Musical Forms

Form covers the shape or structure of the work, content its substance, meaning, ideas, or expressive effects” (Middleton 1999)

Theory Introduction

The most basic levels of musical form concern:

– (a) the arrangement of the pulse into accented and unaccented beats, the cells of a measure that, when harmonised, may give rise to the “briefest intelligible and self-existent musical unit” (Scholes 1977), called a motif or figure, and

– (b) the further organisation of such a measure, by repetition and variation, into a true musical phrase having a definite rhythm and duration that may be implied in melody and harmony, defined, for example, by a long final note and a breathing space. This “phrase” may be regarded as the fundamental formal unit of music: it may be broken down into measures of two or three beats but its distinctive nature will then be lost. Even at this level we can see the importance of the principles of repetition and contrast, weak and strong, climax and repose. (Macpherson 1930)

Musical Forms

Can be divided by Musical Periods (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic). I will start with the ones that appear in this site and add more as time goes by.

Middle Ages (5th to the 15th century)

Oganum: is, in general, a plainchant melody with at least one added voice to enhance the harmony, developed in the Middle Ages. Depending on the mode and form of the chant, a supporting bass line (or bourdon) may be sung on the same text, the melody may be followed in parallel motion (parallel organum), or a combination of both of these techniques may be employed. As no real independent second voice exists, this is a form of heterophony. In its earliest stages, organum involved two musical voices: a Gregorian chant melody, and the same melody transposed by a consonant interval, usually a perfect fifth or fourth. In these cases the composition often began and ended on a unison, the added voice keeping to the initial tone until the first part has reached a fifth or fourth, from where both voices proceeded in parallel harmony, with the reverse process at the end. Organum was originally improvised; while one singer performed a notated melody (the vox principalis), another singer—singing “by ear”—provided the unnotated second melody (the vox organalis). Over time, composers began to write added parts that were not just simple transpositions, thus creating true polyphony. (Examples: Dulce lignum [Leonín], 4 Vocum [Pérotin])

Notable Composers: Apart from Leonín and Pérotin, almost all composers of the Ars Antiqua (covering the period of the Notre Dame school of polyphony and the subsequent years which saw the early development of the motet) are anonymous.

Renaissance (14th to the 17th century)

Ballade: It is a one-movement piece with lyrical and dramatic narrative qualities. The ballade typically featured a prominent upper voice, which was texted, and two lower voices which may have been vocalised or performed with instruments. Through time (19th century), ballades were also composed for instruments only, like a piano ballad (solo piano, introduced by Frédéric Chopin with Ballade No. 1 in G minor [Pianist: Oscar Gacitua]), cello, flute and viola.

Notable Composers
: Guillaume de Machaut, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, Claude Debussy, Frank Martin.

Opera: an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score. Opera is part of the Western classical music tradition. It incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble. (Examples: Donna E Mobile [Verdi], “If Love’s a sweet passion” [The Fairy Queen, Purcell], “O paradiso” [L’Africaine, Meyerbeer])

Opera started in Italy at the end of the 16th century (with Jacopo Peri’s lost Dafne, produced in Florence around 1597) and soon spread through the rest of Europe: Schütz in Germany, Lully in France, and Purcell in England all helped to establish their national traditions in the 17th century. However, in the 18th century, Italian opera continued to dominate most of Europe, except France, attracting foreign composers such as Handel. Opera seria was the most prestigious form of Italian opera, until Gluck reacted against its artificiality with his “reform” operas in the 1760s. Today the most renowned figure of late 18th century opera is Mozart, who began with opera seria but is most famous for his Italian comic operas, especially The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, as well as The Magic Flute, a landmark in the German tradition.

The first third of the 19th century saw the highpoint of the bel canto style, with Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini all creating works that are still performed today. It also saw the advent of Grand Opera typified by the works of Meyerbeer. The mid to late 19th century was a “golden age” of opera, led and dominated by Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy. The popularity of opera continued through the verismo era in Italy and contemporary French opera through to Puccini and Strauss in the early 20th century. During the 19th century, parallel operatic traditions emerged in central and eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Bohemia. The 20th century saw many experiments with modern styles, such as atonality and serialism (Schoenberg and Berg), Neoclassicism (Stravinsky), and Minimalism (Philip Glass and John Adams).

Notable Composers:
Henry Purcell, Claudio Monteverdi, Thomas Arne, Mikhail Glinka, G. F. Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Christoph Gluck, Giovanni Boldini, Giuseppe Verdi, Pietro Mascagni, Richard Wagner, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Bedřich Smetana, Béla Bartók, Jules Massenet, Richard Strauss, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sergei Rachmaninov, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas and many more.

Pavane: is a slow processional dance common in Europe during the 16th century. It is a slow piece of music which is danced to in pairs. The dancers usually step forward, lift up their legs, and point their toes. It generally uses counterpoint (relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent) or homophonic (texture in which two or more parts move together in harmony, the relationship between them creating chords) accompaniment. (Examples: Pavane [Fauré], Pavane for Dead Princess [Ravel])

Notable Composers:  Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, José Limón

Toccata: virtuoso piece of music typically for a keyboard or plucked string instrument featuring fast-moving, lightly fingered or otherwise virtuosic passages or sections, with or without imitative or fugal interludes, generally emphasizing the dexterity of the performer’s fingers. Less frequently, the name is applied to works for multiple instruments (the opening of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo being a notable example). (Examples: Toccata and Fuge in Dm [Bach], Toccata [Girolamo Frescobaldi], Toccata Op7 [Schumann])

Notable Composers: Girolamo Diruta, Adriano Banchieri, Hans Leo Hassler, Johann Sebastian Bach, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johan Pachelbel, Dietrich Buxtehude, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, Ralph Vauhgan Williams, Claude Debussy.

