Ternary Form in Music: Definition & Examples

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The Mbira Instrument: History & Music

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 What Is Form?
  • 0:14 Tenary Form
  • 1:03 Identifying Tenary Form
  • 1:39 Example
  • 2:35 Simple vs. Compound
  • 3:26 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

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 ternary form. You will also learn to identify ternary form by looking for large sections, changes in the music, and returning to music heard at the beginning of the piece.

What Is Form?

The form of a piece of music tells us how it is organized. Composers often organize pieces of music to help balance the amount of new musical material with material we've previously heard. Using a form when composing a piece of music can help determine when to write new music or bring back music that has already been heard.

Ternary Form

Ternary form can be used to organize a small section of a longer piece, one movement of a multi-movement piece, or an entire piece of music. It organizes the music into three sections:

  • First, there is the A-section that begins the piece.
  • Next, there is the middle B-section that is significantly different.
  • The final section of ternary form is the return of the A-section, where we hear the same or very similar music to the beginning of the piece.

Together, these three sections are labeled ABA. Think of them as being similar to a sandwich. A sandwich has two pieces of similar bread on the outside (just like the A-section) while also containing something different like turkey or bologna (the B-section) on the inside.

Ternary form (ABA) is similar to a sandwich
Ternary form (ABA) is similar to a sandwich.

Identifying Ternary Form

There are three steps in identifying ternary form. You can compare this to looking for the 'bread-meat-bread' of our sandwich:

  • First, observe the music and see if the music can be broken into three sections.
  • Second, the music in the B-section (the meat) should be somehow different from the A-section (the bread).
  • Third, look to see if music that was stated at the beginning of the piece returns at the end (like there is bread on both sides of the sandwich). This returning music might be exactly the same or slightly different, but it should be recognizable from beginning.


Let's look at the following example:

At first you might think that this music is in two sections because it is divided in half with a repeat sign. However, if you look closely at the bottom of the music you will see an instruction that says d.c. al fine. This is the composer telling the performer to 'Go back to the beginning and play until the fine (or finish).' This adds a third section to the piece. A d.c. al fine is often used in ternary form.

An example of ternary form.
Ternary form

Now, let's look more closely at the B-section:

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account