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The term musical form is used in two related ways:

  • a generic type of composition such as the symphony or concerto
  • the structure of a particular piece, how its parts are put together to make the whole; this too can be generic, such as binary form or sonata form

Musical form (the whole) is constrasted with content (the parts), but there is no clear line between the two. In most cases, the form of a piece should produce a balance between statement, repetition, variety, and contrast.

There is some overlap between musical form and musical genre. The latter term is more likely to be used when referring to particular styles of music (such as classical music or rock music) as determined by things such as harmonic language, typical rhythms, types of musical instrument used and geographical origin. The phrase musical form is typically used when talking about a particular type or structure within those genres. For example, the twelve bar blues is a form often found in the blues and rock and roll music.

In classical music, there are many labels applied to forms. Typical structures used to shape a single movement include:

These structures are defined by the distribution of different thematic material, melodies, key centres, and other materials used. Music which is not composed with the above or any other model is called through composed.

Types of piece which may or may not incorporate one or more of the above structures as part of their overall makeup include:

Forms of chamber music are defined by instrumentation (string quartet, piano quintet and so on). The structure of a chamber work is typically similar to a sonata.

See also: List of musical topics, Susan McClary.