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!
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.
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.
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!
Binary and Ternary Forms
Now that we know the parts that make up musical form, let's look at some common larger examples. The most simple forms use just A and B sections. Binary form has two parts, A and B, which we can remember by the prefix 'bi' which means 'two.' We can hear this in the first verse of 'Yankee Doodle'. Sometimes each part is repeated, and the form is AABB.
If you think of the song 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', you can hear that the form is ABA. This three-part form is called ternary form. It's easy to remember since the prefix 'ter' means 'three.' The final A can also be A' (A prime), depending on how sassy the composer is feeling when writing the piece. If the composer shortens or lengthens the final A, the form would be analyzed as ABA' instead. A classical example of ternary form can be heard in Beethoven's 'Minuet in G'.
While these forms and concepts are somewhat simple, they often act as a basis for more complex forms in classical music. Phrases, or small musical ideas, help to build sections. Antecedent and consequent phrasing take these ideas to the next level by offering tension and release. The phrases come together to make sections, and the sections come together to make the song. Like verses and choruses, the sections vary by musical idea and are identified by their uniqueness from one another. Songs with the AB structure are in binary form, and songs with ABA or ABA' are in ternary form.
After this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define form
- Define phrases in the context of music
- Identify antecedent phrases and consequent phrases
- Discuss binary and ternary forms