View Full Version : Lesson 2 - Structure Your Music - by Prof. Terry Dwyer (REPLY)

02-08-2007, 06:17 PM
by Professor Terry Dwyer



Some Methods of Formal Construction

So we need to embody Unity and Variety in one piece of music. Unity first.

It may be argued that, whatever erratic and jumbled notes we may compose, the fact that it all conforms to a consistent key and metre (and tempo) and perhaps consistent instrumental colour, should satisfy the need for unity. Good try, but it doesn’t work; listeners will need more than that. It’s unity in the material that’s wanted, so that if there is sufficient thematic unity, we can change key, time, colour and tempo without losing the unity. In practice the road to unity is simple: repeat your themes. Don’t credit your listeners with super-powers of memory, make it easy for them! Many a composition begins by stating a theme, then immediately repeating it in some way or other. The alternative to the immediate repeat is to state the theme, digress on to something else, then play the first theme again.

What about the Variety? One way has just been stated: digression; but there are two other main ways: variation or development. Time for some definitions:

Theme A melody, short motive, note-pattern, phrase, sentence, paragraph, or indeed any coherent musical idea with recognisable identity, which is due to recur after some digression.
Subject (in Sonata and similar forms) A sequence of themes in the same key.
Episode A section of new material that will not recur later.
Repeat An immediate restatement of a theme or episode, which may or may not be indicated by repeat dots. It is important to realise that repeats do not affect the basic structure of a piece, which can be discovered by ignoring the repeats. The main purpose of a repeat is to make sure the listener has grasped new material, and so repeats are often omitted when a theme is returned to later: it is assumed that the listener will remember and recognise it.
Recapitulation (“Recap”) Later restatement of a theme after some digression.
Introduction Disposable opening material. What follows is usually the principal theme.
Coda Disposable closing material.
Link Disposable material between main sections.
(By “disposable” I mean only that, if they were removed, the remaining structure would still have a recognisable form which follows the valid principles of Unity and Variety. This does not make such sections redundant; they usually enhance a composition. They can either use independent material, or be connected with the main themes in some way.)

Repeat-based forms

Let’s start with the repeat method. This means we never depart from theme A, it repeats and repeats, the variety coming from the way it is treated each time.

The commonest of these is Variations, i.e. A, A1, A2, A3, and so on. The theme is always present but various changes to its details or infrastructure ensure that we have Unity and Variety simultaneously, rather than in alternation as in other forms. Writing variations successfully has some pitfalls, and readers should refer elsewhere for detailed help. (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/terence.dwyer/Variationwriting.htm for instance) One common variation method is to retain only the harmonic basis, i.e. the chord sequence, and present differing material above it each time, so we can include the Blues and other jazz structures in this category.

A related genre is the Ostinato family: Ground Bass, which presents a more or less continuous melodic line or lines over a constantly repeating bass melody/motive (which can change pitch); Chaconne, which is similar but without pitch change, and it is more sectional than the Ground Bass; Passacaglia, which is the same as Chaconne except that the repeating theme can leave the bass and appear in an upper part at a later stage.

Example of Ground Bass: Evening Hymn by Henry Purcell


Example of Chaconne: Pachelbel’s Canon:


Example of Passacaglia: Variations on St. Anthony Chorale by J. Brahms
Theme as at beginning


Theme in soprano at a later stage:


Before leaving this section, I need to point out the difference between variation, which changes aspects of a theme (itself usually a self-contained paragraph) whilst retaining its basic structure, and development, which can change anything so long as some vestige of the theme (itself usually short, perhaps just a motive) remains as identification. In practice, development mostly changes some aspect of the pitch whilst retaining the original rhythm, but this is not obligatory. Development is very free in nature, variation somewhat restricted. And, to complicate matters, some “variations” actually use free development methods.

Recap-based forms

Now we’ll look at “recap-based” forms. We state, maybe repeat, digress, recap, in various permutations to see what alternatives we can come up with.

Starting with theme A, what can we do next? Clearly either A or B. If we make it A, what after the AA, another A? Well, not A a third time! That is the road to boredom. (Many a folk tune or jazz number goes AABA – never AAAA!) So we can make a safe rule that we can repeat any theme once, but no more for now. To clarify, we’ll assume that any theme or section can be repeated immediately if the composer thinks it a good idea to ram it home so it doesn’t get forgotten (it usually is a good idea), and we need not consider the repeat in our overall view of the form, so from now on we can assume that repeats are optional at any point. That leaves us with AB.
The next choice is C or A. Three new themes in succession (ABC) is possible (see later) but not as immediately satisfying as ABA. And we can stop right there and recognise ABA as one of the most used patterns in music, one of universal validity. We call it Ternary Form. It can not only provide a satisfactory shape for a shortish piece, but it can be used as an internal building block for longer pieces. Hence Minuet-and-Trio Form, which is ABA/CDC/ABA = Ternary within Ternary. (There are specific internal repeats which need not concern us for now). In spite of the title, Minuet-and-Trio Form is also used in Scherzos, Waltzes, Marches, and anything else of a strongly rhythmic and formal nature.

