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Binary Form in Music: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Form
  • 0:24 Binary Form
  • 1:06 Identifying Binary Form
  • 2:39 Rounded Binary Form
  • 3:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erika Svanoe

Erika has taught several college music courses and has a doctorate of musical arts in conducting.

In this lesson you will learn about musical form and what defines binary form. You will also learn to identify binary form by looking for repeat signs, tonal modulations, and changes in the melody.

Form

A musical form is how a piece of music is organized. When a composer writes a piece of music, they will often use a form to help determine when to repeat an established melody or to write a new one. The form can also help organize harmonic structure of a piece of music, often by moving away from the beginning tonal center and then returning back to it at the end of the piece.

Binary Form

Binary form can be used to organize an entire piece of music, one movement of a multi-movement piece, or a small section of a longer piece. It is used often in instrumental music because there are no lyrics to help organize the music. Binary form was very popular during the Baroque period, when instrumental music was becoming more prevalent, but it can be found in later music as well.

Some pieces of music can sometimes be quite long. It is often necessary for them to be organized into sections. In binary form, the music is divided into two sections. A good way to remember this is thinking of the prefix 'bi' as in bicycle, which has two wheels.

Identifying Binary Form

Just like a bicycle has two wheels, binary form has two sections: the beginning A-section and the concluding B-section. You can usually see where these sections begin and end by the use of repeat signs. In binary form, there is often a repeat sign that divides or 'bisects' the piece into these two sections.

Once you've identified the two sections, you need to look at the melody and the harmony of the piece to be certain the piece uses binary form. First, look at the melody of both sections. The melody in the A-section should be different than in the B-section. Second, look at the harmony in three places: the beginning, the middle right before the central repeat sign, and the end. The A-section should start in one tonal center and end in a different one. The B-section begins in this different tonal center and returns back at the end to the starting one. This shifting of tonal centers is called modulation.

In pieces that use binary form, there are some modulations that occur more frequently. For a piece that begins in a major key, the modulation that occurs before the central repeat sign usually moves to the dominant key. This shifts the tonal center to the fifth scale degree of the original key. For a piece that begins in a minor key, the modulation can once again move to the dominant, or to the relative major, which occurs on the third scale degree of the original key. A good way to start looking for modulation is to notice if any accidentals start to occur in the music.

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