form in music

Like most things artistic, the finished piece oftentimes disguises the the underlying components. The the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. As we view or listen to beautiful art, our senses are distracted from it's essential components, and that for sure is part of the magic of the artist. Thus, in learning about musical art, understanding it's underlying structure of musical form eventually becomes necessary, and as so often happens in learning, that once discovered opens a whole new vista of artistic opportunity.

Just how important is knowledge of musical form in your musical endeavors? Got a big picture for yourself yet? Blues and rock players might want to get the 12 bar form solid. Folk players the two basic, 32 bar song forms and terms like verse and refrain. Jazz and pop players will eventually master all of the above as well as many of the common variations of intro's, coda's etc. As in many of the artistic disciplines, the study of form is basically about the balancing of artistic components chosen by the artist in their creation.

The historical evolution of the compositional forms in music is a fascinating read and lest we forget that the origins of our present day forms go back thousands of years to their origin as forms for dance. In more recent times, our present day musical forms parallel to a certain degree the rapid evolution of tonality as accelerated by the advent of equal temper and how succeeding generations of composers would build upon the existing models of their day evolving the musical forms, to create and release their musical tensions, i.e., to tell their stories. Cool? The following ideas are presented here to better acquaint the emerging artist to the basic compositional forms we so often find in the American music we love to listen to and play.

So why is the study of musical form beneficial to the creative artist? Well, for a couple of reasons, at least initially. Knowledge of the form can play an important part in accelerating the learning and memorizing of our music, oftentimes essential to the performing artist. That knowledge of form creates an initially defined environment for writing our music. And that when combining other artistic disciplines with music, knowledge of the forms can help to meld things together, say as in dance, theatre, opera etc. For the career musician and musicologist, a lifetime of coolness in study of form and variation awaits the impassioned learner.

So what factors determine the form of a musical composition? Well, a number of things of course, depending upon what elements are present in any given piece of music. If there are words telling a story, oftentimes how this poetry is presented will illuminate the form of the music. If there is a vocal hook in the song, as in American pop music, that will oftentimes play a dominant part in determining the overall form. In instrumental music, the form of any musical composition is most often determined by it's melodic structure, it's overall length, and how this melody is developed within the piece. In dtermining instrumental musical forms, we are also concerned with the harmony and the sense of closure and finality as created bu the cadencing while supporting the melody and it's variations. And of course the rhythms, which while motoring the music also can provide the composer with ways to reinterpret their melodic and harmonic ideas, perhaps extending the boudaries a bit. So, all of the basic musical components are involved, with the vocal line perhaps the predominant factor in vocal music and the melodic line in instrumental music. So, all combined, we usually initially look to the melody to determine the overall form of our music.

In discussing and examining existing music for it's overall musical form, theorists like ourselves usually use capitalized letters ( A, B, C ) to denote the different musical sections within a given piece of music. Using these letters we create simple groupings to identify the common forms used in musical / artistic composition. These forms include the two part form A / B, the three part A / A / B / A etc. Cool with this? Sound simple? Well it is for the most part, the trick is to be able to hear the form while the music is being played or when studying written scores.

Form / balance. Can the strength of the melodic line alter the form? Absolutely, and this is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for the composers and listeners alike. Why? Well, when our art fits into nice neat patterns we feel like we are winning so to speak, and our listeners will often feel more comfortable "liking" our music. Perhaps because their sense of form and balalnce are more readily satisfied. On the other hand,

With individual sections within compositions being generally defined by it's melodic and harmonic content, listed below are a few of the most common structural forms found in the American styles of music. When learning new compositions, taking time to explore its form can facilitate it's learning and memorization, create a big picture if you will and give a clear sense of the overall structure of the song. After getting a sense of the basic forms, this knowledge can potentially create new directions for your own musical compositions. The artistic forms included below are among the most common forms employed in creating the American sounds. Listed below with a gradually increasing complexity, that the variations to these basic forms as found in the literature are nearly endless should be no surprise, but even so, nice to have a place to start our studies in musical form studies n'est pas?

Starting from scratch. Perhaps the simplist form in music could be termed the "one bar phrase." Example 1.

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Rather primitive yes? Musical form based mainly on the rhythm? So it seems eh? This one bar phrase is probably where it all started, providing the basic vehichle for chanting and call and response. The cool thing is that with this basic one bar simplicity, EVERYONE can get involved. By singing, playing a rhythm part or dancing.

We could easily extend this to two bars by adding another pitch. Example 1a.

