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(part 16 of 20)
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

Other Forms

Eventually you can work up to writing rondos, short ‘theme and variations,’ and preludes. You might try your hand at a sonatina and eventually a basic sonata.

Rondo form can range from quite short to very long: ABA, or ABACA, or ABACABA. They can be symmetrical (ABACADACABA) or asymmetrical (ABACADAEA). Composing short rondos is a good next step after more simple AB compositions. Handling a ‘C’ section can be tricky (no, not that kind of C-section), particularly incorporating it in a meaningful way while preventing repeated sections from becoming dull.

Theme and variations are often just an ‘A’ section followed by a series of variations on the ‘A’ theme. Composing variations is excellent practice for manipulating a melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, etc., giving a fresh perspective while ensuring cohesiveness. If done creatively and ordered thoughtfully, it’s a great way to hold the listener’s attention. Variations can occur in any musical form (not just theme and variations) and can be labeled A1, A2, etc.

Preludes come in many flavors, but are frequently built with nothing more than a little idea or pattern which has been sequenced through all sorts of different harmonies, often modulating heavily. Bach’s C major prelude from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier is a famous example. The pattern he uses lasts only half a measure (repeated).

Compose your own prelude by finding a simple pattern, then repeat it over and over while shifting through a harmonic progression. Think of it as going on a journey, perhaps eventually returning to where you began. Try to avoid returning to the tonal center too often, otherwise harmonic momentum can be lost. And a warning: preludes are far more difficult to write effectively than they might seem. The beginning often comes quickly and easily, but each measure after that can be more and more difficult (if you are focused on good aesthetics, which you should be!). Keep it relatively short and stick with it. Improvising complete preludes is also excellent practice.

Sonata form can be quite complex, and generally quite lengthy, so it is not recommended until a large number of smaller pieces have been completed. In its most basic form, a sonata is made up of an ‘exposition’ (AB, often repeated, and ‘B’ often in a different key), followed by the ‘development’ (taking elements of A, B, or both, and playing around with them, often in the key of the B section), followed by the ‘recapitulation’ (return to AB, often B now in A’s key). The combined development and recapitulation are sometimes repeated as well. Often a coda (separate ending) is included, frequently as a return to A. So Sonata form in a nutshell is: ABAB-development-AB-development-AB-coda. But sonatas come in all shapes and sizes, so these are all very much generalizations. Rules are made to be broken! Sonatinas are usually much shorter and simpler in form, without much or any development.

Sonatas also often incorporate transitional material, basically passages that join two sections. Rather than just ending A and diving directly into B, a transition gently guiding the listener to a new section, or signaling that things are changing can work nicely. Transitions can be quite brief, or fairly lengthy. They can be totally unrelated to anything, or they can directly pull from something in the piece. They can compliment the surrounding sections, or contrast them. Like variations, introductions, and codas, transitions can be used in any number of different musical forms.

Don’t stop there. Invent your own forms. And even as you begin composing more complex works, return often to simple form pieces. You’ll never master longer forms without first mastering the shortest.