Musical form; what is it and why do we need it?

Well, it isn’t compulsory, that’s a fact and when we journey out from the realm of European ‘classical’ (and other) styles we encounter more and more regions where musicians barely give the idea a second thought.

The book deals in some depth with form and the way in which other elements, particularly rhythm, are affected by a chosen scheme but what is it and why do we need it?

There is a general tendency to adopt a premeditated, or ‘strategic’, approach to problems. ‘OK’ we think. ‘We have a problem, so we’re going to do this and that and everything will be fine’. The style is also associated with immaturity.

The alternative tactical approach is one where people plunge into situations and react to events as they unfold. This technique, I’ve noticed, is often the one adopted by those who succeed.

There are advantages and disadvantages with both methods.

The intensely premeditated, ‘Western’ approach presumes that we can always anticipate every possible eventuality which we can’t, of course. Something always comes along to wreck our plans and we end up ‘thinking on our feet’ anyway.

On the other hand, the plunge-in-and-worry-about-it-afterwards approach can expose us to unnecessary risks and others may be called in to bail us out.

The point I am making (I hope) is that musical styles will echo cultural attitudes, perhaps more than we realize.

Indian music is largely extemporized, although the melodic forms used are handed down to the musician to a large extent.

In contrast, Beethoven, who I described in my previous post on here as being a supreme musical architect, constantly revised and reshaped his music until he achieved what he was looking for. This comment is not meant to imply that he was without ‘inspiration’, whatever that means. It’s difficult to listen to the ninth without feeling that he was driven by an unusually strong sense of ‘motivation’ (for lack of a better word).

It would be easy to say ‘Oh well, the architectural approach is one that stems from a more civilized society’ but this idea fails when we consider that many cultures, that were civilized when we in the West were painting our faces and throwing rocks at each other, never developed the desire to adopt a premeditated approach. Music, to them, functions as a foil to the rest of their lives where there are always plenty of problems to solve, issues that they’d just like to get away from, once in a while.

Obviously, there are Indian composers who follow Western ideas just as there are European musicians who have experimented with eastern styles, which does complicate the argument a little, but I’m attempting a broad generalization here, which we have to do when attempting to rationalize ideas in any field involving millions of individuals.

I struggled for long periods of time during the seven years it took to write the book (and its revisions) but, when I described form in music, the ideas flowed smoothly and I still like the definition I chose:

When artists have been concentrating on an area of fine detail in a picture they can take a few steps back to obtain an overall view of the work. The more they move away the more they perceive it to be a single, unified whole.

Composers face a different set of problems. A composition may occupy a considerable period of time and composers need to develop specialized skills to achieve the same end. The controlled arrangement of the components of music to produce a balanced and unified whole as they extend through time is what we refer to as form.

I’ve read accounts that refer to the idea of pattern in music as being ‘borrowed’ from the graphic arts (I was also classically trained as an artist) but I think this reference is inaccurate. Music, too, has shapes and patterns but, because music is a temporal medium, these features are extended through time and can’t be assessed instantaneously. That’s the difference.

Without form, listeners will experience a sense of confusion as they struggle to assimilate a constant stream of changing stimuli and their attention will wander. But the matter is further complicated by the differing degrees of musical awareness, knowledge and experience possessed by various listeners. Composition is not a one-way process.

Form may also cause us to feel right about ourselves, enabling us to derive comfort in a confusing and potentially hostile world. Repetition, and the re-working of previous passages, provide a reassuring effect, rather like being reunited with old friends.

In studying form we eventually encounter redundant definitions . ‘Fugue form’ is one example. Once a decision is taken regarding the number of voices and their scheme of entry, certain constraints are automatically imposed upon us so that further subdivisions of classification are, strictly speaking, unnecessary, although we may adopt them out of expediency.

The book also attempts to disassociate form, in the abstract, from traditional habits regarding, for example, the distribution of climaxes and key relationships, although it does include a description of symphonic layouts etc. for the sake of completeness.

The function of music within a society will also have an influence on the chosen path. Music that has religious significance will naturally differ from that which is intended to entertain and, especially, impress, by becoming a vehicle for the composer to advertise his prowess.

Of course, the above mentioned differences cannot avoid the simple reality that what works for some won’t work for others. There’s no getting away from all that but, if I succeeded in steering young writers away from unhelpful and constricting stereotypes in writing my book, my efforts will not have been a waste of time.


3 thoughts on “Musical form; what is it and why do we need it?

  1. Thanks for an interesting read.

    It might be worth noting that, until fairly recently, large-scale form emerged after the fact; i.e. typical ‘forms’ are by-products which arose as a result of treating material in certain ways. Academics who have since constructed standard models (Sonata form in particular) to explain the way material is organised often find themselves forcing the ‘ideal’ schema onto pieces to find that it almost never quite fits.

    ‘The book also attempts to disassociate form, in the abstract, from traditional habits regarding, for example, the distribution of climaxes and key relationships’ – With regard to classical music operating in this way, what do you feel would serve as better signposts in deriving formal schema?


  2. Thanks for your interest. Schemes that stray from traditional methods would no longer be ‘classical’ according to some, of course.

    What I advocate is the generalization of formal techniques where any scheme that is consistent and ‘logical’ may be adopted in its own right. There are two main methods whereby this may be accomplished: a composer can choose a pattern of thematic groups which might be labelled A,B,C….and pre-set the duration of each or choose a pre-set duration group which is then superimposed upon the thematic group, resulting in situations where the duration of each one (A,B,C…) will vary as the two schemes interfere with one another. Variation may be introduced along the way (ABC, BCA, CAB; AABCAA etc. etc. etc.). The modulations and position of the climaxes may also be ‘designed’ using similar techniques. The selection of keys may have a systematic origin. Characteristic notes present, perhaps, in a memorable motif or fragment might be used to name the tonics.

    A composition could begin with the full orchestra, possibly at high volume, with dense orchestration and gradually diminish in ‘size’ until, maybe, it dissolves away in a series of increasingly fragmented utterances (what I refer to in the book as an ‘exhaustion phase’). Of course ‘thematic unit’ is a way of referring to sections of a composition that are distinct, in one (or more) ways – harmonically, melodically, rhythmically – where the term ‘theme’ does not necessarily have melodic connotations.
    This is a big subject, John, so I hope this encapsulated comment will answer your question.


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