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So now we have a "two bar phrase." At least in modern terms. Repeating these phrases over and over creates what today we call vamps. Which players use for intro's, outro's and for jamming and blowing sections in tunes (among other things ...) Here is a common two bar vamp in the minor tonality. Example 1b.

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Interesting in that it is again mainly the rhythm of this last idea that determines it's two bar structure. Check out Tito Puente's "O'ye Como Va" for a taste of this two bar vamping magic.

In continuing our "doubling" expansions, we move from two to four bars. The key aspect in this next evolution, is that it is the melody of the lick that mostly determines the form ... And it will be this melodic determination of form from here onward in complexity ... Example 1c.

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So, simply One, Four, Five repeated is a musical form? Yep, pretty much. The early rock hit "Louie, Louie" follows this timeless form.

With this basic one to four bar evolution of musical structure / form in mind, let's begin to examine the more modern and advanced musical structures, combinations and it's scholarly vocabulary. Reference texts.

1) Single period = A. Perhaps the smallest practical form is simply a 4 or 8 bar phrase which is repeated many times to create a song. Termed a "period" by theorists, we often find this most basic of musical forms in children's songs, spiritual chants, rally's etc. "Ring Around The Rosy" dating from medieval times is such a song. The often repeated chant from John Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance" is an 4 bar version of this simple idea.

In one eight bar phrase repeated, the musical phrases of a single period are like a sentence in prose. Children's song are often in this basic format. Tunes such as "Happy Birthday" and "This Old Man" are created on in this concept.

Another common spot that we often hear this single period form is in old blues songs. Simply an 8 bar phrase oft repeated with a different set of poetry for each verse. Here is an example of the harmonic scheme of combining the 8 bar period form with the blue colors. Example 1.

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"I've Got Key To The Highway" is a popular song in the basic musical form. Aspiring blues players might want to find a recording of this tune and learn it. Maybe check out English blues legend Eric Clapton's cool rendition.

8 + 2 where the last two bars are repeated exact. "John Henry"

2) Blues form / 12 bar blues.

This is perhaps the oldest of the purely American forms. The 12 bar blues is basically comprised of three / four bar phrases, thus 12 bars for one full cycle or chorus of the form. In it's most basic format, the same 4 bar phrase is simply repeated three 3 times. Really? Yep. Variation in this elemental version of the blues is often created in the harmony whereby each of the three phrases is based on a different harmony. The first phrase on the tonic or One, the second phrase on the subdominant or Four, the last four bars on the dominant or Five chord. In this next idea we use the line from "Shornin Bread" and simply place it into the 12 bar blues form. Example 2.

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So common in the 12 bar blues form is to use a call and response type melodic interplay, whereby the phrases take the form of a motive or vocal "question", which is "answered" in the response. So very cool, ancient and powerful. Know the rockin classic "Johnny B. Good" by Chuck Berry? Learn this 12 bar blues form and potentially learn about a gillion tunes, plus all the ones YOU might write, right?

From the basic three chord / 12 bar blues, this form also spawns a myriad of different possibilities, these choices in part determined by styles within the overall blues genre. These possibilities are potentially limitless and include the use of advanced blues chord substitutions, as say in a jazz blues, extending the form to include a B section, i.e., blues with a bridge and adding extended vamps for soloing.

The cool thing with the basic 12 bar blues form is that it is easy to master and that most players know it. That by learning the form will usually provide some initial "common ground" for players who are jamming together for the first time, as when we "sit in" in with various groups and just want to kick and have some fun playing tunes with new friends. Have you taken the blues challenge yet?

Modal blues. Very rare indeed, a modal blues is oftentimes just a four bar phrase which is repeated. In it's simplist form, only the tonic harmony is used. Variations include a move to Four in the second measure, dubbed the "fast four" by some. Example 2a.

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Here moving to the subdominant in the 2nd measure. Example 2b.

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3) Double period = A / A'.

Oftentimes two eight bar phrases, the first idea termed the antecedent phrase with a bit of a contrasting idea or consequent phrase in the second phrase. Although this form is rather basic, it is perhaps the essential basis from which we have built upon for the last thousand years or so. Here is a gorgeously majestic line written in the 16 bar, double period form. Example 3.

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Sound familiar? "America The Beautiful" by Sammuel A. Ward is an ideal mix of genius and simplicity, n'est pas? Got this line under your fingers? Try to work it out by ear, simply sing the line then find it on your ax.

