Alternative Musical Forms to the Symphony

The classical symphony is one of the largest and most ambitious developments in classical music. As a composer, I view the symphony as one of the highest forms of art and something that a composer aspires to once they have reached a certain level of development. No matter how talented the composer, a symphony isn't the very first musical form that they attempt to complete. Instead, a composer aims to gain expertise in the smaller forms and gradually work their way up to the larger forms.

Understanding the difference between a suite, fugue, and various other small forms can help you to focus your musical ideas and develop a work that makes sense logically. Musical form acts as a container that gives a composer's ideas shape and prevents a composition from becoming a rambling, nonsensical mess.


Suites contain a collection of works that are generally related by a theme or motive. "The Planets" is one example an orchestral suite written by Gustav Holst. The work aims to create a musical impression of each of the planets in our solar system. Suites are often programmatic in nature and consist of several movements. During the Baroque period, each movement in the piece was commonly linked by a related key.

Modern suites are more generally linked together by subject matter, motive, or even harmonic content. A suite can be seen as a mini-symphony and in the middle of the Classical period, it gradually gave way to the symphony. However, for composers that want to write a shorter work that deal with linked elements in preparation for writing larger the forms, the symphony may provide an ideal medium.


Another remnant form the Baroque period, the fugue aims to create a complex counterpoint of ideas and acts as a great training exercise for young composers. Most composers don't publish fugues anymore, unless the goal is to create a collection of exercises or etudes. The fugue is largely outdated, but many composers of organ music still write very effective modern fugues. A Baroque fugue started in one key center and introduced a main subject.

The subject was then repeated at the fifth and developed throughout the work. A true fugue has at least four sections -- an exposition, transition, development, and recapitulation. The transition aims to bridge the gap between the exposition and development. The development contains two middle entry points that emphasize countersubjects and gets away from the primary key area.

Sonatas and Cantatas

Sonatas typically contain four movements and have some similarities to a symphony. However, sonatas don't require unifying themes, but generally do contain specific related key centers throughout the work. While the most common sonata contains four movements, a three movement sonata is also fairly common. The sonata should not be confused with the sonata-allegro form.

The sonata-allegro form generally contains several parts consisting of an exposition, development, and recapitulation, and often is the first movement of a symphony. One interesting distinction between a sonata and a cantata is that a sonata is not sung, but played by an instrument or set of instruments. Cantatas are similar in form and function to a sonata, but are sung instead of played. A Sonatina is generally considered to be a shorter, easier piece for a performer to play than a sonata.


Concertos consist of an interaction between the soloist and orchestra. In traditional music, you needed both a soloist and an orchestra to quality. Modern concertos may contain just a solo instrument, or a work for piano only provided the piece adheres to the spirit of the response-and-call format of the traditional concerto.

There is typically an exposition, development, and recapitulation in a concerto, with a cadenza before the final coda. The soloist interrupts the orchestra at the end of each section to play a response. Concertos are large works that generally require a composer to have a good mastery of composition.


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