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What is Musical Form?

Musical form is the structure of a piece of music, or how the music is put together using smaller parts. We can take both short and long pieces of music and break them up into smaller sections. Doing this helps us to understand the music and search for patterns within it. In music class we learn how to understand form by listening to pieces of music, writing the form on the board, showing the form with our bodies, etc.

How Do We Describe Musical Forms?

The different sections within a piece of music can be represented in many ways. The traditional way to write form is through letters.

The first main part of the music is given the letter A. We always start with the letter A since it is the first letter of the alphabet.
The next part of the music is called B.
The part after that is called C.

We continue using letters of the alphabet (D, E, F) if there are more sections. If any of the sections repeat, we reuse the letter. (If it sounds like the music from the A section is being repeated, we call it A again).

Here is an example of a common form (ternary form) using just letters.

ABA form using letters

When talking about form in music class, we can also match shapes to the letters to make it easier to understand.

ABA form using shapes

Now let's add some colors to those shapes - adding colors makes it very easy to see the form of the music. Adding shapes and colors also helps us to recognize patterns in the music.

ABA form using shapes and colors

What's Up With The Deli?

Just like we can use shapes and colors to describe musical form, we can use pictures or items to represent the different parts of the music. One way to think of form is to imagine that you are building a sandwich. The first thing you lay down when you make a sandwich is a slice of bread. This is the A section.

A section is the bread

What do you add to your sandwich next? Some sort of filling, right? For our sandwich, we'll add a slice of bologna - that's the B section.

B section is the bologna

To show the ternary form we mentioned above, our sandwich would look like this:

ABA form using parts of a sandwich

Meet the Deli Dudes!

Meet Simon Sandwich. He always represents the A section in a piece of music. Why does he get to go first? Well, what's the first thing you lay down to make your sandwich? A slice of bread - that's right!

Simon Sandwich

Meet the sandwich fillings. Betsy Bologna is used quite often as the B section on The Marvelous Musical Deli, but any of the fillings below could be used for the B, C, D, etc. sections. These guys can also be used for the Interlude (a short portion of music that connects two main sections).

Betsy BolognaCharlie CheeseLarry Lettuce
Tammie TomatoThe Pickle TwinsPatrick Peanut ButterJulia Jelly

Just a few more friends to meet! Some pieces of music have an Introduction at the beginning. The intro (short for introduction) gives your ears a little preview of the music you are about to hear. Since the intro comes before the A section, we use a plate underneath the bread to represent the intro. This is similar to the times that you've stayed to eat at a restaurant (dine-in). When there is no introduction at the start of a piece of music, there would be no plate (you got your meal to-go).

Patty Plate

Some pieces of music have a Coda or "fancy" ending. We represent this with a toothpick. Just like a real toothpick keeps the pieces of the sandwich together, the coda keeps everything together at the end of a piece of music.

Tony Toothpick


Understand musical form a little better now?
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