3) Binary form = A / B

Oftentimes each section of this binary form is either eight or sixteen bars in length, for a total of 16 or 32 bars. In the shorter 16 bar version, we often see the initial melodic idea of the A section taken taken up again in the B section. Here it is not uncommon to find artistic alterations to both the melody and the harmony which create a sense of closure and coming to rest at the end of the second phrase often achieved through the authentic cadencing of the chords. The American classic "Clementine" from the 1850's follows this basic format. Example 4.

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So, why isn't this 16 bar binary form simply called a double period? Well, it probably could be, again the factors are the repetitive quality within the melody, do the lyrics change in the B section? Yes they do, and that the harmony changes in the B section and the final cadential motion at the end of the phrase brings the music to rest. So as in the above song, that the harmony of the second part ( B ) changes quite a bit from the first part ( A ), so it becomes a B section as opposed to A' ( A prime )? Yep. Cool with this?

Another common compositional technique often applied to binary form is to use the minor tonality for the A section, the major tonality for the B section or visa versa. The ancient and timelessly refreshing song "Greensleeves" uses this essential technique of pairing the two tonalities within this binary form. This song survives today dating back to the 15th century or so, it's form giving us a glimpse of what some folks were doing back then.

In the longer 32 bar version of the A / B 32 bar form, again we often hear the melodic idea from the A section taken up again in the B section, where the theme is usually reworked to a create a bit of artistic tension to climax the tune and define a definite closure of the melody by resolution, to either the tonic or triadic chord tone pitch, thus releasing the tension and completing the form. The American folk classic "O, Susanna" is a 32 bar version of the binary A / B form. The Rogers and Hart jazz classic "My Romance" is one good example among many of this 32 bar / A B form of motivic development. Other jazz standards written in this form? Many.

Song form / sonata allegro = A / A / B / A

A / A / B / A form is perhaps the most common of larger compositional forms used to create popular American music that is not based in the blues. The term "sonata" is Italian meaning "to sound" and developed early on within the music of D. Scarlotti. Sonata form is also perhaps the most important compositional form for much European classical music from the 1750's or so onward. In the modern 32 bar sonata song form, each of the four sections are usually eight bars thus, the 4 sections as a whole creating again a 32 bar form. Generally, the melodic idea and harmony of the first A section is repeated in the second A, with a different closing cadence, setting up the motion to the bridge or B section.

The B section is usually comprised of contrasting melodic material in a different key center than the A section. Usually eight bars also, the B section provides a contrast before setting up the return to the last A section. The last A section is generally eight bars and is a repetition of the original melodic material with a closing cadence. One neat feature of this form concerns memorizing songs written in this form. In that once the A section is learned, one has basically learned 75% of the tune! The pitfall is that the music can begin to sound "sort of the same in a hurry" if an player is not careful, due to the melodic repetition in the form. The traditional parlor tune of the ole' prairie "Home On The Range" is written in this important compositional formula. Example 5.

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Variations of this form? Endless, endless, endless and more still to be conceived. For example, "Yesterday", written by Paul McCartney in 1965 while with the Beatles, is a classic ballad of perfection in the 28 A A B A sonata form. 28 bars? Yep, the A sections are 7 bars. Such a gorgeous song that just won't fit the mold, nothing wrong with that eh? Absolutely not. So, needless to say, that any form can work regardless of the number of measures per section. Is determining form all about the natural beauty and balance of the melodic idea? We have always had melodies yes? The chords are what came along rather recently in our musical development n'est pas? Are there jazz standards written in this form? Absolutely.

Rondo form. A / B / A / C / A. We can expand the two part A / B forms above into a three part A / B / C form into what is commonly termed a rondo. Originally from the French composers of the 17th century, we often find the melodic motifs following the following scheme, A / B / A / C / A etc. Basically that the principle theme A is interspersed with a B theme, back to A, then a new idea C, then back to A etc. Know any popular American rondos? Let me know.

Through composed. Of all of the musical forms, the idea of through composed is perhaps the coolest. The music starts and moves along it's way to completion, as directed by the composer. We often find this style of writing in opera, in sections where the characters tell their stories, moving the drama of the story along it's way. Found rarely in popular music, I would say that Led Zepplin's "Stairway To Heaven" is somewhat through composed, although a reader has suggested it is in "strophic" form. And quite true, as each new verse is sung to the same music. Familiar with that composition? Perhaps find it and give it a spin when time permits and experience the gradual building of the music as the story unfolds and climaxes. Perhaps this piece is among rock music's greatest writing? Surely among the loveliest.

