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Form in Music

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: A basic introduction to recognizing form in music, with some suggestions for activities to introduce the concept to children.

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Every piece of music has an overall plan or structure, the "big picture", so to speak. This is called the form of the music.

It is easy to recognize the form or structure of something, like a cat or a leaf, if we can see it all at once. Other things, like the inside of a big building, or the structure of a government, may have to be explored or studied before their structure can be understood. You can't hear a piece of music all at once; the best way to explore its form is to listen to it.

Some pieces of music, like a building that is just one large room, only have to be explored once to understand their form. But other pieces are more like a building that is a maze of many rooms and hallways. Sometimes you may find yourself in a room you've seen before, other times in a room that's new to you and yet seems familiar. These more complex pieces of music may have to be explored several times before you really understand their structure.

Describing Form

Musicians traditionally have two ways to describe the form of a piece of music. One way involves labelling each large section with a letter. The other way is to simply give a name to a form that is used a lot.

Labelling Form With Letters

Letters can be used to describe any form of music, whether it is used often or only rarely. Each major section of the music is labelled with a letter; for example, the first section is the A section. If the second section (or third or fourth) is exactly the same as the first, it is also labelled A. If it is very much like the A section, but with some important differences, it can be labelled A'(pronounced "A prime"). The A' section can also show up later in the piece, or yet another variation of A, A'' (pronounced "A double prime") can show up, and so on.

The first major section of the piece that is quite different from A is labelled B, and other sections that are like it can be labelled B, B', B'', and so on. Sections that are not like A or B are labelled C, and so on.

How do you recognize the sections? With familiar kinds of music, this is pretty easy. (See the figure below for some examples of forms that will be familiar to most listeners.) With unfamiliar types of music, it can be more of a challenge, but it is still not difficult. Whether you are listening to classical, modern, jazz, or pop, there are important changes in the general sound and feel of the music when a new section begins. For an excellent discussion of form, with plenty of chances to practice hearing the beginnings of new sections, please see Professor Brandt's "Sound Reasoning" course in Connexions. In particular, Musical Form deals with recognizing when something new is being introduced (A/B instead of A only), and Time's Effect on the Material deals with recognizing when a section reappears changed (A', B', or A'').

Figure 1
Figure 1 (simpleforms.png)

Naming Forms

Often a musical form becomes so popular with composers that it is given a name. For example, if a piece of music is called a "theme and variations", you would expect it to have an overall plan quite different from a piece called a "rondo". (Specifically, the theme and variations would follow an A A' A'' A'''...plan, with each section being a new variation on the theme in the first section. A rondo follows an A B A C A ... form, with a familiar section returning in between sections of new music.)

Also, many genres of music tend to follow a preset form, like the " typical pop song form" in the figure above. A symphony, for example, is usually a piece of music written for a fairly large number of instruments. It is also associated with a particular form, so knowing that a piece of music is called a symphony will lead you to expect certain things about it.


Please note that there is some confusion about this: a symphony is not a large group of people who often play classical music together; that is an orchestra. The confusion occurs because many orchestras call themselves "symphony orchestras" because they spend so much time playing symphonies.
If a piece of music is called a symphony, you might expect three or four (depending on when it was written) main sections, called movements. You'd expect a moment of silence in between movements, and you would expect each movement to sound very different; for example if the first movement is fast and loud, you might expect that the second movement would be slow and quiet. If you have heard many symphonies, you also would not be at all surprised if the first movement is in concerto form and the third movement is based on a dance.

Other kinds of music are also so likely to follow a particular overall plan that they have become associated with a particular form. You can hear musicians talk about something being concerto form or sonata form, for example. Particular dances (like a minuet, gigue, or waltz), besides having a set tempo and time signature, will often have a set form that suits the dance. And many marches are similar enough in form that there are names for the expected sections (first strain, second strain, trio, and so on).

But it is important to remember that forms are not sets of rules that composers have to follow. Some symphonies don't have silence between movements, some don't use the concerto form in any of their movements, and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony includes singers. Plenty of marches have been written that don't have a trio section, and the development section of a sonata movement can take unexpected turns. After all, in architecture, "house" form suggests to most Americans a front and back door, a dining room off the kitchen, and bedrooms with closets, but an architect is free to leave out the dining room, and put the main door at the side of the house and the closets in the bathrooms. Whether a piece of music is concerto form or sonata form, a theme and variations, or a rondo, the composer is always free to experiment with the overall architecture of the piece.

