Structure and Form: What’s The Difference?

Structure and form are two words that surface frequently in music analysis and education. Two words should be associated with two different concepts, but these two are frequently used interchangeably. But are they really the same? I maintain that they are not; that there are important differences between their meanings, and today I will discuss those differences.

Much of the discourse on musical structure is grounded in linguistics. In linguistics, phrase structure is the grammatical arrangement of words in sentences. Isolated words have little or no meaning, and a sequence of all verbs or all nouns and nothing more, while being a use of language, cannot be made sense of, because the relationship between the words is unintelligible. The words must be grouped together, and a relationship between them perceived in order for the phrase or sentence to make sense.

Beginning with Leonard Berstein in his lectures at Harvard University, and continuing with Lerdahl, a composer, and Jackendoff, a linguist, in their “A Generative Theory of Tonal Music,” structure has been regarded as a cognitive construct in which elements are innately grouped together into a meaningful entity such as a motif, phrase, phrase group or theme. The way in which the human brain constructs such groups involves perceiving group boundaries which include repetitions, changes in register, lengthened durations of sound, and momentary pauses in sound. Meter, rhythm, phrasing, and tonality are all understood through this process. The innate formation of structure that a listener carries out is what enables them to “make sense” of sounds, and recognize them as music. Sounds which cannot be so organized are generally regarded as noise, which is the main difference between sounds that are noise and sounds that are music.

With this in mind, we see that there are three musical structures. These are grouping, metrical, and harmonic. Groups are the motifs, themes, phrases, theme groups, and sections into which a listener inutitively organizes music they hear. Meter is the result of a certain kind of grouping that establishes patterns of strong and weak beats. Harmony is the established relationship between simultaneously heard tones which establishes tonic, subdominant, and dominant functions. Harmonic structure is the organization of these relationships into patterns of tension and relaxation. Though an oversimplification, the profile of this structure is that the tonic is the most relaxed, bringing the music to a state of repose or finality, and that as chords are increasingly distant from the tonic on the circle of fifths, the tension that they bring in, or the strength of their “pull” toward the tonic, increases. The pattern of that ebb and flow of tension is harmonic structure.

Now on to form. Form is the arrangment of structures into known sequences. Let us take the rondo as our example. The rondo is comprised of three distinct themes or theme groups heard in the prescribed order of a b a c a. In order to recognize where a ends and b begins, we need to perceive grouping, metrical, and harmonic structures. Groups of motifs are combined in a nesting process to form larger theme, which are comibned to form theme groups. Harmonic cadences define theme and theme group boundaries, and the meter helps form the groups and also influences the strength of cadences which differentiates phrase endings with section endings. The important point here is that structure is used to understand form. Rondo, or sonata-allegro, or theme and variations are not structures, they are distinct organization of structures.

The difficulty many teachers have in teaching form is that they have not provided their students with enough listening opportunities to familiarize them with a musical genre before asking them to perceive structures. Organizing music into structures requires familiarity with the norms of that genre. For example, students need to know what full, half, and plagal cadences sound like before they can understand them as group endings. They need to be able to ascertain the meter of music to which they are listening before they can understand dance forms such as waltz or gigue, or as indicators of group boundaries.

Simply prepping a class by playing themes to listen for and then playing a work and asking them to listen for those themes leaves out this critical preparation. Studnets who do not perceive the meter or the grouping because they are inexperienced in doing so will not be able to find those themes while listening to the work because they will miss where the beginnings and endings of the groups that comprise the themes, and get lost trying to find their way. If students cannot do this, there is no gain in proceeding to teach them more about form. The sounds must make sense, must be understood for the labels to be of any use.

So how does one go about providing musical experiences that will give students the experirence they need to understand musical structure? We can begin by applying a basic premise of Music Learning Theory to our situation. Gordon held that people perceive music in patterns, and advocated building a vocabulary of patterns through tonal and rhythmic solfege exercises. These patterns are types of groups that we have been discussing. Rather than teaching an entire theme all at once, begin by teaching one easily heard group within a theme, and have students respond to that.

A good example is the last movement of symphony no. 40, in G minor K. 550 by Mozart. The first theme is made up of two motifs; the first of mostly ascending quarter notes, the second, a flourish of eighth notes. That flourish of eighth notes is developed in subsequent phrases, appearing many times. Students can listen to the whole first section (another group made of smaller nested groups) and wave their arms in the air each time they hear the flourish. In doing so, they are becoming familiar with the whole section, and practicing being conscious of thier inuitive grouping of the theme into two motifs.

Another good example is the well-known “Hoe-down” from Rodeo by Copland. The very first three notes are a distinct rhythmic group. Students can clap on those three durations each time they are heard. They always occur in metrically strong position and are rhytmically defined as a group. This is also a good piece for pointing out section-long groups, because they are marked by easily heard contrasts in rhythm and dynamics. By working from small groups to larger ones made from the nested smaller ones, you will effectively give students the listneing experience they need to understand form. When you have worked through “How-down” they will be ready to recognize its rondo form.


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