Musical Form: Phrasing, Binary, and Ternary Forms

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  • 0:35 Form: Definition
  • 0:51 Phrases: Definition
  • 1:36 Antecedent and…
  • 3:24 Binary and Ternary Forms
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Why do composers use form? How do composers use phrases to create tension and release in their music? What is binary form, and how does it compare to ternary form? Find out in this lesson!

Musical Form

Music often brings joy to those who listen to it. Music theory and form analysis, on the other hand, often leads people to scream and tear their hair out. But don't curl into a ball and cry just yet because there are many tricks that make analyzing the form of a piece of music easier. One of these tricks is using prefixes and suffixes to help you understand what all the music wizards are trying to say with their big, fancy words. Let's review what form is and how it's made, then examine some of these words.

Form: Definition

As you already know, music is often organized into sections. The overall organization of these sections is called form. The form of a song shows its structure and can often help the listener relate to and understand what the composer intended to say.

Phrases: Definition

One way a composer may approach songwriting is through form. Once a form is chosen, the composer writes musical ideas that eventually become the sections of the song. These musical ideas are called phrases, and they act as small musical sentences that help make up the sections of a song. Much like a paragraph, the sentences contribute meaning to the larger idea of the musical section.

Visually, we can identify phrases by counting measures and looking for long notes or rests. Generally speaking, phrases are typically four to eight measures long and either end on a long note, like a half note, or on a rest. This acts like the period of a sentence, giving a slight pause between each phrase.

Antecedent and Consequent Phrases

Just as you don't start pedaling your bike, then raise the kickstand, the composer doesn't usually throw together musical phrases in random order and hope that it works out. Instead, they can plan to have a question and answer type of phrasing structure, where the phrases work in pairs to construct a section of music.

The first phrase, or 'question,' is called the antecedent phrase. This makes sense because the prefix 'ante' means 'before' or 'preceding.' The antecedent phrase usually ends on a note that makes it feel unfinished or makes the listener want more. We can hear an example of this in 'Yankee Doodle'. It feels like the song is not quite done because there is no resolution. The phrase is four measures and ends on a longer note, giving pause before the next phrase begins.

The resolution happens in the second phrase, or the 'answer', which is called the consequent phrase. This makes sense because the suffix 'sequence' means a 'series' or one thing following another, as you may know from experiencing the consequences of a bad decision, like leaving the house without a coat when it's only 30 degrees outside. In 'Yankee Doodle', the consequent phrase sounds like this. Again, the phrase is four measures and ends on a longer note, giving pause before the next section starts.

Let's listen to one more example from Rossini's William Tell Overture. See if you can figure out where the antecedent phrase ends and the consequent phrase begins by identifying the correct horse. If you said horse #4, you're correct!

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