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5: Form in Music

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  • Form refers to the layout of a piece of music from beginning to end. It is the structure of themes, rhythms, patterns and other musical concepts that form the design of a musical selection. Form can be easy to hear in short and/or repetitive pieces common to one’s own culture. In longer and culturally foreign works the form can be difficult to recognize without prior understanding and analysis. This is because musical forms are varied in their construction and not limited to any one element of music as a point of emphasis. The building blocks of form can be melodies, rhythms, chord progressions, instrumentation, timbres, dynamics, and lyrics. Composers use repetition, contrast, variation, growth, and decline to create expectation and to develop these building blocks.

    Forms are tied to the aesthetics of the cultures that create them. The form of the music can follow strictly laid out ceremony like in the Roman Catholic Mass or it can be symbolic of larger cultural and social formations like the polyphonic, cyclical forms found in Indonesian gamelan. Forms can be the products of evolution to a genre over time. This is evident in modern popular aesthetics that value the short length of a piece. The modern length of a pop song is a direct result of the limitations placed on longer jazz, blues, and ragtime works in the early twentieth century by early recording equipment. Ten-inch records could only hold between three to five minutes of music on a side (without having to compress the grooves, thus diminishing quality). The change to a form over time is also evident in the evolution of Medieval and Renaissance dance suites into multi-movement forms that eventually became the sonata cycle form used to structure symphonies, string quartets, sonatas, and concertos in the eighteenth century. Enjoyment of these genres is tied to developing an aesthetic for appreciation of how a composer utilizes form to create a work.

    Perhaps the opposite of the “Classical” decorum that manifests in the formal emphasis is the “Free Jazz” movement that began in the late 1950’s. This genre of music was spearheaded by black Americans at a time when segregation and racial inequality in parts of America were the norm. The civil-rights movement challenged the established norms. Free-jazz musicians challenged the melodic, rhythmic, formal, and harmonic norms of established practice in jazz. In pure “free jazz” it is possible that the musicians are not familiar with each other, that the ensemble is a unconventional mix of instruments, and that the musicians completely improvise all aspects of the music. This is one of the few genres of music in which musicians have liberty to completely “make it up on the spot”.

    Improvisation is an important aspect of many musical genres. Because the improvisation is generally a spontaneous composition of material that is appropriate within the context scholars are shying away from calling improvisation “making it up on the spot”. It is appropriate to call it composing in the moment.

    In most genres of jazz (and other music), musicians use freedom to spontaneously put together pre-conceived/practiced musical ideas (improvise). These ideas are arranged over pre-conceived forms utilizing specific scales. The harmonies and rhythms are also standardized. In standard jazz genres like big band swing the improvised aspect of the performance is limited to shorter melodic solos “over the form”. These solos are small features within a complex arrangement of sounds that requires most musicians to read the music while performing. In be- bop and more contemporary jazz “combo” settings musicians generally have more freedom to improvise longer solos and develop ideas.

    There is much debate over the definition of jazz. Historically it is a style of music that originated at the beginning of the 20th century in African American communities in the United States from a confluence of African and European music traditions. Some say that it is a historical genre that relies heavily on improvisation over swinging rhythms and blues progressions. Others say that jazz is alive and well in any musician who wants to express themselves through melodic improvisation over American style rhythms and chord progressions. Whichever the case; the key aesthetic value for jazz is expression through improvisation of melody. To a lesser extent this is also the case with other American genres of music. Improvised solos are expected in traditional blues, gospel, psychedelic rock, jam-band, salsa, and country based genres like old time and blue grass. In hip-hop freestyling the rapper improvises poetry rhythmically over rhythmic ostinatos called “instrumentals”.

    There are many cultures around the globe that share an aesthetic preference for music in which some aspect of the piece is improvised. In Ewe drumming of West Africa master drummers improvise patterns in response to the form and to the dancers. In Indian and Middle Eastern music the subtle development of the scale (raga/maqam) through improvisation is a feature of much music. To do this with passion and artistry (soul) is the goal of many musicians. Compositions can last over an hour when the performances are inspired.

    In the European “classical” tradition modern audiences associate the legendary composers (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc...) with compositions that they wrote on paper. These compositions happened previous to performance. Modern audiences of Western Art music know that each time they hear these compositions (masterworks) they will not include improvisation. What “classical” music fans value are differences in interpretation. This could be different tempos, dynamics, timbres, or subtle variations in expression brought out by conductors or musicians. To those with a “taste” for this music these variations are what give it life. Aesthetes form preferences based upon their experience with differing interpretations of the art. The untrained ear tends to claim, “it all sounds the same”. This sameness might also be a reflection of the lack of improvisation in Western Art music at the beginning of the 21st century. For much of the history of Western Art music composers were also performers. Many wrote pieces to feature themselves on an instrument. It is documented that Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and others were master improvisers. Some would even duel on their instrument (much like battling in hip-hop music and dance or cutting heads in jazz). Imagine attending a symphony concert that included a musical duel.

    Reference List

    Bakan, Michael B. 2012. World Music: Traditions and Transformations. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Kilroe-Smith, Catherine. 2013. Musical Journeys. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

    Marcus, David. 2016. Email to Todd Mueller. Jan. 3, 2017

    Roeder, John. 2011 “Fluctant Grouping in a Silk-and-Bamboo Melody.” AAWM Journal 1, No. 2. Accessed Feb. 14, 2017

    Ross, Alex. 2010. Listen to This. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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    Asian Music 20.2: 67–106.

    Wade, Bonnie C. 2013. Thinking Musically: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Valdez, Stephen. 2006. A History of Rock Music. 4th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.