Musical Forms, Part I

Musical Forms.pngHave you ever considered what the term allemande actually means? Or ballade? Nocturne? Gavotte? These are, in essence, templates for a piece – musical forms. The waltz is the most well-known form; everyone knows waltzes always have three beats to the measure. All these other pieces—allemandes, nocturnes, gavottes—are forms too, but we aren’t so familiar with them. Today, I’m going to explain what these forms are, their histories, some famous pieces based on these “templates”, and other tidbits. 🙂 If some of my terminology concerning time signatures and rhythm is a little unclear, consider reading my previous post on rhythm and meter.

Here’s the plan: I’ll begin with the biggest, most generic forms – basically, they are “container” structures which are comprised of smaller forms. A suite or a concerto would fall in this category because each encompasses several smaller movements. Next, I’m going to focus specifically on the suite’s components. This is just Part I, so in the next post, I’ll move on to smaller (yet independent) forms.

Generic forms


The suite—also known as the Suite de danses or partita—is a term derived from the French for “to follow” and typically consists of four ordered dances for orchestra or solo instrument. It seems like a pretty strict form, but composers actually had a lot of flexibility with it; the first movement could be replaced with a prelude and an extra movement(s) could be added. (J.S. Bach’s longest suite had a total of eleven movements.)

Originally—in the 14th century, to be exact—the suite was merely a coupling of dances, but in the Baroque period (17th-18th century) it grew to contain four basic movements. (Since orchestral suites are broader than those for a solo instrument, I’ll be discussing only solo suites for now.)

French composers were a little more disordered in their suites, grouping as many as seventeen or eighteen dances together without much rhyme or reason, while German composers developed a form for the suite in four movements: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. However, it was common to insert an additional movement such as a minuet or gavotte after the sarabande. (Don’t worry – we’ll discuss the meanings of all these dances soon. For now, just think of the allemande—courante—sarabande—gigue order in terms of tempo: moderate—lively—slow—lively.)

The suite fell out of popularity in the mid-1700s when the symphony and concerto were on the rise, but it did return in the 19th century when composers such as Tchaikovsky arranged music from their ballets or operas into “suites”. The suite was also expanded to refer to any collection of pieces bound by some underlying theme – a famous example would be Holst’s suite The Planets, which is comprised of seven movements (for seven planets) instead of dance forms.

Later in the early 20th century, the traditional suite was revived with Debussy and Ravel writing suites for piano. Though they were composed without much regard to the old forms, some of the movements were named after Baroque dances. Debussy’s suite, titled Suite Bergamasque, was inspired by the poetry of Verlaine and consists of four movements: Prelude, Menuet, Clair de Lune, and Passepied. Yes, the famous Clair de Lune is not a freestanding work! It actually belongs in a suite. Oh, and believe it or not, before it was revised, it used to be titled Promenade sentimentale.

Let’s go back to the pinnacle of suite composition, which was, of course, J. S. Bach. He almost single-handedly molded and perfected the suite form, writing suites for cello, harpsichord, violin, and lute. To get an idea of the suite form, here’s his famous suite in E minor for lute. (Because the lute-harpsichord, for which the piece was written, is such a rare instrument nowadays, the suite is usually performed on guitar.)

The order of movements is:


Next, we’ll go into a little bit about symphonic suites, but that discussion actually belongs to the overture form, which has a very interesting history.


The overture. What a sad, confused little form it is. Sometimes it is an introduction, sometimes a suite, sometimes a symphony. In its original standardized form, the overture was supposed to act as a large prelude; it was to be an introduction to an opera, setting the mood for the evening. However, things got a little more confusing as time went on and the overture went through several midlife crises to determine its purpose in life. I’m not entirely sure it’s got it all figured out even now.

Things got a little mixed up to begin with, before the overture was even standardized as a three-movement form. In the Baroque period, composers would replace the allemande movement in their symphonic suites with a different introductory movement called a French overture. That was all fine and well, but then that work, which should have been called an orchestral suite, would be termed an ouverture, presumably a shortened version of the title overture-suite. (Don’t get too confused yet, though – the French overture is separate from the overture we’re talking about, which is a bigger form. Think of the French overture as simply a replacement for the allemande movement.) So, before the overture was standardized, the title ouverture was used in the Baroque period to indicate an orchestral suite with a French overture beginning it.

Now we get to the real overture, which cropped up in the Classical period and was usually termed a sinfonia. It consisted of three short movements to herald in an opera or oratorio – essentially, it was an introduction (similar to the French overture, but much larger). Like most three-movement works, the sinfonia developed from a quick movement to a slower, more tranquil one, and concluded with another lively movement.