In music that is written in this form, we can further enhance the sense of artistic freedom by creating our melodic ideas from melodic resources that do not close or loop back upon themselves in the conventional / theoretical manner of the vast majority of the scales we use to create our lines. Why would we want to do this? Well, first perhaps in that compositions written in this manner can very quickly get us out of the "norm" of what we hear so often in American song. Second, that in combining music with other art forms, as say dance and drama, the usual musical forms of American song are perhaps a bit too restrictive when used in conjunction as as a dance piece. Third, that this way of writing just might be the way of the future. Perhaps we can expand our existing forms by interspersing sections where the music is through composed.

Common jazz forms. Both the A / B and A / A / B / A forms discussed above are very common in the body of literature we know as jazz standards. Add to these two forms the 12 bar blues, and we probably cover 90% of what a lot of the players are playing. The following ideas are a bit of a further breakdown into the literature and simply look at how certain styles of tunes follow general guidelines and create common cycles.

Ballads. Based on the slower tempos, ballads themes are so often tender love songs, or tales of love and lost. From the literature, we find many important ballads written in the song form A / A / B / A format. When written in the major tonality, a key component of the A sections is that they open up on a minor 7th chord, so often built on Two, creating a bit of tension and a subtle sense of longing. These 8 bar phrases end with a tonic major chord. B sections in the ballad form are usually in the major tonality with the final cadence in these 8 bars setting up the return to the minor color of the beginning of the A section.

The classics "Body And Soul", "When Sunny Gets Blue" and others follow this basic scheme within the A / A / B / A form.

Bossa Nova's. In the mid 60's of the last century, the music of Brazil made yet another tremendous impact on the American scene. Today, with world music and all the sounds that it implies, the Bossa Nova has probably lost some of it's individuality within the bigger picture of our more modern world. But back in the 60's, the new Bossa sound was fresh and exciting, wonderful for the dancers and listeners alike, opening up a whole new vista for the jazz and pop artist. Over the decades, the Bossa has evolved from an 8th note pulse towards a 16th note permutation and became commonly known among players today as a Latin / samba groove. So much so that today, when players call a Bossa Nova song, they just might double time the groove during the solos into the exciting samba sounds. For those that know and love this style, there a lot of fun tunes to learn.

So, what about the form of the music? Well, all I wanted to add in regards to the discussion about musical form here is that we often find many Bossa Nova songs starting out with a very similar harmonic motion. Example 6.

  C maj 9


  D 9


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The A. C. Jobim classics "The Girl From Impanema", Desafinado, pianist Michel Legrande's "Watch What Happens", modernist Keith Jarrett's "Lucky Southern" use this initial harmonic sequence to name just a few. Isn't the chord in bar 3 a Five 7 of Five ( V7 of V ) chord? Exactly. Hip to 5 of 5? Lets double time the above idea and try to get the samba thing happening? Example 6a.

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Pretty bad huh? Yea, my programming / note entry is by hand and not all that adventurous at times. Here is a different take on the samba groove, which to the Latin purist, is definitely not just double timing a bossa nova. Either way, here we move back and forth by half step between the major and minor tonalities, Db minor motion to C major. Example 6b.

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Dig the groove? It's way fun to create, quite a challenge at times but very inspirational? is there a theory design to this type of harmonic motion? Yep, it's called the color tone series experiments in this text. This last idea is my favorite groove to play? Want to check out a jam loop of this groove?

Rhythm changes. Made forever popular with the George Gershwin song "I Got Rhythm", a few important and cool standards and many variations have been created in this very swinging harmonic formula. This basic form is oftentimes a favorite at jazz jam sessions, as it gets away from the blues form a bit but can be approached in a basically diatonic manner. So perhaps a nice step up from the blues form for emerging players to enjoy. And as with the 12 bar blues form, mastering this form is a big step up for emerging, career players. Written in the basic A / A / B / A form, the changes initially go like this. Here are the A section changes. Example 7.

C maj7



G 7


A 7



G -

C 7


F - 7

A 7

C 6

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Please note that in real songs or performance, the last bar above would probably be Two / Five in C major to set up the return for the second A, which starts with a tonic C major chord etc. The C 6 chord used above would be common at the close of the second A heading to the bridge as well as in the last A section, closing out the full A/ A / B / A form. Cool?

