Form in Classical Era Music

One of the many reasons I enjoy classical music is that it gives me an opportunity to exercise my brain. Better than working on a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, listening to a piece of instrumental music and trying to identify its component parts provides me with an intellectual challenge on par with reading a great novel or trying to learn a foreign language. 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 music composed by Mozart. The sections of his music are, in most cases, so clearly defined that he may be the best composer for beginning an understanding of musical form.

Here’s how to get started with deconstructing instrumental music.

First, be able to identify the four primary musical forms of the Classical era (1730-1820).
  1. Theme and Variations
  2. Minuet and Trio
  3. Rondo
  4. Sonata Form
Next, sit and listen to a piece of music that represents one of those forms (again, I recommend Mozart). Give the music your full attention and don’t do anything else while you are listening. Listen again and again until you can recognize each of the component parts of the form.

It’s not easy, but with repeated listening your ability to identify the sections of each form will increase exponentially.

Here’s an example of each of the four forms and a simplified, basic definition of each form :

Theme and Variations
A theme and variations begins with a main theme that is transformed through a series of variations.

Mozart, Sonata in A Major, K 331, Andante Grazioso (1783)
James Liu, piano

  • 0:05 – Theme
  • 0:50 – Variation 1
  • 1:32 – Variation 2
  • 2:11 – Variation 3
  • 2:54 – Variation 4
  • 3:35 – Variation 5
  • 5:15 – Variation 6
Minuet and Trio
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 Quartett

  • 0:07 – Minuet
  • 0:48 – Trio
  • 1:46 – Da Capo
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
Hilary Hahn, violin

  • 0:00 – Rondo Theme
  • 0:48 – Departure
  • 1:54 – Rondo Theme
  • 2:56 – Departure with cadenza at 4:17
  • 5:53 – Rondo Theme
Sonata Form
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.

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, First Movement (1788)
Graphic animated score from Music Animation Machine

  • 0:08 – Theme 1
  • 0:38 – Modulating Bridge
  • 0:57 – Theme 2
  • 1:23 – Closing Material
  • 2:02 – Theme 1
  • 2:33 – Modulating Bridge
  • 2:50 – Theme 2
  • 3:17 – Closing Material
  • 3:56 – 5:10
  • 5:10 – Theme 1
  • 5:39 – Modulating
  • 6:20 – Theme 2
  • 6:52 – Closing Material (Coda)
The descriptions and examples I have provided above will only get you started on what is sure to be a neverending journey. What fun you will have learning to recognize changes in tonality and discovering the unlimited ways that composers can play around within the forms to surprise you and develop their unique artistic vision.

And there it is, an introduction to four of the musical forms from the Classical era. Learn to identify the components parts of musical form and classical music will never again sound the same. Enjoy!