Every piece of music has an overall plan or structure, the "big picture," so to speak. This is called the form of the music.
Musical forms offer a great range of complexity. Most listeners will quickly grasp the form of a short and simple piece, or of one built from many short repetitions. It is also easier to recognize familiar musical forms. The average American, for example, can distinguish easily between the verses and refrain of any pop song, but will have trouble recognizing what is going on in a piece of music for Balinese gamelan. Classical music traditions around the world tend to encourage longer, more complex forms which may be difficult to recognize without the familiarity that comes from study or repeated hearings.
You can enjoy music without recognizing its form, of course. But understanding the form of a piece helps a musician put together a more credible performance of it. Anyone interested in music theory or history, or in arranging or composing music, must have a firm understanding of form. And being able to "see the big picture" does help the listener enjoy the music even more.
Musicians traditionally have two ways to describe the form of a piece of music. One way involves labeling each large section with a letter. The other way is to simply give a name to a form that is very common.
Letters can be used to label the form of any piece of music, from the simplest to the most complex. Each major section of the music is labeled with a letter; for example, the first section is the A section. If the second section (or third or fourth) is exactly the same as the first, it is also labeled A. If it is very much like the A section, but with some important differences, it can be labeled A' (pronounced "A prime"). The A' section can also show up later in the piece, or yet another variation of A, A'' (pronounced "A double prime") can show up, and so on.
The first major section of the piece that is very different from A is labeled B, and other sections that are like it can be labeled B, B', B'', and so on. Sections that are not like A or B are labeled C, and so on.
How do you recognize the sections? With familiar kinds of music, this is pretty easy. With unfamiliar types of music, it can be more of a challenge. Whether the music is classical, modern, jazz, or pop, listen for repeated sections of music. Also, listen for big changes, in the rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, and timbre. A new section that is not a repetition will usually have noticeable differences in more than one of these areas.
Practice identifying some easy musical forms. Pick some favorite songs and listen to each repeatedly until you are satisfied that you have identified its full form using letters and primes. Compare the forms of the tunes to spot similarities and differences.
While discussing a piece of music in detail, musicians may also use letters to label smaller parts of the piece within larger sections, even down to labelling individual phrases. For example, the song "The Girl I Left Behind" has many verses with no refrain, an A A' A''-type form. However, a look at the tune of one verse shows that within that overall form is an A A' B A'' phrase structure.
Often a musical form is given a name. For example, if a piece of music is called a "theme and variations" and "rondo". (A theme and variations would follow an A A' A'' A'''... structure, with each section being a new variation on the theme in the first section. A rondo follows an A B A C A ... structure, with a familiar section returning in between sections of new music.)
Also, many genres of music tend to follow a preset form, like the "typical pop song form" in the table of familiar forms above. A symphony, for example, is associated with a particular form: three or four (depending on when it was written) main sections, called movements. They expect a moment of silence in between movements, and also expect the movements to sound very different from each other; for example if the first movement is fast and loud, they might expect that the second movement would be slow and quiet.
But it is important to remember that forms are not sets of rules that composers are required to follow. Some symphonies don't have silence between movements, and some don't use the sonata form in any of their movements. Plenty of marches have been written that don't have a trio section, and the development section of a sonata movement can take unexpected turns. And hybrid forms, like the sonata rondo, can become popular with some composers. The composer is always free to experiment with the overall architecture of the piece.
Being able to spot that overall architecture as we listen - knowing, so to speak, which room we are in right now - gives us important clues that help us understand and appreciate the music.
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