From this we deduce an important principle: that a module in Ternary form (or any other self-sufficient form for that matter) can always be used as a building block in a larger construction. One possibility springs to mind: ABA/CDC/ABA/EFE/ABA – this is Minuet and 2 Trios; commoner than you might think. See Mozart – Clarinet Quintet, Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No 1 (Minuet and three Trios) and Beethoven 7th symphony (Minuet (Scherzo) and 2 Trios but the Trios are the same each time).

Let’s pick up from ABA with a different continuation. We could follow with another B, giving ABAB (the overall form of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches), or round it off with one more A giving ABABA. More usual is ABACA which gives Rondo Form. This can be extended as ABACADA(EA etc) but this had better not go on for too long or boredom with A will set in. Another nice pattern is ABACABA, the basis for Sonata-Rondo Form if the sections are made substantial enough. (Sonata Form itself is of course a possibility, but is too complex for this tutorial.) Drop the middle As and we have ABCBA, known as Arch Form.

[Just as a check on terminology, in that last pattern A and B are themes because they return, C is an episode because it doesn’t.]

One caution here, for those exploring music of the Classical period: Mozart, Beethoven & Co. frequently entitle a movement “Rondo”, but if this is part of a sonata or similar cyclic structure, it will almost invariably be found to be in Sonata-Rondo Form, not the simple ABACA(DA) structure.

Varied Recaps

It becomes increasingly clear that the opening theme A is the favoured one, the one which is likely to be recapped, and/or the one to appear most times. A sensible modification of the basic patterns is to vary A in some way, either at the immediate repeats or on its later recap. Particularly if A appears three or four times, the later appearances will benefit from some kind of change.

I cannot resist recounting an experience I had years ago: I was chief adjudicator at a Youth Music Competitive Festival, and had to decide whether to award the Grand Prize to a cornet player who played a dazzling set of variations in popular style, or to a pianist who presented his own composition (to be judged as composition rather than performance). I heard the cornettist first; he was clearly a gifted player technically but I shuddered at the banality of what he played, though I knew he went down well with the audience, and I would not be a popular man if he lost!

Next I heard the young composer, and I liked what he played, it was well deserving of a prize for its sound craftsmanship and originality. As it progressed I became aware it was in Ternary shape, and as the recap got under way I made my final mental decision: “If he varies the recap in any way, or even provides a coda, he wins.” But alas, the recap was literal and there was no coda.

Other recap-based patterns

The above are the main standard forms, leaving aside not only Sonata Form but the contrapuntal forms such as canon and fugue (and also Binary Form, which is far trickier than the outline AB would suggest). This does not prevent anyone from adopting different patterns, so long as Unity and Variety are balanced. Trouble comes when there is too much of one or the other, and most unsuccessful student attempts do seem to be either over-repetitious or over-digressional.

Many marches and waltzes break the mould without completely losing sight of the main principles. Sequences such as ABCDEAFGCA can be found in the waltzes of Johann Strauss, and Chopin is sometimes not far behind in this respect. A Sousa march might not have too many recaps. The saving grace for all these forms is the immediate repeats which each section will get, so that the listener does not feel too bewildered by a long sequence of new material; nevertheless the shortage of recaps is not ideal. The last movement of Bartok’s great Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is shaped thus: ABA/CDED/FB/G/A, which reveals a certain amount of recapitulation amid the variety. (However, it does give the impression more of a suite of dances than of one coherent movement.)

Overall proportions

For simplicity’s sake I have set out the above patterns with each letter standing for a theme. But we have to see the word theme as elastic: in a hymn or folk song the pattern AABA may imply that each “theme” is 4 bars long; in a larger composition each letter could represent a major section of something like 20 to 30 bars, with some kind of internal structure which may even include development. So by “theme” I mean any stretch of music which the listener can perceive as one whole memorable slice (it has to be memorable because by definition it is due to turn up again at some later point). So, a short theme will require short episodes, a long theme will need longer episodes to match. This doesn’t mean they all have to be the same length, just roughly is good enough.


If a section goes on for too long in the same vein, boredom will set in. It is easy to overlook the effect of tempo in this respect: a slow piece will require far fewer notes than a quick one. So a piece or section that will sound satisfactory at a moderate tempo can sound too short if taken Allegro, and too long if taken Lento. You should be particularly aware of this if you intend to have different tempos within one piece. It is often a good idea to have a slow section in the middle of a fast piece, so be careful not to make it too long. It is not the appearance in the score that settles these matters, it is the passing of time in actual performance.