It was in the mid-1700s that things began to get confusing. The overture (or sinfonia, as we’ll call it for now) grew to be more than just an introduction; it could also be used as a freestanding work. Thus, the symphony (which was, of course, derived from “sinfonia”) was born. Then came an extremely awkward transition in which the sinfonia could be plucked from operas and used as a freestanding work and the symphony (which was not the giant form it is today) was typically an independent work but could be subbed into operas as an overture. So there you have it – the overture’s first midlife crisis. It was neither an outright introduction nor an outright freestanding work. This was also a difficult time for the symphony, which was in exactly the same predicament. For a little while, overtures/sinfonias and symphonies were virtually synonymous.

Eventually, everything straightened out. The symphony kept growing until it was differentiated from the sinfonia, and the sinfonia returned to its operas, becoming known as the Italian overture to avoid any more confusion.

But we’re not done yet! In the early 19th century, the “concert overture” made its debut. Composers such as Mendelssohn and Berlioz wrote concert overtures which were meant to be freestanding works without stage performance, though still based on literary themes. The overture as a form was getting pretty bemused at that point. Later on in the 1800s, the symphonic poem became popular, leaving the concert overture to be dropped by the more contemporary composers. Nowadays, however, any overtures written are concert overtures, so I assume the overture has finally found its place in the world.

Anyway, there you have it – the history of the overture. It went from being a mere prelude to getting mixed up as a symphony, then back to prelude, then a small symphony with literary themes. Let’s hope it stops there!

Here is the very first concert overture to be written – Mendelssohn’s overture from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Sonata, Concerto, String Quartet, and Symphony

In essence, the four forms above are exactly the same thing – but with different combinations of instruments. Let’s get started with the sonata.


The sonata is for one or two instruments but almost always includes piano as either soloist or accompanist. I can’t think of many sonatas which do not have piano in them. Sonatas (as well as concertos, string quartets, and symphonies) typically have three movements, but can have one, two, or four. A traditional sonata have movements separated with a pause, but some are continuous, such as Liszt’s famous Sonata in B.

Now it’s time for some movement forms!

Sonata-allegro form

I explained sonata-allegro form in a previous post, but I’ll go over it briefly again. Please note that sonata-allegro form (also called simply sonata form) is the form of a movement in a sonata, not the entire sonata.

Usually, you would find sonata-allegro form in the first movement, but it can appear in the second or third. It consists of an exposition (where main themes are introduced), development (where those themes are altered, fragmented, or placed in different keys), and recapitulation (where the themes return). Sometimes you will find an introduction before the actual exposition and often you will find a coda, which concludes the sonata.

Theme and variations

The theme and variations form is one of the least dramatic forms and can be used in any movement. (But typically the second or third.) Interestingly, theme and variations were originally meant to be independent works and were later incorporated into sonatas, symphonies, and the like. (Here is the most famous theme and variations work ever written, in case you’re interested.)

The form is quite a simple and self-explanatory one; you begin with a theme, usually a texturally modest one. Then the variations proceed. Each variation alters the theme; usually as you proceed through the piece, the tempo increases and the texture becomes denser. The melody might be ornamented; it might appear in the left hand; the theme might appear in minor; there might be a sudden drop in tempo. Depending on the length of the theme, the number of variations can range from three to thirty-three and beyond.

Minuet and trio

If there are four movements in a sonata, the third will often be a minuet and trio. The minuet section is usually in 3/4 time and at a moderate tempo. The movement’s form can be outlined A-B-A; the minuet comes first (A), the trio follows (B), and the minuet is repeated (A). This A-B-A form is called ternary form. Now, inside A we have section 1 and section 2 (both repeated) and inside B we have a new section 1 and 2 (also repeated). So the form in sections goes: (minuet:) A1-A1-A2-A2 (trio:) B1-B1-B2-B2 (minuet:) A1-A1-A2-A2.


The scherzo is just like the minuet and trio movement; its structure is A-B-A, it’s in triple meter, and it typically appears as the third movement of four. However, the moods are completely different, the scherzo being wittier, more energetic, and more rhythmic than the minuet and trio. (Scherzo is Italian for “joke”.)


The rondo is a common concluding movement which consists of a light theme alternating between contrasting sections. There are several common rondo patterns, e.g. A-B-A-C-A or A-B-A-C-A-B-A, but theoretically, the alternation of A with other sections (B, C, D, and so on) can continue indefinitely.


The sonata-rondo form is not as common as other forms – it’s a mix between sonata-allegro and rondo form, usually bringing about the structure A-B-A-development-A-B-A.


The concerto has, in some ways, the best of both worlds. It combines the power of the orchestra with the delicacy of a solo instrument. It has the massive sound of the many and the dazzling virtuosity of the one.

