Understanding Music with Musical Forms
“Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It’s difficult to argue with Goethe – and not only because he was Beethoven’s friend. A basic understanding of musical forms provides insight into why the music you enjoy is effective. Following along with a musical form requires you to actively listen, waiting for and identifying repeated elements, themes, and sections — and the emotions they convey.
When should you introduce musical forms to your students?
“Grasping the form of a piece is seeing it all at once.”
— Leonard Bernstein
Though many teachers incorporate musical form into their curriculum early on — and may even be a teacher who does! — this is not the case worldwide. In some music schools, such as those in Poland, it takes even 11 years of previous music education before forms are introduced through painstaking analysis of sheet music – often note by note.
Musical understanding doesn’t need to require an understanding of every occurrence of a theme, or knowing all of the types of melodic development. In fact, students can even develop their active listening skills at the same time, too. Consider incorporating musical forms into your students’ curriculum, no matter how their age.
How can you start?
“And I don’t feel any form of music is beyond me in the sense of that I don’t understand it or I don’t have some love for some part of it.”
— Elvis Costello
Many pop songs have a clearly-delineated musical form, with verses, choruses, and bridges; even if your students haven’t had any explicit education on form, you can help them begin to understand the concept using songs they already know.
Let the lyrics and melody guide your lesson planning; your students will be able to easily hear when the chorus repeats. Use visual aids to represent the chorus and map out each occurrence. From there, focus on the melody to help your students identify the verses and, if applicable, bridge or solo section; verse lyrics often change, but the melody remains consistent in most pop songs.
Once you have your song mapped out with the visual aid of your choice, listen to the song as a whole and have your students point out where they are on the map. You can even have them stand up, sit down, or even kneel during certain parts of the song (e.g., standing during the verses and sitting during the choruses).
If your students are new to listening and following along with Western art music, start simply, with a musical form and — perhaps more importantly — musical themes that are easy to identify and hear. Use visual aids to, again, map out the form and guide them through the listening. Progress as needed, based on class progress.
Introduce notation and even chordal analysis when you believe your students are ready; they should be able to easily visualize and see patterns and variations in the notation, like in the example below.
Remember, all types of analysis can and should support each other to help your students develop into comprehensive musicians.
How can technology help?
When used correctly in the lesson, music technology can help musical forms come alive!
Teoria’s musical form videos provide a clear visualization of a piece’s form and the corresponding notation for each section. Below is an example of a video that focuses on the sonata.
Teoria’s videos combine active listening, notation analysis, and visual maps into one easy-to-follow package. One downside, though, is that you must watch each video from start to finish. It can be difficult to find your place and return to a specific point in the video — for example, if you want to return to the second instance of Theme A.
Music Planet is an option that gives you the ability to control the piece and your analysis. You can watch a performance from start to finish or jump back and forth to compare and contrast each occurrence of a refrain with the click of an interactive control above the video. Below is an example of a rondo form:
As you progress through the video, the controls at the top will light up according to the current section. This serves as a visual guide for your students to understand where they are in the piece. Below the video, you’ll see the current segment’s length as well as the length of the full video.
Remember to supplement these resources with a well-developed lesson plan that speaks to your curriculum objectives!
How do you teach musical forms?
We’d love to hear from you! How do you introduce, teach, and progress musical form concepts in your classroom? What resources do you use, tech-based or not? And if you’ve developed your own resource, we’d love to hear about it! Leave us a comment and let’s start talking!
One of this article’s authors, Pawel Wysocki, is the developer of Music Planet. Leading Notes was not obligated, financially or otherwise, to review Music Planet in a favorable way. All opinions shared in this blog post are those of Justine Dolorfino.
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