Musical Form

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Musical Form


in a broad philosophical and aesthetic sense, the set of interacting and interrelated expressive means that endow music with a particular ideational and artistic content. When this content is given primacy, form is not passive but possesses its own immanent logic, with historically developed regularities. An important role in the emergence of these patterns is played by the national and social roots of a culture, which provide a foundation for the shaping of the norms of musical language, the most important component of form in an aesthetic sense.

In a narrower sense, musical form is the plan of composition, or structure, of a musical work. Although the form of each composition is, to some degree, unique, there are historically determined norms of musical form, including the period, simple and compound binary form, ternary form, rondo form, and sonata form. The smallest meaningful and structural unit of a musical form is the motif. The theme is a fundamental, self-contained component of a form. The relation between themes, the manner of their development (and in many cases, the development of a single theme) create the foundation for the structure of a musical work. There are a number of basic principles according to which forms are devised: the exposition of the thematic material, its exact or varied repetition, its continuation, its development, and its juxtaposition with new, often contrasting material. An important role is played by the principle of recapitulation, the repetition of earlier material after a section incorporating the development of old material or the exposition of new material. The principles for devising forms may interact —that is, continuation may be combined with variation, and in many instances, contrasting material may be similar to a theme presented earlier.

The prominent Soviet music scholar B. V. Asaf’ev formulated the thesis of the two aspects of musical form. Because it is created in time, form is always a special process, during which other themes appear, are developed, and are compared with other themes. Asaf ev refers to this aspect of musical form as a process, which gives rise to a particular structure consisting of a number of sections corresponding to the separate stages of the process. The emergence of a stable structure is the essence of the second aspect of form, the “crystallized” aspect. For many decades, both foreign and Russian musicology studied only this aspect of form. After the publication of Asaf ev’s book, Musical Form as a Process (1930–47), the Soviet school began to treat musical form as a combination of the two aspects. Thus, Soviet theory considers the process of devising musical forms as a content process that ultimately reveals the artistic and aesthetic idea of a composition.


Skrebkov, S. S. Analiz muzykal’nykh proizvedenii Moscow, 1958.
Mazel’, L. A. Stroenie muzykal’nykh proizvedenii. Moscow, 1960.
Tsukkerman, V. Muzykal’nye zhanry i osnovy muzykal’nykh form. Moscow, 1964.
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Mazel’, L. A., and V. A. Tsukkerman. Analiz muzykal’nykh form, part 1. Moscow, 1967.
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Asaf ev, B. (Igor’ Glebov). Muzykal’naia forma kak protsess (books 1–2, 3rd ed.). Leningrad, 1971.
Sposobin, I. Muzykal’naia forma, 5th ed. Moscow, 1972.


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