Form is the study of how the listener’s mind follows the meaning of your entire piece, so getting it right is more critical to success than we tend to think. The composer who makes form his friend has a chance of building a real audience; the composer who thinks he is implicitly a master of form without having gone repeatedly through the brutal, objective process of editing will never understand why his music isn’t commanding repeat listenings.

We can think about the effects of form in two ways: technically, and ‘psychologically’.


If you get your form right, you’ll have the humans on a string, pulling them along whether they like it or not. This means creating expectations, then delivering on them in a satisfying but slightly unexpected way. It means varying the weightiness of material so that the ear is ready to feast and then has time to digest, and then is ready to feast again. It means being fast at the right time, then slow at the right time, then repeating at the right time, then teasing at the right time, then overwhelming at the right time. And it means not overstaying your welcome, but leaving everyone 90% satisfied so they’ll instinctively hit ‘repeat’ or yell ‘play it again!’

If your form is sharp, the listener will ‘enter’ into your music; if your form is off, the listener will judge from a distance. A lot of what composers call ‘challenging’ music, in my opinion, simply suffers from sloppy form; the listener doesn’t know where they are in the piece; doesn’t have expectations and is therefore never satisfied; experiences the music as a messy stew; follows no journey.


Form manages the tension between repetition and variation. Without enough repetition, the audience won’t connect with your piece. Without enough variation they’ll get bored or dismiss the music as ‘nice’, ‘shallow’, or, gulp…’pop’. (I love pop, BTW.)

Classical music was always written for everybody.

Mozart wrote for general society – our target at the Ear. Listen to this famous excerpt from a letter to his father. He is referring to his ‘Paris Symphony’. Note that what Mozart is talking about is form.

“…and just in the middle of the allegro occurred a passage which I felt sure must please, and there was a burst of applause; but as I knew when I wrote it what effect it was sure to produce, I brought it in once more at the close, and then rose shouts of “again!

Wow! Did that hit you? His anticipation of the visceral reaction of the audience was his guide for his form. This beauitful passage was one of the inspirations for The Ear. This is what we want! And it all flies in the face of the common attitude among composers – that if you write for society, you aren’t a true artist. Mozart (that panderer) continues…

[The final allegro] commenced with only two violins and piano for the first eight bars, followed instantly by a forte; the audience, as I expected, called out “hush!” at the soft beginning, and the instant the forte was heard began to clap their hands.

I hope that Mozart’s joy in writing for people will always be the spirit of this little world we’re building together.



We don’t always end up with the form we have in mind when we begin. We may be writing a rondo (ABACA), but decide that the music is done after the ABA (ternary). Or we may dismantle the piece and shape the material into a different concept altogether. All that is part of the process, rather than the result. Everything below concerns only the result.

1. Make sure that each section (e.g. the ‘A’ section) is distinct

Give each section a definitive beginning and a definitive end. Think of your sections like the courses of an elaborate meal. Soup-Entree-Dessert. Dishes are removed before the next course is served. Pay special attention to your cadences, thinking of them in three categories: final, not quite final, and wide open. Cadences – however you execute them harmonically – clearly establish the formal structure – the clearing of the plates. Without them, we’re lost. Or worse. Bored. Once again, mind your cadences!

2. Be clear in your mind how each section functions within the whole piece.

Here are the basic section types:  INTRO/A/TRANSITION/B, C, etc./DEVELOPMENT/CODA

The intro happens before the piece begins; make sure it’s not a de facto A section (or it will steal the A section’s thunder). Go nuts in your development section; make sure it feels unambiguously different – more playful, more wandering, smarter – than the rest of your piece. Avoid capricious coda’s; end the piece at the right time and make them yell ‘again’.

(NB: If your piece follows the EXPOSITION – DEVELOPMENT – RECAP plan (esp. sonata, fugue), you’ll have some extra little sections and conventions.)

3. As a matter of discipline, write out the algebra.

Even if you think your piece is awesome, jot down its form. Example:

INTRO – A – trans. – B – A (half) – C – trans. – A – CODA

4. Make sure that every note belongs in one section or the next.

Don’t leave even a single note or bar outside the form. If you can’t explain what that moment in time is doing in the form, it will add drag to your piece, like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. Again, discipline. Next…

5. Keep transitions insubstantial.

Pieces often need a few chords or a bar or two to get from meaty section to meaty section. These are transitions, or connective tissue, and they absolutely count as distinct sections within your form! It is critical to keep these short and insubstantial. One bar will be plenty. Two bars would be a substantial transition. Four bars threatens to disrupt the flow. And if it is eight bars, the listener will probably understand it as its own meaty section, regardless of your intent, which will threaten to steal the thunder of the section you were transitioning to.

6. Edit. Be drastic.

There’s a reason directors are seldom allowed to edit their own films. They tend to leave in scenes that mean a lot to them, but that disrupt the flow of the story. This is where objectivity is critical. If you know your form is wonky – if there’s a section you love but the piece flows better without it – act with courage. There’s a famous, brutal line by WIlliam Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” The objective advice of one or two trusted peers is invaluable here. In general, once you’ve finished a mature version of the piece, try to make it as short as possible. Argue against yourself to remove things.

7. Consider using one of the classic forms.

Binary, ternary, rondo, theme and variations, sonata, song form, etc. These forms aren’t ‘dated’ or ‘old-fashioned’. They are in fact timeless algebra: ABA, ABACA, etc. There are, after all, only so many ways to repeat/vary.

When we use one of these forms, and execute it strictly enough, then we reap the benefit of the experimentation of the tens of thousands of composers and hundreds of millions of listeners who came before us. These are the musical contracts hammered out by composer and listener where everyone is in love with the terms. If you grab one off the shelf, you’ll probably sign the deal; if you don’t, you may have only one signature at the bottom.

Consider how some of them manage the tension between repetition/variation.

Rondo: ABACA. It offers you the Big Hook immediately (A). Then we have the B section – something different. And then…repeat the Big Hook section. Then somthing else. Then…repeat the Big Hook section. (Fur Elise is a clear example.)

Sonata form: exposition, development, recap. First we hear the Big Hook. Then some other stuff. Then we STOP, and literally restart the piece, giving us the Big Hook again. Next, the development. Here is where we are bombarded with the Big Hook from all sides, like a firing squad that gets the order ‘fire at will!’. And then what? Let’s hear the opening section again as the recap., starting with the Big Hook.

Finally, theme and variations. Big Hook, then Big Hook again varied somehow, then Big Hook again varied a little more, then Big Hook varied another way. In other words, we never stop repeating (and varying).

These forms work.

ROUNDED BINARY:   ABA  (the B section here is related to the A, often with the same kind of accompaniment.)

TERNARY:   ABA  (unlike with binary form, the B section is completely unrelated to the A)



8. Approach form with humility.

In the music business, the A&R person is the gatekeeper of objectivity. “I know this is what you think you have, but this is what you ACTUALLY have.” They are especially concerned with two things: the hook, and form. Once artists achieve a certain amount of success and at last have some weight to throw around, some will stop listening to the A&R guy. We all have favorite artists who produced disappointing music later in their career for just this reason.