Musical Structures

Musical Structures

Structure is a crucial element of music. It describes how the different sections in a piece of music are positioned together to form the composition. There are 3 key concepts you need to grasp:


In order to understand these concepts in musical structure it is helpful to see them in terms of a journey.
Let’s imagine for a moment that a piece of music is like a train journey.
I may start the journey in a city – I can see lots of buildings and cars and people out of the window. After a short while I travel out of the city centre and am in the suburbs. There are still buildings, cars and people, but there are less of them and the buildings have changed from tall office blocks to smaller residential homes. As I travel further the buildings and roads gradually reduce until I come out into countryside where there is a very significant change to fields and trees and cows!
The overall journey (me on a train) has continuity to it – I am sitting in the same seat looking out of the same window. However, there is clear contrast in my journey between the different sections (city – suburbs – countryside). These different sections make the journey much more interesting. There is also a lot of repetition – when I am travelling through the countryside I may look out and see a lot of ploughed fields. Also, if I am travelling to another city I will probably experience a repetition of the same sections (countryside-suburbs-city) as I approach my destination. This will help give a sense of balance and completion to my journey.

In the same way, a piece of music contain a mixture of musical ideas. A composer needs to think carefully about how to repeat and contrast these ideas in sections in order to create continuity and a coherent whole.

How do musical sections contrast?

There are a number of ways a composer can create contrast between sections:

New melody (or significantly vary a melody used already)
New rhythm
New key (e.g. changing from major to minor or vice versa is a very common technique)
New tempo
New lyrics
Different Instrumentation
(e.g. in a song the start of the singing shows a clear contrast between the introduction and the verse)
Change in Dynamics

Note: a composer will often use a combination of more than one of the above.

How do I recognize musical sections?

This is a tricky question that I get asked a lot. Here are 3 suggestions:

Firstly, make sure you understand the typical musical forms. Try and find examples of each and listen to them (see my articles on each form to find examples).

Secondly, there are some pieces of music which will almost definitely follow a certain structure – ask yourself whether the piece you are listening to is one such piece. For example, if you are listening to a pop/rock/r’n’b/hip hop song then it will most likely follow some form of song structure. Certain classical pieces will also follow set structures – for example, a Viennese waltz will probably be in Ternary Form. Have a look at my articles on the different structures to see which pieces typically follow which structure.

Thirdly, there are other pieces you will come across that will not be so clear.
If you are listening to a piece/song then try to listen carefully for any of the techniques I listed above. Are there any moments in the song/piece where you can hear a definite change – are there any points where it “feels” like it has moved onto something different? On the other hand, are there other moments where the music sounds like it is repeating something you’ve heard earlier? Listening out for these sections will help you piece together the different sections.
If you a looking at a notated score then watch out for clues such as repeat markings, double barlines and new tempo markings. These often give an indication of sections and can be useful, particularly when combined with careful listening.

As I said, it is really helpful to have an understanding of the musical structures you will come across. Here are my articles on the most common musical structures:

Sonata Form
Song Structure
Theme and Variations
Through Composed

Never Stop Listening To Music

If you want to get better at recognizing and understanding musical structure then you need to listen, listen and then listen some more! The more music you can listen to from a wide range of music the better you will become – fact!

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