Music Notation and Terminology


Terms Relating to Forms and Styles

132. A form in music is a specific arrangement of the various parts of a composition resulting in a structure so characteristic that it is easily recognized by the ear. Thus e.g., although every fugue is different from all other fugues in actual material, yet the arrangement of the various parts is so characteristic that no one who knows the fugue form has any doubt as to what kind of a composition he is hearing whenever a fugue is played. The word form is therefore seen to be somewhat synonymous with the word plan as used in architecture; it is the structure or design underlying music. Examples of form are the canon, the fugue, the sonata, etc.

Speaking broadly we may say that form in any art consists in the placing together of certain parts in such relations of proportion and symmetry as to make a unified whole. In music this implies unity of tonality and of general rhythmic effect, as well as unity in the grouping of the various parts of the work (phrases, periods, movements) so as to weld them into one whole, giving the impression of completeness to the hearer.

133. The primal basis of form is the repetition of some characteristic effect, and the problem of the composer is to bring about these repetitions in such a way that the ear will recognize them as being the same material and will nevertheless not grow weary of them. This is accomplished by varying the material (cf. thematic development), by introducing contrasting material, and by choice of key.

134. The student should note at the outset of this topic the difference in meaning between the terms form and style: A form is a plan for building a certain definite kind of composition, but a style is merely a manner of writing. Thus e.g., the fugue is a formi.e., it is a plan, which although capable of variation in details, is yet carried out fairly definitely in every case; but counterpoint is merely a style or manner of writing (just as Gothic architecture is a style of building), which may be cast into any one of several forms.

135. The material found in the following sections is an attempt to explain in simple language certain terms relating to forms and styles which are in common use; in many cases the definition is too meagre to give anything but a very general idea, but it is hoped that the student will at least be set to thinking and that he will eventually be led to a more detailed and scholarly study of the subject. (The article "Form" and the separate articles under each term here defined, as found in Grove's Dictionary, are especially recommended. For examples of the various forms described, see also Mason and Surette—"The Appreciation of Music," Supplementary Volume.)

136. In a very general way there may be said to be two styles of musical composition, the monophonic (or homophonic)—the one-voiced—and the polyphonic—the many voiced. The polyphonic[32] style antedates the monophonic historically.

137. In monophonic music there is one voice which has a pronounced melody, the other voices (if present) supporting this melody as a harmonic (and often rhythmic) background. An example of this is the ordinary hymn-tune with its melody in the highest part, and with three other voices forming a "four-part harmony." The sonata, symphony, opera, modern piano piece, etc., are also largely monophonic, though polyphonic passages by way of contrast are often to be found.

138. In polyphonic music each voice is to a certain extent melodically interesting, and the "harmony" is the result of combining several melodies in such a way as to give a pleasing effect, instead of treating a melody by adding chords as an accompaniment or support. Counterpoint, canon, round, fugue, etc., are all polyphonic in style. The word contrapuntal is often used synonymously with polyphonic.

(Sections 139 to 143 relate especially to terms describing polyphonic music.)

139. Counterpoint is the art of adding one or more parts or melodies to a given melody, the latter being known as the "cantus firmus," or subject. It may therefore be broadly defined as "the art of combining melodies."

The word counterpoint comes from the three words "punctus contra punctum," meaning "point against point." The word point as here used refers to the punctus—one of the neumae of the mediaeval system, these neumae being the immediate predecessors of modern notes.

Both vocal and instrumental music have been written in contrapuntal style. The familiar two- and three-part "inventions" by Bach are excellent examples of instrumental counterpoint, while such choruses as those in "The Messiah" by Handel illustrate the highest type of vocal counterpoint.

140. Imitation is the repetition by one part, of a subject or theme previously introduced by another part. If the imitation is exact, the term strict imitation is applied, but if only approximate, then the term free imitation is used in referring to it. The repetition need not have the exact pitches of the subject in order to be strict; on the contrary the imitation is usually at the interval of an octave, or a fifth, or a second, etc. Fig. 57 shows an example of strict imitation in which the third part comes in an octave lower than the first part.

141. A canon is a contrapuntal composition in the style of strict imitation, one part repeating exactly (but at any interval) what another part has played or sung. The term "canonic style" is sometimes applied to music in which the imitation is not exact. An example of three-part canon is given in Fig. 57.





The word canon means law, and was applied to this particular form of composition because the rules relating to its composition were invariable. It is because of this non-flexibility that the canon is so little used as a form at the present time: the modern composer demands a plan of writing that is capable of being varied to such an extent as to give him room for the exercise of his own particular individuality of conception, and this the canon does not do. For this same reason too the fugue and the sonata have successively gone out of fashion and from Schumann down to the present time composers have as it were created their own forms, the difficulty in listening arising from the fact that no one but the composer himself could recognize the form as a form because it had not been adopted to a great enough extent by other composers to make it in any sense universal. The result is that in much present-day music it is very difficult for the hearer to discover any trace of familiar design, and the impression made by such music is in consequence much less definite than that made by music of the classic school. It is probable that a reaction from this state of affairs will come in the near future, for in any art it is necessary that there should be at least enough semblance of structure to make the art work capable of standing as a universal thing rather than as the mere temporary expression of some particular composer or of some period of composition.

142. The common school round is an example of canon, each voice repeating exactly what the first voice has sung, while this first voice is going on with its melody. The round is therefore defined as a variety of canon in which the imitation is always in unison with the subject.

143. The fugue (Latin, fuga = flight) is a form of contrapuntal composition in which the imitation is always in the dominant key, i.e., a fifth above or a fourth below. The imitation (called "the answer") may be an exact repetition of the subject (sometimes called "the question"), but is usually not so.

The fugue differs from the canon also in that the subject is given in complete form before the answer begins, while in the canon the imitation begins while the subject is still going on. The fugue is not nearly so strict in form as the canon and gives the composer much greater opportunity for expressing musical ideas. A canon may be perfect in form and yet be very poor music; this same statement might of course be made about any form, but is especially true in the stricter ones.

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