ‘ABAC…’ pat­tern as it plays):

Beethoven String Quar­tet in C Minor, Opus 18, 4th Move­ment

(Ignore the video after 6:10 as it moves on beyond dis­cussing Ron­do)

Do not equate or con­fuse the sim­plic­i­ty of the Form with the lev­el of com­plex­i­ty of the com­po­si­tion — a ‘sim­ple’ Ron­do can be a com­plex com­po­si­tion! For exam­ple, here is Beethoven’s Ron­do a capric­cio (Op 129) per­formed by Evge­ny Kissin in ’97:

Beethoven’s Ron­do a capric­cio

Canon and Fugues

Canon and Fugues uti­lize Coun­ter­point as a thread to weave their struc­ture togeth­er. Observe when we dis­cussed Ron­do above, there was no men­tion of Coun­ter­point — it may or may not be there. How­ev­er, in Canon and Fugues, Coun­ter­point is the very essence or fab­ric of the com­po­si­tion. They con­sist of mul­ti­ple inde­pen­dent melodies that are woven to form a rich tapes­try of polypho­ny. These are not sim­ple forms to under­stand and require active ‘mind lis­ten­ing’.

A Canon is a Form based on con­tin­u­ous imi­ta­tive coun­ter­point. It uses a melody fol­lowed by imi­ta­tions of the melody after spe­cif­ic dura­tions. The ini­tial melody is played by the ‘leader’, the imi­ta­tion is by the ‘fol­low­er’.
Here is César Franck’s Sonata in Vio­lin and Piano in A Major, 4th Move­ment:

Sim­ple Canon: Franck’s Sonata in Vio­lin and Piano in A Major, 4th Move­ment

This Canon form is easy to under­stand because the Vio­lin (Fol­low­er) always plays the melody an octave high­er than the Piano (Leader).

There are many com­plex types of Canons (see Wikipedia for a good intro­duc­tion). One exam­ple is ‘Ret­ro­grade Canon’ where the Fol­low­er accom­pa­nies the Leader exact­ly back­ward in sequence. A Crab Canon is sim­i­lar to a Palin­drome in Eng­lish. The most famous exam­ple of this is Bach’s Crab Canon in his The Musi­cal Offer­ing BMV 1079. The best way to visu­al­ize this is by view­ing the score as a strip whose ends are then stitched togeth­er to form a Mobius strip:

Bach’s Crab Canon Visu­al­ized as a Mobius Strip

A Fugue is a com­plex ver­sion of a Canon. It also employs imi­ta­tive coun­ter­point, how­ev­er, the imi­ta­tion is not strict as in the Canon. A Fugue starts out with a melody called as the Sub­ject, which is stat­ed in all the voic­es in turn, till every­one is ‘up and run­ning’. This Sub­ject is then manip­u­lat­ed in var­i­ous ways by the Leader, just like in a Canon. This manip­u­lat­ed Sub­ject is called the Coun­ter­Sub­ject. How­ev­er, unlike in a Canon, the Fol­low­ing voic­es do not sim­ply imi­tate the Leader’s Coun­ter­Sub­ject — each voice devel­ops its own vari­a­tion of the Coun­ter­Sub­ject. Sounds com­pli­cat­ed? It is.

Lis­ten to Con­tra­punc­tus IV, from Bach’s Art of Fugue, played by Glenn Gould:

Art of Fugue, Con­tra­punc­tus IV

This is just a 3-minute com­po­si­tion, but you may spend days under­stand­ing it. And this is one of the sim­plest fugues Bach com­posed!

The terms ‘Canon­i­cal’ and ‘Fugal’ are used as adjec­tives to describe com­po­si­tions that have some char­ac­ter­is­tics of these Forms. For exam­ple, Indi­an music lovers are famil­iar with this song from R. D. Bur­man:

Canon­i­cal & Fugral ele­ments used in Hin­di Film Music

You can see how the arti­fi­cial­ly dupli­cat­ed vocals are canon­i­cal and fugal in nature.

Fugues and Canons are dif­fi­cult forms for begin­ners to grasp. This is because we are in gen­er­al used to lis­ten­ing to homo­phon­ic music with one dom­i­nant melod­ic line where the accom­pa­ni­ment is in the back­ground. Appre­ci­a­tion of Canons and Fugues requires active lis­ten­ing to mul­ti­ple voic­es at once, and takes effort.

Canons and Fugues are a world in them­selves with­in the wider world of WCM. Some peo­ple love them and study them pas­sion­ate­ly, oth­ers ignore them. If you think you’re not com­fort­able appre­ci­at­ing Canons and Fugues, sim­ply ignore them and move on. The uni­verse of WCM is not inhab­it­ed only on the Canon-Fugue plan­et, there are oth­er ‘music-forms’ to dis­cov­er and enjoy! 🙂

Fur­ther Read­ing on Bach’s AOF for Fugue Enthu­si­asts:

Sonata Form

Sonata Form is a rock-sol­id pil­lar sup­port­ing a very huge body of works in WCM. This is a very impor­tant musi­cal form, used in con­cer­tos, sonatas, sym­phonies, quar­tets, etc. for hun­dreds of years. For­tu­nate­ly, it is not as dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate as Canons and Fugues, so you can heave a sigh of relief! 🙂

A Sonata Form is com­posed of three sec­tions: Expo­si­tion, Devel­op­ment, and Reca­pit­u­la­tion.