This brings me to another point that composers need to consider: continuity. How much continuity should we have between the sections? Do the double bars with repeat signs inevitably involve breaks of flow between the sections? Certainly the new sections are usually introduced, not only by new melodic material, but also by new key, new style, new texture, new instrumental colour, or even new tempo or time signature. True, but many composers have adopted an opposing principle when approaching a recap, particularly of the main theme A. What they do is to smooth over the join as much as possible, on the grounds that the re-appearance of the main theme will make it clear enough that we have a new section.

Mozart: Minuet from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:


Note: the clean break before B, and the smooth join from B to recap of A2.

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor:


The above shows how the end of the Development section glides smoothly into the Recapitulation. The entry of the violins sounds at first like some more development, and then the conjuring trick reveals itself. This sort of thing is much more interesting than the old Baroque approach used in the Da Capo arias of Bach and Handel, namely a full stop and break at the end of the middle episode.

Here’s another example of the smooth-over method:

Beethoven: Sonata Pathétique, 2nd movement:


The above is the opening theme. Note the semiquaver accompaniment:


The piece is in Rondo Form, and this is the final return of the opening theme with its lead-in bar. The previous episodical section uses triplet semiquavers, and these now replace the original semiquavers as the opening theme returns. This provides rhythmic continuity between the sections. And of course this is an example of a varied recap, albeit of a simple nature.

In all these examples there is a clear break going from A to B; it is the join going back to A that is smoothed over.

So the degree of flow is another factor we need to consider. Didn’t Wagner say that music is the art of transition? Too much stopping and starting can fracture our music if we are not careful. On the other hand too seamless a flow can disguise the appearance of a new theme and cause the audience to miss it. The above examples provide a clue.


Assuming you are not writing atonally (which can create its own problems) you need to decide the key of each section. I don’t mean the absolute key, I mean the key relative to your opening tonic key, for you should not stay in the same key throughout a piece (other than in miniatures).
The traditional way is to use related keys (for C major that’s A min, G maj, E min, F maj, D min) or the tonic minor (C min), but these days the “Mediant Jump” is very acceptable (for C major that’s A major, Ab major, Eb major or E major). Your main theme A is probably best to stay in the tonic each time; it’s the others that need the key variety. Bearing in mind the continuity problem just described above, you have to decide whether to plunge straight into each new key, or modulate smoothly in some way.


The overall structure of your piece can be anything you like. You may use one of the traditional forms, you may adapt one of them with a new twist, or you can invent a formal structure of your own. But in all cases there must be a balance between Unity and Variety. Don’t meander, but don’t tread water either. Keep an eye on the proportions. Now – have you avoided boredom?

Further Reading

A more detailed explanation of the basic musical forms can be found in C. Thorpe Davie’s book Musical Structure and Design, or Arnold Schoenberg’s Fundamentals of Musical Composition.

02-24-2007, 11:08 AM
Prof Dwyer

First, I appreciate you style of writing because it is easy to understand. The lack of erudition and pompousness is conspicuous and a delightful relief from the tedium of trying to dig out and internalize the meaning of the work. ( I guess that's an example sentence of what I mean, huh?) Your's is good reading.

I am connecting with your ideas easily, but I hold a different view of some. That's good. What I think isn't working the way I'd like.

I read that symphony attendance is down. Why are audiences are not coming? Is it the fault of atonal work? Are the classics too long and repititious? Are RULES for attendance too stuffy? Is the marble hall setting too formal? What?

TV images flash by at less than one second each. How's that for variety? How is that variety balanced? The executive summary, the condensed novel, the short bulletin capsules of the news, headlines only, acronyms, broken stories interrupted by short commercials (accompanied by music fragments), themeless film music, and on...

Yet you advocate, strongly, using repetition. And you're right. What is rap?
Why do the same people who avoid symphonies go to rock concerts?

So what to write to connect with human behavior, emotions and appeals are approached in structure.

Those kind of thoughts are what your course is stirring up in me. I am amazed and delighted. I am compelled to use this material to my advantage for writing better music. Whether I succeed or not is up to me.

This course is more than aba. It is a footpath for the journey to each composer's holy grail. Much to think about.

I am enjoying it. Thank you for your work.


02-24-2007, 05:39 PM
Beautifully written Professor Dwyer!

02-24-2007, 06:30 PM
I too would like to echo the thanks already expressed.

Practically an entire semester of Form and Analysis in a few paragraphs.

Getting the "big picture" is the most frustrating part of composing to me. Thanks again!

Steve Winkler

03-06-2007, 05:21 AM
Just a bump in order to ask when we could expect lesson #3? This stuff is really important and well presented. Good job so far prof Dwyer!