The concerto has three movements in the same basic progression as a three-movement sonata: fast, slow, fast. Like a sonata, too, the last movement is usually a rondo or sonata-rondo. There are a few differences between the concerto and sonata, however:

– The first movement of a concerto is usually in sonata form, but instead of exposition, development, and recapitulation, the form is exposition A, exposition B, development, recapitulation, cadenza (see below), and coda. Exposition A is the orchestra’s exposition and exposition B is the soloist’s, which combines new themes with those from exposition A. The diagram below shows the basic outline of the first movement with piano as the solo instrument.


– At the end of the first movement, and sometimes the last, too, there is a fermata in the score, when the whole orchestra and the soloist pause. What follows is a relatively lengthy section called a cadenza in which the soloist plays unaccompanied. The cadenza is filled with rapid scales, broken chords, and other displays of virtuosity, and is peculiar to concertos.

– Concertos do not have minuet and trios or scherzos.

Forms related to the concerto are the concertino (small concerto), double concerto or triple concerto (with two or three soloists), concerto grosso (a concerto with a small group of soloists), and concerto for orchestra (with varying sections in the orchestra acting as soloists).

Here is the famous violin concerto in D by Tchaikovsky.

String Quartet

String quartets, and chamber music in general, were written for intimate settings; in the classical period, string quartets were often played by chamber musicians to entertain guests in fashionable households. It makes sense, then, that the string quartet is a light work. (Um… Let’s conveniently ignore this quartet, shall we?) It doesn’t have the same dramatic pull as the symphony or concerto. It is more like a lively and intelligent conversation among four people than some breathtaking experience.

There are four movements to a string quartet (though there can be three to five): fast, slow, minuet or scherzo, and fast. Sometimes the second and third movements are exchanged.

Here is the lovely string quartet no. 2 by Borodin. There is a movement-by-movement analysis in the video description.


You’re already pretty well acquainted with the symphony’s history – it was derived from the overture/sinfonia and gradually grew into its own form. And a large one at that. A small symphony would last at least 20 minutes, an average symphony 30-45, and a large one over an hour.

Like string quartets, symphonies tend to have four movements. The first is vigorous and dramatic, the second slow and lyrical, the third rather witty and dance-like, and the fourth heroic and virtuosic. As with sonatas, the first movement is almost always in sonata form. The second is in sonata form, A-B-A form (since it’s slow, it’s more likely to be a minuet and trio, not a scherzo), or theme and variations form. The third movement also tends to be in A-B-A format, but Haydn and Mozart preferred dance-like minuet and trios while Beethoven used the more energetic scherzo form. For the fourth movement, sonata or sonata-rondo form is the norm. The fast-paced energy combined with the security of the repeating A section brings about a satisfying end.

Naturally, I must now play Beethoven’s 5th for you. Now that you know a little more about movement forms, you can try to guess them. It may be a little tricky, however, because Beethoven is not exactly the epitome of traditional. After you’ve given it a guess, you can read about each movement’s form here.

Dance Forms

This next section is focused on suite movement forms, all of which were derived from Baroque dances. Let’s begin with the four typical dances in the suite – the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.


Interestingly, the four basic dances of the suite are from different countries. The stately allemande (literally French for “German”) is the German dance.

The allemande has been around since the 16th century as a dance in duple meter. Later in the 17th century, composers began to change the form, using quadruple meter and experimenting with different tempi. A very slow allemande became known as a pavane. In the 18th century, a new kind of allemande was born – a dance in triple meter. Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber, all wrote dances in this new allemande style.

Today, however, we are more familiar with the traditional allemandes of the Baroque era, which are in 4/4 time and at a moderate tempo. The form, like the typical forms of the three other dances in the suite, is binary. All this means is that it consists of two sections—section A and section B—which are often repeated. The form can be written, then: A-A-B-B.

Here is an allemande by Bach which I guarantee you’ll be familiar with. It comes from his French Suite in G Major. As is traditional, a courante follows the allemande.


The courante (also corrente, coranto, or corant) is French for “running”, but the sad thing is, when it is French, it is not running, and when it is running, it is not French! 🙂 There are actually two types of courantes: French and Italian. The French courante is in 3/2 or 6/4, sometimes alternating between the two, and is slow and majestic. There is a prevalence of dotted rhythms and contrapuntal texture throughout. (“Contrapuntal” means that the lines move independently. They may also imitate each other.) On the other hand, the Italian courante is quite different; it is in 3/4 or sometimes 3/8, but it is usually marked allegro and features many running passages. So you see, you can’t have a courante that is both French and running!

Here is Bach’s courante from his French Suite No. 5 in the Italian style.


Next is the Spanish dance of the suite, the sarabande. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this lively dance was considered indecent and even banned in Spain. Once it spread to Italy and France in the 1600s, however, it evolved into a slower, more genteel court dance. Bach seemed to be fond of the sarabande, for besides putting it in his suites, he also used it for the theme and 25th variation of his Goldberg Variations.