The B section harmony used to be dubbed by some a "Sears Roebuck bridge", like right out of the catalogue? Exactly. As the changes are a pretty generic cycle of fourths and used in way lot's of different musical settings. Example 8.

E 9


A 7 D-7


G -

C 7


F - 7


A 7

C 6

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Not as popular today perhaps, rhythm changes are perhaps for the more career jazz player, for with a brighter tempo provide a nice challenge and quite a bit of natural excitement in the way the chords move.

Click the button to hear the entire

A / A / B / A rhythm changes form.

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Expanding the written form by inserting a "solo cell." So, what is meant by the term "solo cell?" Well, perhaps in it's simplest incarnate, just a one or two chord vamp. The sky is always the limit eh? In thinking along these lines, what so often happens in performance is that players select a song, play the melody down and then solo on the form, using the melody of the song to create variations in their improvisations. Pretty straight forward. The idea here is to simply break the this cycling of choruses by inserting a section between cycles that allows a player to move away from the cycle of the tune. In practice, once the tune is played down, the soloist enters the "cell" and gets to improvise within the cellular environment, all the while preparing the return of the original theme and form in their ideas. When the soloist is ready, they simply cue the band to start at the top of the form and play it down. Once completed, the solo cell would return as a starting point for the next soloist etc. This type of approach is not for everybody for sure, I like to use solo cells with simple folk melodies such as "Scarboro Fair", "Greensleeves" etc., to open things up a bit and save the form of the tune to climax the ride.

Common intro's. Are there "standard" intros that go along with certain styles? Well, depending on you are hanging with, yes there are? Why depending? Well, lots of great players simply dig to have things written out, it puts everybody on the same page so to speak. Other players are cooler with just say "oh, 3 6 2 5 going in and out is fine." Can a player do both? Yep, that's kinda the idea. Can ya dig it?

Folk players often create a sequence of the One / Four and Five chords to start things off in the major tonality, as these three chords being the principle folk changes. Country players will add almost always add a solo over the intro to help set the mood. Five / Four / One / Five is common too. Tonic to Five in the minor tonality is very common and for the most part very effective. Is playing the last 4 or 8 bars of the tune we are introducing is a sure way to go? Absolutely!

Playin' the blues, folks often take a chorus or two "up front" to get things started, set the mood, shake the groove out whatever, setting up the beginning of the story / vocal line etc. Jazz blues players, especially in brighter tempos, will often go "right on it" and leave the intro out. Bebop blues does this, it's part of the bop performance tradition from the 1940's I think.

The rockers usually play some totally cool and exciting lick, which is sometimes part of the hook of the tune also. Eric Clapton's "Layla" does this to perfection. So simple but so cool, some radio stations promote their sound by just playing the intros of the tunes they usually play, and the rockers hands down, have this intro thing figured out.

Jazz players have a couple of easy way in. The last four or eight bars of the tune to be played out front is common. Using the 3 / 6 / 2 / 5 motion or a variation of it for an intro is common. Using just a pedal tone of some type is a cool way to create some anticipation.

Common endings. Folk payers seem to love the dominant to tonic motion in the major tonality. Blues players like to cut off the band, opening up a bit of space for a cadenza. Jazz players will use this cut off also, often add in a bit of a ritard in the phrase. In medium to brighter tempos, it's not uncommon to hear the last 4 bars or so of the melody repeating 3 times and then ending. Three times and out is very common among experienced players in all of the styles. Rockers tend to end with power chords of some fashion, with a blistering lead line and cool vocal lick over the top of it. Usually the drummer has the last say, often adding a final lick to signal the closure of the performance of the song. What about a coda?


Do songs ever start in one key and end in another? But of course, we do it all here yes? In terms of the way most popular American song is written, by far and away the vast majority of tunes end in the same key that they started in. We often see songs modulating within the body of the tune to other key centers, but then cycling back to the starting point, following the historical development of the forms discussed above. So, why do tunes change keys? Well, mainly for a dramatic effect, which depending how it's done, can be hugely refreshing. Common ways of doing this? Raise the last four bars of a song up a half step. In the A / B form, modulate the B section up a half step. In the A / A / B / A form, move the last a section up. In the 3 times and out, experienced players will shift the 2nd occurrence of the three up a half step before returning to the original tonic key. These last ideas are more of a jazz thing than with the other American styles.

So, what happens with all of these cool forms? Well, tunes get written eh? Is it "form then tunes" or "tunes then form?"

Where to next?
new ideas new ideas
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If music be the food of love, play on! Shakespeare