What is musical form

Musical theory of forms in music lessons

- by René Frank -


Different forms in music

a) Three-part song form

The three-part song form is particularly found in folk and children's songs, as it is structured according to a very simple pattern that consists of only 2 parts:

A - B - A

After the first musical idea (A) there is an intermediate part (B) which is followed by the first part (A).

There are many examples of this in the literature:

Santa Claus is coming tomorrow

All the birds are already there

Hum hum hum

Do you know how many little stars there are?



b) Rondo

The three-part song form has only one middle movement. If two or three appear instead of the one in between, the result is the rondo shape:

A - B - A - C - A - D - A

The rondo theme (A) appears again and again after each intermediate sentence. The intermediate clauses form a continuation or a contrast to the rondo theme, which is usually fast and lively.

Often the rondo is based on a certain harmonic structure:

For a rondo in C major: A = tonic (C major)

B = parallel (A minor)

C = dominant (G major)

D = subdominant (F major)

c) Canon

The canon is very widespread as the strictest form of polyphony (many voices).

It arises from the fact that all voices one after the other have the same melody. The singing canons in unison and in the octave are particularly popular.

In the folk songs and children's songs, but also in the more recent hymns, there are many examples of a canon:

The rooster is dead

Summer comes laughing

Hey, start the car

Heaven and earth must pass away

From the rising of the sun

Every part of this earth



d) chorus song

A chorus song consists of two different parts, namely the stanzas and the chorus. The chorus is always sung after (or before) each stanza. The number of stanzas is unlimited. Compared to a rondo, however, the melody of the individual stanzas is always the same, only the text changes.

Thus, a refrain song is always a vowel piece with the scheme A - B - A - B - A etc.

There are also examples of this in folk music; But the principle of the chorus song is also often used in pop music.

The monkeys race through the forest

The hardworking washerwomen

We love the storms

Country Roads

Knocking on heavens door

e) Overture

The overture is a purely instrumental musical form. The name comes from the French verb ouvrir (= to open) and denotes an orchestral piece with which an opera or a drama is opened. The older overtures are in the above-mentioned three-part form.

A distinction is made between two types:

The French overture with the sequence SLOW - FAST - SLOW

The Italian overture with the sentences FAST - SLOW - FAST

The former include the overtures to Handel's operas, the latter the operas by Scarlatti and e.g. the overture to Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio"

f) Suite

The most popular and most important form in piano music of the 17th and 18th centuries is the suite (= sequence).

As the name suggests, it consists of a series of different dances. In the classic suite these are

Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue


The dances themselves are in the two-part song form A-B.

Even though their internal structure is identical, the dances differ in rhythm, tempo and rhythm

g) Sonata

The sonata always describes an instrumental piece in contrast to a cantata, which is a vocal piece.

The so-called sonata form is always in three parts and has a strict scheme:

1. Exposition 2. Execution 3. Recapitulation

The exposition introduces the theme or themes, with the main theme in the tonic. This is followed by a transition to the dominant, which contains the rest of the exposition (side topics, closing topic, etc.).

The implementation brings about a processing of the thematic material. Many keys can be run through here, but at the end the development ends in the tonic.

The recapitulation begins in the tonic and resumes the exposition. All side themes are played in the tonic, which also ends the recapitulation.




h) joint

The fugue is the most important of all forms of the polyphonic style. In contrast to the sonata, it develops from a single theme (sometimes from a single motif) called the Dux (= leader). It is imitated or answered in the fifth. This answer is called Comes (= companion).

All joints have the same structure:

Exposition, 2nd implementation and 3rd final part.

The following picture explains the sequence of a joint in more detail.



Forms relevant to teaching


In elementary and secondary school music lessons there is room for the "simpler" forms a) to d) (three-part song form; rondo; canon and refrain song) and should be treated in a comprehensible manner.

The treatment of the forms in the classroom is simplified by the fact that there are song examples for all forms that can easily be sung and tried out with the children.


