Musical Forms

Sonata Form

Sonata form is the bread and butter of classical music, and it looks like this:

Intro (usually slow, it sets the mood)

Theme A (in home key)
Theme B (in secondary key)

Theme A + Theme B fight it out

Theme A (in home key)
Theme B (now in home key)


This is the meat of almost every symphony. Basically it revolves around two independent musical ideas, lets call them theme A and theme B. Each “theme” isn’t just a melody, but a whole passage of music which might have tempo changes, accompaniments, changes in volume, etc. In sonata form the themes first get played one after the other (which is called the exposition), and then they start duking it out, during the “development”. The development is usually the most interesting and intense part of the movement. It’s where the two themes are chopped and mixed and blended together until it all reaches some sort of climax. Then finally the themes are again played one after the other (the “recapitulation”), but this time the keys are changed slightly, so that the whole movement ends in the “home key”.

There is also usually an  intro and an coda (a fancy word for an “outro”) as well as lots of transitions between the themes.

Theme and Variations

Theme and variations looks like this:

Theme A
Theme A with bits added
Theme A with even more bits added
Theme A with different bits added in a totally different tempo
Theme A in 10 different keys
And so on…

This starts with a relatively simple musical theme being played, and then cycles through a bunch of repeats, but with each repeat modified. The modifications can be so extreme that you have to listen to them a bunch of times before you can tell they are related to the initial one.

It’s really neat, because once you “get” the theme, it’s really easy to watch how it grows and changes throughout the movement.


This one was more popular in the ye olde days of classical music. It goes like this:

Theme A
Theme B (usually in 3/4 time)
Theme A

It’s pretty straightforward compared to sonata form. It’s like a theme sandwich. The middle bit is traditionally in 3/4 time (like a waltz).


This one used to be really popular as the last movement of a symphony. It goes like this:

Theme A
Theme B
Theme A
Theme C
Theme A
Theme D
And so on…

Basically there is one piece of music which the orchestra keeps returning to. In between these repeated sections are lots of other musical diversions, which might vary a lot in tempo, key, intensity. At the end of each of these sections we go right back again to the familiar theme A.