Baroque (late 16th to 18th century)

Concerto: is a composition usually in three parts or movements, in which (usually) one solo instrument (for instance, a piano or violin) is accompanied by an orchestra. The concerto, as understood in this modern way, arose in the Baroque period side by side with the concerto grosso, which contrasted a small group of instruments with the rest of the orchestra. While the concerto grosso is confined to the Baroque period, the solo concerto has continued as a vital musical force to this day. (Examples: Piano Concerto in Bbm [Stenhammar], Piano Concerto Nº21 [Mozart], Cello Concerto in Em [Elgar], Violin Concerto [Karłowicz]).

Notable Composers: Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Friderick Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Christian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Niccòlo Paganini, Henri Vieuxtemps, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Edward Elgar, Antonín Dvořák, Franz Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frederick Delius, Jean Sibelius, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, and many more.

Fugue: is a type of contrapuntal composition or technique of composition for a fixed number of parts, normally referred to as “voices”. It opens with one main theme, the subject, which then sounds successively in each voice in imitation; when each voice has entered, the exposition is complete; this is rarely followed by a connecting passage, or episode, developed from previously heard material; further “entries” of the subject then are heard in related keys. Episodes (if applicable) and entries are usually alternated until the “final entry” of the subject, by which point the music has returned to the opening key, or tonic, which is often followed by closing material, the coda. In this sense, fugue is a style of composition, rather than fixed structure. Though there are certain established practices, in writing the exposition for example, composers approach the style with varying degrees of freedom and individuality. (Examples: Fugue of Prealudium Nº22 [Bach], Prelude and Fugue Nº2  in Cm [Bach, Fugue starts at 1:19])

Notable Composers: Jan Pieterszoon Sweelnick, Johann Jakob Froberger, Dietrich Buxtehude, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Anton Bruckner, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms.

Gavotte: originated as a French folk dance, taking its name from the Gavot people of the Pays de Gap region of Dauphiné, where the dance originated. It is notated in 4/4 or 2/2 time and is of moderate tempo. The distinctive rhythmic feature of the original gavotte is that phrases begin in the middle of the bar; that is, in either 4/4 or 2/2 time, the phrases begin on the third quarter note of the bar, creating a half-measure upbeat. (Examples: Gavotte 1 & 2 [Bach], Gavotte [Prokofiev])

Notable Composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, Jean-Baptiste Lully, François Joseph Gossec, Jules Massenet, Sergei Prokofiev.

Minuet: is a social dance of French origin for two persons, usually in 3/4 time. The name may refer to the short steps, pas menus, taken in the dance, or else be derived from the branle à mener or amener, popular group dances in early 17th-century France. At the period when it was most fashionable it was slow, soft, ceremonious, and graceful, although when not accompanying an actual dance the pace was quicker. (Examples: Minuet in G [Beethoven], Minuet and Badinerie [Bach])

Notable Composers: Jean-Baptiste Lully, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Friderick Händel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Johann Stamitz.

Prelude: is a short piece of music, the form of which may vary from piece to piece. While, during the Baroque Age, for example, it may have served as an introduction to succeeding movements of a work that were usually longer and more complex, it may also have been a stand alone piece of work during the Romantic Era. It generally features a small number of rhythmic and melodic motifs that recur through the piece. Stylistically, the prelude is improvisatory in nature. The prelude can also refer to an overture, particularly to those seen in an opera or an oratorio. (Examples: Prelude in Em [Chopin], Prelude [Bach])

Notable Composers: J.C.F. Fischer, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy, Paul Hindemith, Alberto Ginastera, Dimitri Shostakovich, Felix Blumenfield, Olivier Messiaen, Lara Aurebach, Nikolai Kapustin.

Sonata: literally means a piece played as opposed to a cantata (Latin and Italian cantare, “to sing”), a piece sung. The term, being vague, naturally evolved through the history of music, designating a variety of forms prior to the Classical era. The term took on increasing importance in the Classical period, and by the early 19th century the word came to represent a principle of composing large scale works. It was applied to most instrumental genres and regarded alongside the fugue as one of two fundamental methods of organizing, interpreting and analyzing concert music. Though the sound of sonatas has changed since the Classical Era, 20th century sonatas still maintain the same structure and build. (Examples: Piano Sonata No. 8 “Pathétique” [Beethoven], Piano Sonata Nº16 [Mozart], Cello Sonata Nº2 in F [Brahms], Violin Sonata Nº1 in A [Schumann])

Notable Composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Domenico Scarlatti,  Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Tartini, Frédéric Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Franz Liszt, Johaness Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter.

Scherzo: is a piece of music or a movement, in a certain style, that forms part of a larger piece such as a symphony, and the scherzo is often the third movement of a symphony, sonata, or string quartet. The word “scherzo” means “joke” in Italian. Sometimes the word scherzando (joking) is used in musical notation to indicate that a passage should be executed in a playful manner. The scherzo developed from the minuet, and gradually came to replace it as the third (or sometimes second) movement in symphonies, string quartets, sonatas and similar works. It traditionally retains the triple meter time signature and ternary form of the minuet, but is considerably quicker. It is often, but not always, of a light-hearted nature.

The scherzo itself is a rounded binary form; but, like the minuet, is usually played with the accompanying Trio followed by a repeat of the Scherzo, creating the ABA or ternary form. This is sometimes done twice or more (ABABA). The “B” theme is a trio, a contrasting section not necessarily for only three instruments, as was often the case with the second minuet of classical suites (the first Brandenburg concerto has a famous example).
(Examples: Scherzo in Bb [Chopin], Scherzo movement [Beethoven], Scherzo [Wieniawski])

Notable Composers: Claudio Monteverdi, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms.

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