Possibilities of implementation for school lessons

In order to make abstract topics such as "musical forms" understandable for students, the forms have to become tangible.

By "tangible" I mean that the pupil can recognize through various aids and didactic methods that behind the sung song there is a clear structure, namely a "form".

At first glance, something like this does not strike the student.

Perhaps there are some musical children in the classes who recognize individual parts of the song while singing or making music (especially in the three-part song form), but the structures can be worked out with the conscious use of aids.

For this I would like to show the following approaches:

a) through the use of colors or colored marking

b) through simple forms of movement

c) through geometric shapes or images

d) through various objects

e) by accompanying with various instruments


to a)

Color differentiation is very important for the visual level of learning. The student can see at a glance that different colors represent different parts of a piece of music.

The same colors indicate the same musical ideas.

The use of colors can be varied and is particularly suitable for rondo, refrain song and three-part song form.

On the overhead transparency or the sheet of music, the A parts are marked in a different color than the B parts. C, D or E parts are also given a new color.

If, for example, the A-part appears again in the piece, it is marked again in the same color as at the beginning.

To make the whole class aware of the different parts while singing, "color cards" are very useful. The previously agreed color is held up for each part so that all students can see when a part of the song is finished and when a new part begins.


to b)

In order to become physically active in music lessons, form theory also offers various options.

To do this, the class must be divided into as many groups as there are different parts of the song. For a rondo with, for example, 3 intermediate parts, you would need 4 groups in the class. (Rondo main theme plus 3 intermediate parts)

For each intermediate topic, a group of the class stands up and sings the part and then sits down again. For the main topic, a certain group always stands up while all the other groups sit (variant: on the main topic everyone sings and stands, while individual groups only become active for the intermediate topics).

Of course, the individual parts can also be sung by different groups without any movement in the class, but a coupling of singing and movement intensifies the understanding of the molded parts.


to c)

Colored differentiation of molded parts is a very distinctive method of differentiation, but there are also other visual possibilities to differentiate and emphasize the individual parts of a song.

There are simple geometric shapes that can be easily distinguished from one another.

The sequence of a three-part song form could then be represented as follows:



Or a rondo sequence is shown with simple pictures:



The star always stands for the main topic, while snowman, car and train stand for B-part, C-part and D-part.

The pupils could hear an instrumental rondo along with the pictures and always follow when the "star" can be heard in the music again.


to d)

Another possibility for the students to be active in the classroom is to use objects to identify a molded part.

For example, if the verse is sung in a chorus song, the students take a pencil out of their pencil case. When the chorus is sung, the ruler must be picked up.

Items from the student's equipment are ideal, as they are available in sufficient numbers, but the teacher can also provide certain items, e.g. in the form of building blocks, stones, wood, balls, beads, marbles, etc.

to e)

The variant of accompanying individual molded parts with different instruments is intended more for advanced classes, because the students must first be taught the piece on the instruments.

With successful learning, this variant is good in my opinion because it not only differentiates the molded parts visually, but also audibly. The students hear that another instrument is playing in a new part of the song and the playing student actively learns where one part ends and the next begins.

Gradually, the instruments should be exchanged among students so that everyone has "experienced" all of the molded parts.

In the combination of the color design of the parts on the sheet of music, singing in different groups, movement by sitting and standing, the representation through pictures and the active experience of the sections in the song by making their own music, the students bring the different musical forms in a variety of ways Near:

visual, auditory and haptic.

And so the dry theory is made accessible from several sides and there should be an opportunity for every student from which he can learn personally.


© René Frank, 63150 Heusenstamm; September 2003





Söhner, Paul, Allgemeine Musiklehre, Munich 1979

Renner, Hans, Basics of Music, Stuttgart 1983

Da Capo, song book of the KSJ Amberg, Amberg 1997

The most beautiful children's songs, Hamburg 1996

Frank, René, The New Spiritual Song, Marburg 2003




This page is part of www.rene-finn.de / René Frank, Heusenstamm