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Ternary Form in Music: Definition & Examples

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  • 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
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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 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.

Example

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:

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