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Common Musical Forms: Songs and Arias

All musical compositions exhibit a type of structural organization of musical ideas and
phrases. In your repertoire assignments, you will be asked to study your music and
identify the form of your songs and arias. Understanding the organizational structure of
the music can aid in your memorization process and help you make decisions regarding
musical interpretation.

Strophic: Pieces in strophic form have only one section that repeats exactly in each
subsequent verse. Often, songs in strophic forms contain a repeat that directs the
performer back to the beginning of the song, with all verse texts located between, as in
many hymns.
Guideposts: 1. Repeat signs

2. Multiple verses under the same music.

Verse/Refrain: Similar to the strophic form, the music in a verse/refrain form repeats
exactly for each subsequent stanza. However, in a verse/refrain form, there are clearly two
sections of music, with the A section containing the verse, and the B section making up the
refrain. Often the text of the B section repeats. This is a common form in popular music.
Because it has two distinct sections, it is sometimes referred to as a binary form (AB)
Guideposts: 1. Two distinct sections of music.

2. Like strophic, verse/refrain forms usually have repeat signs.

3. Often, the refrain (B section) uses the same text each time.

Modified Strophic: In modified strophic form, the music is similar for each verse, but
altered in some way that does not allow a repeat sign to be inserted for subsequent verses.
There may be differences in the accompaniment, the melody, or both. Most frequently,
alterations in the accompaniment occur following the initial presentation of the music. It is
also common for composers to alter the melody and/or accompaniment at the end of the
piece to highlight its conclusion.
Guideposts: 1. Melody may be the same or very similar for each verse, but NO repeat signs.

2. Look for alterations in the accompaniment from verse to verse.

3. The melody may also be altered, particularly near the conclusion of the piece.

Da Capo or ABA Form: This form is one of the most common song forms, and is
particularly prevalent in operatic arias. This consists of two contrasting sections followed
by a repeat of the first section. At times the return of the A section is abbreviated. In
operatic arias, there is often a “da capo” marking at the end of the B section that directs the
performer to return to the opening section. The aria then ends after the repeat of the A
material. Often, the B section offers a contrast in mood, in mode (major or minor), or in key
from the A section. This form is best abbreviated ABA. Many of the 24/28 Italian songs
and arias exhibit this form.
Guideposts: 1. Two contrasting sections AB, followed by a repetition of A material

2. “da capo” marking at the end of the B section.

3. Written out return of the A section’s melody/accompaniment after the B section.

4. The return of the A section may not be exact; it may be shortened or have an altered ending.

Rondo Form (ABACA): This form is identifiable by its returning A sections

surrounding contrasting sections. These A sections often utilize the same text in addition
to the same music.
Guideposts: 1. Returning A sections surrounding contrasting musical ideas.

2. Usually songs in this form do not contain repeats.

3. Look for repeated text signaling the A section, although that is not ALWAYS the case.

Through-Composed: As the term suggests, through-composed is made up of one

section with no real repetition of motives or sections. This form is more typical in music
written in the 19th century and after, although there are a few earlier examples. The text
sometimes carries clues to this form as well, as there is generally no repetition of text in
through-composed forms.
Guideposts: 1. No repeated text or musical sections.

2. Warning: Even in through-composed songs, there may be repetition of individual motives and

Recitatives: Many operatic arias begin with a recitative, which are not part of the
overall form of the aria, and are often separated off from the aria itself by double bar lines.

Codas: Many song forms incorporate a short concluding segment that does not fit into
the overall song form. This is referred to as a coda or “tail” and can be labeled as such in
your discussion.

Sections: Although the forms outlined above are the most common, composers are not
bound to these constraints, and often looked to poetic form for their musical structure. You
may find that labeling sections by letters: A B C, and so on, is the best strategy. However,
also keep in mind that a 2-3 minute song or aria is unlikely to have a large number of

Inexact Repeats of Sections: Often, composers will return to material presented

earlier, but alter the ending or abbreviate the section. When these types of alterations
occur, it is appropriate to label the returning material as AI. Thus, a da capo aria with a
shortened return to the A section could be labeled ABAI.
NOTE: Some songs and arias do not fit well into any of these typical forms. When this
happens, use your best judgment and look for repeating musical phrases and sections.
These are your best clues as to the musical construction. Do not be afraid to ask questions
if you have trouble.

Also, be aware that form deals with the larger construction of a song or aria. Avoid the
temptation to make sections too small. Keep in mind that a single musical phrase should
not be labeled as a section.