The Knowledge: Form & Structure Vocabulary

The devolved nations of the UK each have their own music curricula, which have to be interpreted and taught by non-specialists at primary level. In this blog series, we aim to support teachers’ knowledge of the key musical terminology which appears in these curricula. In this edition of The Knowledge, we look at terminology associated with form and structure.

Musical Structure

Composers use structure to give an overall balanced shape to their music. Sometimes this is typified by clearly defined sections, and other times the structure is more opaque. You can work out the structure of a piece of music by listening out for repeated sections, key changes, changing melodies, and changing textures, and if it is a piece of vocal music the lyrics will often give a big clue as to the structure of the piece.

Musical Form

Musical forms are specific types of musical structures that are in general use, and are often ‘spelt’ with letters denoting the different sections. The first section would be ‘A’ then the next different section ‘B’, and additional different sections ‘C’ ‘D’ ‘E’ and so on.


Binary form describes a piece of music that has two distinct sections. It can also be described as AB form.


Ternary form describes a piece of music with three sections, with the third section being an exact (or very close) repeat of the first section. It can also be described as ABA.


Sonata form is often used for the first movement of classical symphonies, and has three main sections – exposition, development and recapitulation. In the exposition the two main musical themes are introduced (known as the first and second subject), these are then transformed during the development section in different keys, before finally returning to the original key in the recapitulation.

Minuet & Trio

The overall form of the minuet and trio is ternary, but within each section there are usually repeats which complicates the form. The overall structure will be ternary – Minuet, Trio, Minuet, but within that you might have ABA(Minuet) CDC(Trio) ABA(Minuet). When classical symphonies have four movements, the third is often a Minuet and Trio.


Rondo form can be ‘spelt’ as ABACA, and is often found as the final movement in a symphony. Section A may return in the same key or a related key each time, separated by the different sections B and C.


A round is not a fixed structure, but describes a situation where the same melody (usually a song) can be performed by different singers or groups of singers starting at different times, and still ‘fit together’ in a harmonically pleasing way. In some rounds, singers sing the first whole line before the next group join in, and in some rounds you join in after just a few bars.


Strophic is a simple form most associated with song. In this form all verses have the same melody (and accompaniment) so the form could be spelt AAA. Many hymns and folk songs are in a strophic form.

Through Composed

Through-composed is another structure associated with song writing, where each verse has different music without there being an obvious break into different sections or repetitions. The music flows in one continous section from beginning to end.

Theme & Variation

Theme and variation is a form where all the music is based on the same theme (usually a melody), but each section changes the theme in its own distinct way. So the theme might be in a different key, played back to front, with altered rhythm, or any other change of character in each section.