Being able to spot that overall architecture as we listen - knowing, so to speak, which room we are in right now - gives us important clues that help us understand and appreciate the music.


Here are some activites featuring simple pieces of music that can be used to introduce the idea of form to children.

Activity 1: Verses

Materials and Preparation

  • Decide whether you will use recordings for this activity or have the children sing songs they know. A mixture of both will be very effective. Choose some songs that have only one section (one "verse", so to speak; many nursery rhymes have only one section, as does "Happy Birthday to You".), and some that have more than one verse, but don't include any songs with refrains or choruses in this activity. If you want to stretch the children's listening skills, include some recordings of music that is unfamiliar, but again play only songs with a single section, or verses only, or instrumental music that is only one section or a section with its repeat, so that it sounds like two verses. Marches and dances are a good source of music with repeated sections.
  • If you are using recordings, you will need a tape or CD player, and some recordings of age-appropriate songs. Use some songs that are familiar to them and some that aren't. Have the tapes ready at the appropriate spot, or know the track numbers on the CD.


  • Tell your students that the form of a piece of music is just a description or list of the main sections of the music. If your students are old enough and experienced enough, you may use the discussion above to introduce the idea of labelling sections with letters.
  • Ask the students if they know what a verse is in music. They may know but have trouble explaining. Ask if they can sing more than one verse of a song. How are the verses different? (Usually the words are different.) How are they the same? (Usually the music is the same.) If they can't answer any questions even with some prompting, explain that each verse of a song has the same melody but different words.
  • Play a recorded song with more than one verse, or have the children sing a song they know. Point out to them when each new verse starts.
  • Play more recordings, or sing together some more songs, letting the children point out when each new verse starts (they can raise their hands, or clap at the beginning of each verse, for example). Ask them to count the verses of each song, and to identify which songs have only one verse.
  • If you are including a discussion of A/B forms, write the forms of the songs on the board as you sing or listen to them. (Verse forms will mostly look something like A or A A A or A A' A''; you can let your students decide which verses are different enough to give primes.)

Activity 2: Refrains

Materials and Preparation

  • The preparation for this activity is about the same as for the previous activity, but this time choose songs that have refrains. It is more difficult to draw parallels between verses and refrains and instrumental music, but you might play for your students some instrumental music that has a section that keeps returning exactly the same, in between sections that are different from each other, for example a rondo or Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition".


  • If you like, using the discussion above as an outline, discuss the process of labelling sections of music.
  • Ask the students if they know the difference between a verse and a refrain (or chorus) in music. Even if they do know, they may have trouble explaining. Ask if they can give an example or sing the refrain (or chorus) of a song. If they have no idea, even with prompting, tell your students that the words are the same each time you sing a refrain or chorus, but the words to the verses are usually different.
  • Sing together or play a recorded song for them. Point out for them when each verse and each refrain starts.
  • Sing together or play more songs for them, letting them identify the verses and refrains. (You may have to play unfamiliar songs for them more than once.) They can raise one hand during a verse and the other during a refrain, or clap at the beginning of a verse and stomp at the beginning of a refrain, or sit for verses and stand up for refrains.
  • Ask your students why they think some songs have refrains? (Everyone can learn the refrain and join in on it.) Why do they have verses? (A song with only refrains would get pretty boring.)
  • If you are doing a more formal study of musical form, pick a couple of the songs and put their form on the board with A's and B's. Let the students decide whether the verses and rerains are different enough to get different letters (in some songs, the refrain has the same music as the verses), and whether and when primes need to be used. Are any of the verses different enough that a C should be used?

Further Practice With Form

If your students are old enough and experienced enough with music, try stretching their ability to identify form by giving them some unfamiliar music that is not in verse form or verse/refrain form (some classical music for example, or music from another culture), and see if they can identify A, B, and maybe C sections. Remind them that they are listening for big changes in the music to identify the beginning of each section. You can use the examples in Musical Form or Time's Effect on the Material, or find your own examples.

General Discussion of Form in the Arts

If your students are also studying form in some other subject - art, poetry, or stories, for example, or even geometry - include a discussion of how form is the same and different in each subject. Do the poetry forms they are studying have anything that is like the verses or refrains of a song? Does a painting ever have anything that acts like a refrain? Is the form of a story ever like a song?

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