For those who have never thought of music in this way and would like to “deconstruct” a piece of music simply for the mental exercise it provides, I recommend beginning with the music of Mozart or Beethoven. The sections of their music are, in most cases, so clearly defined that they serve as a good beginning for understanding musical form.
Here’s how to get started with deconstructing Classical era (1730-1820) forms.
First, learn about the musical forms of the Classical era.
It may seem difficult at first, but with repeated listening your ability to identify the sections of each form will increase exponentially.
Here’s four examples from Mozart and Beethoven.
Theme and Variations
A theme and variations begins with a main theme that is stated in its entirety before being transformed through a series of variations.
Mozart, Sonata in A Major, K 331, Andante Grazioso (1783), James Liu, piano, Cleveland Institute of Music
Minuet and TrioTheme – 0:05Variation 1 – 0:50Variation 2 – 1:32Variation 3 – 2:11Variation 4 – 2:54Variation 5 – 3:35Variation 6 – 5:15
A minuet and trio is composed in triple meter, which means the beat can be divided into groups of three. A minuet and trio contains three sections: a minuet waltz, a contrasting section that is called a trio, and a return to the beginning that is called the da capo.
Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 , Third Movement (1787), Gewandhaus Quartet
Minuet - 0:07Rondo
Trio – 0:48
Da Capo – 1:46
A rondo begins with a main theme that is usually light and engaging. After several departures the main theme keeps returning, providing listeners with a sense of satisfaction upon each return.
Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D Major (Arabella Steinbacher, violin)
Rondo Theme – 0:30Sonata Form
First Departure – 1:36
Rondo Theme – 2:44
Second Departure – 3:36
Rondo Theme – 4:51
Third Departure – 6:00
Cadenza – 7:27
Rondo Theme – 8:52
In sonata form composers provide two or more themes and then develop those themes before returning to them at the end. Sonata form is usually organized in at least three sections. In the exposition we hear the main themes that will serve as the unifying element of the entire piece. The exposition is usually repeated so that listeners can hear the themes a second time. In the development the composer tells the “story” of the main themes. Composers are free to do almost anything in the development. In the recapitulation the main themes of the exposition return and listeners are given a sense of resolution after the instability of the development.
Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, First Movement (1788)
Graphic score provided by Music Animation Machine
Theme 1 – 0:08
Bridge to Theme 2 – 0:38
Theme 2 – 0:57
Closing Section – 1:23
Theme 1 – 2:02The descriptions and examples I have provided above will only get you started on what is sure to be a never ending journey. What fun you will have learning to recognize changes in tonality and discovering the unlimited ways that Mozart, Beethoven, and other composers play around with the forms to surprise their audiences and develop their unique artistic vision.
Bridge to Theme 2 – 2:33
Theme 2 – 2:50
Closing Section – 3:17
3:56 – 5:10
Theme 1 – 5:10
Bridge to Theme 2 – 5:39
Theme 2 – 6:20
Closing Section (Coda) – 6:52