Musical form is simply how the musical composition is structured. As you can visually identify the structure of a building – for example the walls, the roof, the windows and so on – so you can also identify the different component themes that make up a piece of music. Think about any song you know, you will probably be able to quickly identify at least 2 themes, the verse and the chorus. In the music for the song the musical theme for the verse will differ from the chorus and the pattern is often repeated a number of times throughout the song.
In musical theory the different parts or themes are given a letter to identify them. To take the simple example of a song comprising a verse and chorus again, the verse could be identified as A, and the chorus B. When playing the music to this song the musical form, the structure, could be A, A, B, A, B, A, B, B – which means you would play the music to the verse, and then repeat this, followed by the music for the chorus, another verse, chorus, verse, chorus and finally a repeat of the chorus.
There are subtle variations that can be used such as if the music for subsequent verses are played with slight variations from the first time it’s played within the song, then these would be identified by the same letter plus an apostrophe symbol which represents the word “prime” – for example A’ means A prime. Should the final verse be slightly different from both the beginning and middle verses, then this part would be called A double prime and notated as A”. All theme variations in the music can be notated in this way so you could have an overall simple musical form of A, A, B, A’, B, A”, B, B’.
In classical music, especially if orchestrated, it is often more difficult to hear where a section ends and a new section occurs. If the sections appears unbroken then it could be a simple A all the way through. If there is a section where the rhythm changes, then you could be listening to an A/B section, whereas if the key, rhythm and tune seems completely different to the A section then it will most definitely be a B section. Should the composition then return to the first theme again, then you return to all and the musical form of the piece of music will be ABA. In some music, such as jazz, the B section can also be a bridge between chord progressions so although often sections are of similar lengths, the new section doesn’t always mean a long segment of music equal to that in another section.
As a pianist you should learn about musical form so that you can train your eyes and ears to pick out the musical references within a piece of music. Many themes are only 8 bars long, and this is repeated either as it is, or with a prime or double prime throughout most of the music. If your piece of classical music is 20 pages long, it seems like a lot of work to learn. But look closely at the manuscript, or listen closely to the music as it’s played. How many themes are there? 1, 2 maybe 3 – that’s only 3 lots of 8 bars you have to learn – doesn’t that seem more manageable than 20 pages? Of course some of the themes may be prime or double prime versions, but the basic theme will remain the same throughout all 20 pages. Identify and master that theme and you’ll soon be on your way to a great performance!
(Note: This is a guest article by Katie-Anne from Elance)