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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  • 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.

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