The sarabande is in triple meter, but unlike most pieces in triple meter, the accent is not just on the first beat of the bar; the second beat is also accented, making it 1-2-3 instead of 1-2-3. (Sometimes the first beat will even be cut short to accentuate the second beat.) Though the sarabande’s glory days were in the Baroque period, Beethoven was influenced by this sarabande and used this interesting 1-2-3 rhythm in one of his late sonatas. Later, with the revival of the suite in the 20th century thanks to Debussy and Ravel, the sarabande returned.

Here is a famous Handel sarabande for you:


Finally, we have the gigue, which is the English dance of the suite. As you can imagine, it’s a lively thing – a folk dance rather than a court dance. It is in triple time (often compound triple) and binary form with dotted rhythms and, like the sarabande, places an additional accent on an interesting beat – here, the third. Bach typically added fugal elements to his gigues, beginning section A with a fugue and then inverting the theme in section B.

Here is a charming gigue from Bach’s French Suite No. 4. Note the dotted rhythms, the independence of lines, and their imitation at the beginning (that’s the fugue).

Now we can continue on to some optional suite movements. (I’m focusing specifically on suite movements for solo instrument, not orchestra.) It’s easier to distinguish the five optional movements below by remembering that the minuet and passepied are similar (in triple meter and frequently played alternativement) and the gavotte, bourree, and rigaudon are similar (duple meter and binary form).


The minuet is French and often called the menuet, which is the true French term. There is a tempo indication—tempo di menuetto—which means literally “minuet time”, but this term is actually quite ambiguous since the minuet’s typical tempo was not definite. However, the minuet tends to be a stately dance. As a dance accompaniment, the minuet was in triple time and binary form. When it expanded to become a suite movement, it evolved into more of a ternary form. Ternary is very similar to binary form (which goes A-A-B-B) but ternary repeats the A section after the B section, making it: A-A-B-B-A-A. (Overall, the structure is A-B-A, but each section is repeated once.)

Instead of setting just one minuet as an extra movement, composers would frequently pair two of them to be played alternativement – Minuet I played first, then Minuet II, and then Minuet I again. These alternating minuets are considered to be only one movement in the suite.


The gavotte is also a French dance, but it is in duple time and binary form, similar to the rigaudon and bourree. It was originally a folk dance in triple meter, but soon (like many other dances) found its way into the French court in the Baroque period. The tempo is usually lively but can also be solemn and slow.

Bach was one composer of many who liked to use the gavotte as an optional movement. Here is a gavotte from his Cello Suite No. 5:


The passepied is similar to the minuet, but faster. Almost all these dances evolved from their original meters and tempi – so, too, did the passepied. It began as a quick dance in duple meter, but was later placed in triple meter. It continued to be the quickest of the triple meter dances, however. Its phrases usually begin with an upbeat. Passepieds were often used in pairs to be played alternativement.

Here is a movement from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 with two passepieds alternativement.


The bourree is basically a gavotte; it is lively and in duple meter. However, it is much rarer than the gavotte (which was a favorite of Bach’s).

Here is the bourree movement from the same suite I put earlier in this post – Bach’s Suite for Lute in E Minor.


Again, we have a French dance. Again, it is in duple meter! It essentially acts as a bourree, but tends to feature wider jumps, greater range, and more scale passages.

So far I’ve given you very Baroque examples. Let’s shift to the other side of the spectrum and listen to an exotic rigaudon by Ravel from his suite Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Well, that’s about it! There are a few other stray movements (such as the forlane, polonaise, and siciliana) but they are quite rare. These nine dances—the allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, minuet, gavotte, passepied, bourree, and rigaudon—are almost the sole components of the suite.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Stay tuned for musical forms part II, where we’ll get into some really fun stuff – nocturnes, preludes, toccatas, and more!

~ Maggie


2 thoughts on “Musical Forms, Part I

  1. Ladies…THAT was a long read…LOL!
    After all that, I am merely wondering “What’s an OPUS, like in the movie Mr. Holland’S Opus”, which you’ve probably explained before, but I’ve forgotten.
    Great job for all we novices to music.
    Love you.


    • Haha, I agree! I’ll try to keep part II a little more concise. 😉
      Good question – it’s easy to get confused about opus numbers. Really, they’re just a way to organize a composer’s pieces. A composer might give an opus number when he publishes a set of pieces together (for example, Beethoven published 3 string quartets and compiled them into an opus—opus 59) or if someone else publishes them after the composer died. It helps in identifying pieces quickly as well as organizing them. 🙂 Hopefully this explanation helps you… If not, you can read more in Cammi’s post –
      ~ Maggie


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