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What exactly is a symphony? Why are some classical songs called sonata or rondo? Discover the answers to these questions as you study the different forms of classical music in this lesson.

Classical Music Forms

Congratulations! You have just won tickets to Beethoven’s fifth symphony! But what does that actually mean – ‘symphony?’ Will you be watching a group of people called a symphony, or is the piece of music a symphony? How are you going to sit there for over an hour without falling asleep? I mean, the only part that people actually understand from that song is the part that goes ‘dun dun dun duuuuuun,’ ‘dun dun dun duuuuuuuuuun,’ right? Is that all there is to it?Believe it or not, there is a way to understand Beethoven’s genius past the first eight notes.

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As you’ll soon discover, a symphony is a form of classical music. Form is the arrangement of sections within a piece of music, and understanding how these sections work together can help the listener make sense of what the composer was trying to express.

Common Forms in Classical Music

Some forms have become so common that they are a way to identify a type of song.

This is particularly the case in classical music, where many songs are named or referred to by their form. Some examples are the theme and variation, the rondo, the sonata, the concerto and the symphony. Many of these became popular during the Classical Period and have continued to be used ever since.

Theme and Variations

Theme and variations is one of the most simple forms to follow since the entire piece is based on one theme. A theme can be thought of as a small group of phrases that make up a complete musical idea. It’s like the topic paragraph of an essay. As you can probably figure out from its name, the theme and variations form first presents a theme, then several altered or modified versions of the theme.Say, for example, our theme is a mustache.

We can then explore a number of variations, like the handlebar, the pencil, the walrus or even the Fu Manchu. In each case, we still have a mustache, but the length, width or shape of the hair is changed or varied.Variations in a musical context are similar.

The general music idea is manipulated by ways to vary music: changing tempo, pitch, tonality, meter, texture, rhythm or overall emotional expression. The composer can choose to apply one or several of these manipulations. In an example from Mozart’s 12 Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,’ we can hear the theme, then a variation of the rhythm through added notes (2:22 in the video). In a more complex example from Brahms: ‘Variations On a Theme’ by Joseph Haydn, we can hear the theme, then a variation of the tempo, tonality and emotional expression (2:45 in the video).

Rondo Form

Another form, called rondo form, sometimes spelled with the French spelling (rondeau), is like an extension of ternary form.

You may remember that ternary form is when the structure of the song is A-B-A, as in ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ Instead of only having two different sections – A and B, like the ternary form – rondo form typically has three sections, A, B, C, or four sections, A, B, C, D. The full rondo form alternates between the A section and each of the other sections. So a three section rondo form would be A-B-A-C-A, and a four section rondo form would be A-B-A-C-A-D-A. The rondo is not specifically limited to four different sections, but it should continually alternate between the A section and all repeated sections.The B, C, D and any other sections sound different from A by changing either the key, tonality, texture or the overall style.

The composer will often vary the A section just slightly too, but because it’s basically still the same, it still counts as an A section. Let’s listen to a short example and identify the sections as we go (4:35 in the video). Hopefully, you noticed that the B section changed tonality from major to minor, and the C section changed style.

Sonata Form

A slightly more intricate form is the sonata form. Structurally, sonata form is like a complex version of ternary form.

By the Classical Period, composers grew bored of being locked into such a small structure, so they expanded it to include room for experimentation. Each section has a specific name and purpose. The first A section is called the exposition. The exposition is the section where the composer presents two melodic themes. These themes are important because they set the musical topic for the rest of the piece.

The themes are always the same tonality, either major or minor. Let’s hear an excerpt from Beethoven (6:09 in the video).Once the themes have been established, the composer begins the development. In the development section, the composer experiments with the themes, starting in the opposite tonality of the exposition.

The composer takes a small section, or motif, from one of the themes and uses it to create new musical ideas. They may change the rhythm, feel, texture, order of notes, tonality or pretty much anything they can think of to develop the idea in various ways. There is usually great use of modulation, or change of key.

In our Beethoven example, a motif from theme one is used, this time in the major tonality (7:02 in the video). The development is the longest section of the sonata because it allows for this experimentation. Finally, the composer restates the original two themes in the recapitulation. Sometimes this includes a bit of variation, but the themes remain recognizable as those from the exposition. Beethoven ends his sonata this way (7:28 in the video). It should sound familiar. So, the sonata form would end up like this: exposition – development – recapitulation.


A form that is in close relation to the sonata is the concerto. The only difference is that in the concerto, there is a soloist featured with the orchestra. Within concerto form, the soloist is given opportunities to show off, often leaving the orchestra behind to do so. Think of it like the egotistical lead guitar player – they always want to take the long solos to show off their skills. The cadenza is an added section right before the end of a piece where the soloist plays an elaborate solo, often one that is technically difficult with fast rhythms and a healthy variety of pitches.

The pop music equivalent of cadenzas are often performed at the end of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and by Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera (who are both famous for their embellished endings).


Finally, we have the symphony. The symphony is the transformer of forms in that it contains multiple forms in one song. A symphony is almost always written for the orchestra and usually contains four movements, or large, self-contained segments of a piece of music.

It’s like a song within a song, where all parts are related. You can also think of it like chapters in a book. Much like chapters, there is usually a pause between each movement. Each of the four movements has a typical speed and form associated with it.The first movement is usually fast, and is sonata form. The music of this movement is so often at an allegro (or quick pace) that it is often referred to as Sonata-Allegro. The second movement presents contrast to the first movement with its slow, lyrical feel.

This movement is often in ternary or theme and variations form. The third movement picks up the pace a bit with a medium tempo. It is generally connected with dance and has a triple meter, with three beats per measure like a waltz ‘ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three’.

Finally, the fourth movement brings back the vitality with a fast sonata or rondo. The combination of fast and slow movements and a variety of forms creates a very powerful work with loads of expression for the composer to show.

Lesson Summary

In all, form can be helpful for composers to express and experiment with music while acting as a great communication device to their audiences. The theme and variations form involves an experimentation with one musical idea: A-A1-A2-A3. The rondo contains three to four musical sections and alternates between the A sections and each other section A-B-A-C-A-D-A. The sonata has the A-B-A sections: first the exposition, the development and then the recapitulation.

It allows the composer to experiment with themes in the development section. The concerto is like a sonata with opportunities for a soloist to show off. The symphony contains four movements in a fast-slow-medium-fast order.

Lesson Outcome

After viewing this video lesson, students should be able to:

  • Differentiate the forms of classical music
  • Define rondo, sonata and concerto
  • Discuss the construction of a symphony using different classical forms

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