Form is the framework in which the music is cast. It is the path along which the composition is expected to progress. By studying the form, we can consider how the composer has followed the framework or perhaps deviated from it. A composer can send a strong message through his use of form. A good example of this is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. A symphony usually has a brilliant upbeat finale, but here it is the second-last movement that is brilliant and bright; the last movement is introvert and melancholic, as if Tchaikovsky were depicting what happens behind closed curtains after the triumphant finale.
Form in the Renaissance era
Renaissance composers were often inspired by nature. There was a clear division into sacred music (e.g. mass, motet) and secular music (e.g. chanson, madrigal). Music followed the aesthetics of balance, which favoured pure and consonant harmonies. There are no large leaps; melodic movements are steady, and every motion is balanced with motion in the opposite direction.
Form in the Baroque era
The Baroque era was the origin of many types of musical work, or genres, that remain with us today: opera, prelude, fugue, partita, overture, cantata, oratorio, passion, concerto, sonata and aria. Ballet developed when courtly dances turned into a performance art instead of social participation. Although many of the genre names we know today emerged in the Baroque era, their meanings were not yet standardised. For instance, the oratorio Messiah by Handel (1685–1759) begins with a movement titled ‘Sinfonia’, although today we would call it an overture.
For in the Classical era
In the Classical era, form was of paramount importance in music. This was a scientific era, and the theory of music also developed. Genres such as the symphony and the concerto, and more generally the structural principle known as the sonata form, acquired their modern shape. In the shaping of melodies, principal and secondary subjects had their own ideal forms. Perfection of form was associated with beauty in this age of reason, and this approach manifested itself in all culture.
Form in the Romantic era
Orchestral works became larger and more complex. Symphonic works could be many times longer and written for an orchestra far larger than in the Classical era. Through-composed works began to appear alongside standardised forms, and new genres included the tone poem, Lied and miniature forms such as bagatelle, elegy, nocturne and impromptu.
Form in Impressionism
There are no principal or secondary subjects in this music, and no musical development as in the Classical and Romantic eras. Symmetrical structures and voice-leading rules were also abandoned. The music often consists of tiny fragments and motifs that are much repeated.
Form in Expressionism
“Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. You can stretch out every glance into a poem, every sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath – such concentration can only be present in proportion to the absence of self-pity.” –Arnold Schönberg, after hearing the Six Bagatelles op. 9 (1913) of Anton Webern, whose total duration is only 3’30”.
Form in the modern era
A composer determines the form of the music freely, selecting existing templates or consciously avoiding them. Very free elements often require a well-defined form in order to work well. Technology has expanded the concept of form to include the spatial dimension. Some of the form of a composition may be determined by which direction a sound is heard from and what the spatial impression created by the work is.
Elements of music
Rhythm is a part of our daily lives. We often talk about a sense of rhythm. We have weekly rhythms, our bodies have rhythm, and so does dancing and any other regular activity. Rhythm is often the element that makes us move or groove along to music.
A melody may stick in your ear for an entire day. If we hum a familiar song, it is the melody that we are humming, and melodies have the ability to remind us of important moments.
Harmony symbolises tranquillity and peaceful coexistence. In music, harmony is what we hear underlying the melody. Harmony can be discordant and tense. Often harmony sets up tensions that are then satisfyingly resolved.
Our everyday life is full of forms, shapes and structures. We easily recognise things like shoes, vases or chairs on the basis of their form. If we hear the word ‘school’, we have a fairly good idea of what the building may look like. Musical compositions also have specific forms and structures.
Our eyes are used to seeing colour. The sky in the morning is different from the sky at midday. A person’s face may be pale, bright or sombre. We can also say we perceive colours with our ears. Sometimes the key to a piece of music is whether it sounds bright, soft or dark.
We can be quiet, whisper, talk or shout. What we say changes in meaning as the volume changes. Changes in volume, known as dynamics, are among the most powerful and most expressive elements of music.