Expo­si­tion: A Theme 1 is first pre­sent­ed. Fol­low­ing a ‘Bridge’ or ‘Tran­si­tion’, anoth­er Theme 2 is pre­sent­ed. The two themes are con­trast­ing in nature, such that the Theme 2 is in a dif­fer­ent Key than Theme 1. There is a Clos­ing Sec­tion towards the end, which con­tin­ues in the Key of Theme 2. The Expo­si­tion is often repeat­ed in its entire­ty before mov­ing on to the Devel­op­ment.

This very use­ful video dis­cuss­es the Sonata Form using Mozart’s 40th sym­pho­ny in the back­ground. Here is the Expo­si­tion sec­tion:

Sonata Form: Expo­si­tion

Devel­op­ment: The Devel­op­ment sec­tion is very much like an impro­vi­sa­tion­al ICM per­for­mance, except that it’s com­posed. Here, the two themes pre­sent­ed in the Expo­si­tion are manip­u­lat­ed, using parts of both, in var­i­ous dif­fer­ent ways. There is no struc­ture to the Devel­op­ment sec­tion — it is free — the only lim­it is the composer’s imag­i­na­tion.

Reca­pit­u­la­tion: The Reca­pit­u­la­tion returns to the home key of the Expo­si­tion. It is an altered repeat of the Expo­si­tion, where in sim­ple terms, both the Theme 1 and Theme 2 are “rec­on­ciled” lead­ing to a res­o­lu­tion.
Here is the con­tin­u­a­tion of the video that con­tin­ues onwards to dis­cussing the Devel­op­ment and the Reca­pit­u­la­tion:

Devel­op­ment & Reca­pit­u­la­tion

Unlike the cere­bral Canons and Fugues, Sonata Form does not nec­es­sar­i­ly require active “mind lis­ten­ing”. You can intu­itive­ly enjoy music com­posed in Sonata Form with­out under­stand­ing any­thing about Keys, Exposition/Development/Recapitulation etc. The Sonata Form is a broad frame­work with no strict rules, hence com­posers have exploit­ed it more than any oth­er Form.

A note about the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of Sonata Form is in order. When we learnt writ­ing in school, we were taught “Com­po­si­tion”. There are many par­al­lels between writ­ing and music, as I had once writ­ten about dur­ing my ado­les­cent days. In writ­ing, one uses words, in music, one uses notes. Even the word “note” is used in both con­texts (yes, that is why I used it when start­ing this para­graph). In an essay or a sci­en­tif­ic paper, one presents a sub­ject (Expo­si­tion), dis­cuss­es it from var­i­ous angles and argu­ments (Devel­op­ment), and final­ly sum­ma­rizes one’s obser­va­tions in a con­clu­sion (Reca­pit­u­la­tion). Fun­da­men­tal­ly, com­po­si­tion, whether one uses words or notes, is all about ideas. And Sonata Form is how one presents ideas in a rich, ful­fill­ing frame­work.

Think of your favorite roman­tic movie. Boy-meets-Girl (Theme 1-meets-Theme 2), there is con­flict with parents/villains/whatever (Devel­op­ment), and final­ly there is a res­o­lu­tion where every­one reaf­firms and acknowl­edges their love (Reca­pit­u­la­tion). Think of how a tree grows. You plant a seed and water it (Expo­si­tion), roots and stem/branches start grow­ing below and above ground (Devel­op­ment), and the emer­gence of a flower that enables pol­li­na­tion and repro­duc­tion is the Reca­pit­u­la­tion! Sonata Form is uni­ver­sal. It is every­where around us.

I have used a fair­ly obvi­ous trick in this post, a hid­den gem if you like. Do you spot it? Let me know in the com­ments! 🙂

Further Reading

Aca­d­e­m­ic Read­ing on Musi­cal Forms
List of Clas­si­cal Music Forms by Era

In the next post, we will dis­cuss dif­fer­ent musi­cal Gen­res and Styles.

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  • Pingback: Understanding Key Musical Concepts | An Unquiet Mind()

  • Two Hin­di songs (of many that come to mind) with ter­rif­ic back­ground vocals: Zinda­gi Kaisi Hai Pahe­li (from Anand) and Na Jaane Kyoon Hota Hai (from Chhoti Si Baat). 

    • Back­ground vocals play such a won­der­ful part here, no? Beau­ti­ful!

  • And speak­ing of ron­do .. here’s Mozart’s Ron­do Alla Tur­ca and Dave Brubeck’s Blue Ron­do A La Turk (inter­est­ing time sig­na­ture in the lat­ter, also — exquis­ite sec­ond voice/ counterpoint/ har­mo­ny in both)

    • Man, you’re spoil­ing the par­ty! I was sav­ing Ron­do Alla Tur­ca for lat­er, but there you have it! 🙂 (Just kid­ding) The sec­ond is in Jazz and will be ‘instru­men­tal’ for me (pun intend­ed) to learn more about Jazz 🙂

      • Oops! Sor­ry! 🙂 But I thought you’d dis­cussed the ron­do here and that was that, so has­tened to add Mozart’s great piece, with­out which IMO a dis­cus­sion on ron­do wouldn’t be com­plete.

        • No probs! I was plan­ning to list Ron­do Alla Tur­ca in a list of “Com­po­si­tions for Begin­ners to lis­ten to” but I guess you’re right. Also, I was slight­ly afraid of show­ing my Mozart­ian bent — a per­son­al thing.

      • P.S. Jazz is also WCM in a way .. I regard it as America’s con­tri­bu­tion to WCM, and it’s one of things about Amer­i­ca I love most.

        • Wow. Words record­ed in my mem­o­ry.

  • Pingback: Genres & Styles in Western Classical Music | An Unquiet Mind()