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In this lesson, you will learn about musical form and what defines ternary form.

You will also learn to identify ternary form by looking for large sections, changes in the music, and returning to music heard at the beginning of the piece.

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What Is Form?

The form of a piece of music tells us how it is organized. Composers often organize pieces of music to help balance the amount of new musical material with material we’ve previously heard.

Using a form when composing a piece of music can help determine when to write new music or bring back music that has already been heard.

Ternary Form

Ternary form can be used to organize a small section of a longer piece, one movement of a multi-movement piece, or an entire piece of music. It organizes the music into three sections:

  • First, there is the A-section that begins the piece.
  • Next, there is the middle B-section that is significantly different.

  • The final section of ternary form is the return of the A-section, where we hear the same or very similar music to the beginning of the piece.

Together, these three sections are labeled ABA. Think of them as being similar to a sandwich. A sandwich has two pieces of similar bread on the outside (just like the A-section) while also containing something different like turkey or bologna (the B-section) on the inside.

Ternary form (ABA) is similar to a sandwich
An example of ternary form.
An example of compound ternary form.

An example of compound ternary form.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review:The form of a piece of music tells us how it is organized. Composers often organize pieces of music to help balance the amount of new musical material with material we’ve previously heard.

Ternary form can be used to organize a small section of a longer piece, one movement of a multi-movement piece, or an entire piece of music and has three sections labeled ABA.Simple ternary form means that the section of the form cannot be broken down into even smaller forms, while compound ternary form has large sections that can be broken down into smaller forms.

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