Formal Structure in Music

Photograph by Michael Gabelmann (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When discussing the fine arts, we explore structure through the concept of “form.” Sometimes it’s best to envision form as a physical design. Other times, we perceive an artistic form as a multi-part narrative shaping a creative work. And while someone might forge a completely new form, generally an artist works with forms that have endured for centuries.

Must we learn about artistic forms to enjoy the fine arts? Happily, we need not. Great art communicates its message whether or not a person has a technical understanding of a work’s structure. Even if we can’t read architectural blueprints, for example, we can still appreciate the beauty of a well-designed foyer. But learning about artistic forms allows us to approach works of art with increased confidence and understanding.

Musical form comes into play both in large structures and in small details. At the most basic level, a concert may be divided into a first and second half. The works performed have been arranged in a specific order for specific reasons. Musical dramas such as operas are divided into sections (acts) and those sections are subdivided into scenes. These scenes are further divided into individual pieces like arias, duets, and choruses. Each is interwoven into the substance of the drama and shaped by the work’s specific musical style.

The individual musical numbers have a definable form as well. In our traditional Western music, we perceive form primarily by listening for musical themes, most often stated in the melody. We hear (consciously or unconsciously) the ways in which that theme returns or is restated.

One of the easiest musical forms to grasp is called “strophic” form. Here multiple verses of text are sung to a repeating melody. Strophic form permeates the musical styles of folk, blues, and jazz. Many hymns and patriotic songs employ strophic form as well (e.g., “Amazing Grace” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”). Early on children learn to understand and love strophic form with songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Children also delight in learning rounds like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The experience of singing a round is fascinating to the ear and to the mind. The overlapping melodic lines create what we call counterpoint. You can just as easily think of it as a musical conversation where everyone is saying the same thing, only with a delay!

Composers in the Renaissance and the Baroque eras were particularly fascinated by imitative counterpoint. They created extensive structures in which separate voices or instruments (like the individual parts of a round) would imitate one another, singing or playing the same melody (sometimes with slight variations) at offset intervals. The acknowledged master of imitative counterpoint, Johann Sebastian Bach, crafted structures so mathematically complex, they boggle the mind.

In fact, we think of the name Bach as synonymous with mastery of the most complex of all imitative forms: the Baroque fugue. A fugue follows certain well-established patterns. We still marvel at composers like Bach who proudly showcased their skills by writing magnificently intricate fugues. Despite the complexity of such fugues, listeners with just a little practice can learn to follow their designs relatively easily.

So, the next time you light-heartedly sing a simple round at a camp gathering, realize that you are doing something musically sophisticated and, in fact, potentially quite complex.

To take another form that is surprisingly instinctive for both composer and listener, let’s consider “song form,” also called ternary form or ABA form. Here an opening melody is followed by a contrasting middle section, which might express a new musical atmosphere or have words that express a different emotion. Then, the initial melody returns and the composition ends in a manner similar to the way it began.

Stepping back, we can see why we label this design ABA form or ternary (three-part) form. However, why call it song form? The answer is simple: Across the centuries, many songs have been composed using this ABA design. If you think through songs you know, you may be surprised how many are cast in ternary form. Take for example the beautiful song “Yesterday,” written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

As you think through the song, you’ll note that it begins with a gentle, ascending melody setting the words, “Yesterday … all my troubles seemed so far away.” On it goes, with some repetition, until you hear the words, “Why she had to go.” Here the song has entered its middle (B) section. Not only has the melody changed; so too has the mood. Then the initial melody (A) returns to the same opening word, “Yesterday.”

If you keep listening you’ll hear the middle section (B) come back again. Then, the A section returns for one last time. Thus, a three-part form is expanded to become a five-part song (ABABA). But, in its essence, “Yesterday” is a three-part composition. The repeat of the B section and the final return of the A section could be eliminated and the song would stand quite well.

Let’s take another familiar example: “Oh! Susanna,” written by Stephen Foster. Here, the ternary form is expressed even more concisely. The opening melody starts with the words, “Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.” The middle (B) section of the song sets the famous words, “Oh! Susanna, don’t you cry for me!” Then the opening melody returns with similar words about heading to Louisiana.

Within the sections of ternary form you might find examples of a mini-form, the musical period. A period has two parts analogous to a question and answer. Let’s go back to the opening of “Oh! Susanna” as an example:

Oh I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee
I’m going to Louisiana my true love for to see

The melody of the first sentence (a phrase we call the “antecedent”) is repeated literally in the second sentence (“consequent”) right up to the last two words. Sing it for yourself. At “my knee” the melody goes up one step, while at “to see” the melody goes down one step. This very slight melodic variation has a significant effect on the harmony. The antecedent phrase moves the harmony away from the home key (tonic) to what we call a “half cadence.” The melody sounds incomplete—and it is! It’s up to the second phrase to bring the melody back home to tonic, providing a sense of completion.

This stylistic formula occurs in all types of music. Think of Beethoven’s beloved “Ode to Joy.” The first two melodic phrases form the same kind of period, the first ending on the second scale degree and the second phrase returning to end on the tonic. Taking our analysis of the form a step further, the opening two phrases are followed by contrasting material (B section). The music then returns to the original melody, creating a ternary form. After that, the whole ternary structure is repeated with new text, making the overall song strophic.

Whether or not listeners perceive such details of form—as a trained musician must—musical structures do communicate effectively. The music sounds right in terms of melody, harmonies, and text.

We absorb musical structures unawares, beginning with classic children’s songs (which is why it is critical to teach such songs enthusiastically). Gradually, an instinctive understanding of musical form builds, preparing a child to embrace more readily the canon of great musical masterworks.

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