The Classical Era: Good Clean Form

The end of the Baroque era tends to be placed in 1750, the year of Bach’s death. Even before this, though, tastes were changing in Europe. Regardless of what era or art medium, it’s interesting to observe that tastes tend to alternate between opposites through time. Music embodies this by going through alternating states of grandiose/decorated/dense style and understated/simple/ clear style, and in no two eras is this more evident than between the Baroque and Classical eras. The Baroque period is the epitome of grandiose, dense, contrapuntal writing, so it’s no surprise that what came after it was the epitome of squeaky-clean lines, clear separation of melody and harmony, and a dramatic reduction of counterpoint. By the mid-18th century Europe’s courts and middle class homes were embracing style galant, which prized elegance and superficiality over grandeur or profundity. And to achieve clean elegance in music, there need to be rules.

The Classical Obsession with Form

One of the most significant departures from Baroque to Classical eras was the development of, and strict adherence to, new formats for music. Some bear closer resemblance to older forms than others. Themes (distinctive, “main” melodies of a work) are key ingredients to all Classical era forms, and are generally referred to with letters when being analyzed. Here’s a list of just some of the main forms of Classical era music, with letters to represent themes.

  • AB(A): The big-picture distillation of most forms. Two distinct melodies, one after the other. Many Baroque works, such as Bach’s cello suites, already used this form but didn’t repeat A at the end. This bookended A is a hallmark of the Classical era.
  • Sonata form: a highly narrative form. Two contrasting themes are stated, developed and then brought back to their rightful forms at the end. A sophisticated ABA.
  • Theme and variations: Just as it sounds. Similar to the chaconne from last week, except that the composer has much more freedom to change the speed, key and meter (in two, in three, etc) as well. A rare relaxation of rules.
  • Rondeau: A theme is presented before alternating between different sets of unrelated material and the theme recurring in between. Hence A-B-A-C-A-D-A etc.
  • Minuet Trio: Always in three, like a waltz. Two contrasting melodies are presented and the first will repeat itself at the end. Hence ABA.

As you can see, rules are strict in the Classical era. Unsurprisingly, most scholarly analysis of music is based on Classical era conventions. The good news is that a listener who hasn’t studied music will find Classical era music easier to follow than that of other eras because of the rules. Familiar melodies return in all of the above forms, so even if you are unsure of the form of a piece as you listen, you will hear familiar music come back and give clues.

Some other major changes also occurred in the Classical era in instrumentation, meaning how many people tended to play at once and what kind of music they played. The continuo section (Unfamiliar? See Introducing the Baroque Period) fell out of fashion and the newly developed piano overshadowed the harpsichord. Instruments were now more technologically well-developed, louder, more durable and capable of more subtlety, so no continuo was required to provide backup. Instead, the symphony orchestra rose to popularity and made an entirely new combination of sounds possible for composers to explore.

The Symphony

Before we go any further, a note about wording. “Symphony” can refer to the work of music and the ensemble playing it, which can be confusing, so I will make sure to say “symphony” and “orchestra” separately. I will never say “symphony” and refer to the orchestra itself.

The symphony is a format of music in which many instrumentalists play together, and those people are separated into distinct groups of instruments. Generally these groups are strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. The Classical symphony has a remarkably consistent format regardless of the composer, and can be analyzed with ease due to this. Rules were followed so strictly that they would become the backbone of symphonic writing in all subsequent eras.

The form of a Classical symphony:

  • Sonata form first movement, perhaps with a slow introduction
  • Slow second movement, likely a theme and variations
  • Minuet trio movement in three, ABA
  • Fast finale, likely rondeau or sonata form

Again, this can be applied to any symphony from the classical period and nearly any symphony ever written afterward. Composers may switch the order of the two inner movements, and by Beethoven’s time the minuet will become much faster and go by a different name (the scherzo), but other than that, you are now ready to enjoy the entire Classical symphonic repertoire.

Mozart: Symphony no. 39 in E Flat Major

Mozart, the prodigy that took Vienna, Europe and the world by storm, needs little introduction. In his tragically short life he composed symphonies, string quartets, operas and concerti that still form the foundation of each of these respective genres. He knew all the rules for writing, but what made him stand out was his equally inventive knowledge of how to break them.

Mozart’s 41 symphonies are all worth a hundred listens, but the one I’ve selected is my personal favorite. It’s probably because it’s the one I’ve played most often and know best. It’s frequently programmed and well-loved by audiences. We will look in detail at the first movement now.

Mozart’s Symphony no. 39, performed on period instruments.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction that, while grand and dignified, makes the listener wonder what will happen with sudden dissonance in the third chord. The movement “properly” begins after this section, when the meter changes to a fast tempo in three. This is a great example of sonata form, overwhelmingly the most common format for first movements.

Sonata Form as a Story

  • Introducing the characters: A theme and B theme stated, A in home key and B in another key. Something separates them from relating well to one another!
  • Characters undergo an adventure or a struggle: This is called the development. Themes are deconstructed and put through all sorts of variations and cycle through lots of different keys. You’ll hear the most dissonance here.
  • Characters return home, this time getting along much better by finally being in the same key. This is called the recapitulation, or recap.

Listen for the A theme, stated by the strings in the beginning of the fast section. The winds and percussion join to make the theme more boisterous, and same chords from the slow introduction return underneath (genius Mozart moment!). Eventually you’ll hear a transitional passage and then the contrasting B theme which is more understated. The B theme will also be made more lively in its second iteration. It is unusual for both themes to have two “versions,” such as the soft-loud varieties that Mozart gives both his themes here.

It can be difficult to tell what’s a theme and what’s transitional material, especially for an untrained ear, because it all depends on the key. B themes are always in a particular key relative to the A theme. If you can hear that the music is now in another key, you’ve reached the B theme. Part of the narrative aspect of sonata form is the face that, at first, the themes are in different keys, but in the end, they will reunite in the same key.

The development section of this symphony is particularly long and makes creative use of concepts stated earlier in the piece. All good developments will be, at all times, based somehow on material you’ve already heard. Even if you find yourself losing attention amidst all the key changes, try to identify what earlier music a particular passage might be based upon. It’s a bit like Where’s Waldo, except with sounds!

The recap happens when you hear the A theme again, just as it was at the beginning. In this particular symphony the recap is clean and happens after a notable silence, so it should be easy to identify. You’ll then hear the B theme but this time it will be in the same key as if all is right in the world and B has found its place.

The movement can now end, since the B theme has been fixed! Composers might add extra material to make a grand finish; this is called a coda. Mozart adds a short coda after the end of the second B theme and after a grand cadence the movement is over.

When you listen to the other movements, see if you can identify their forms. They will all fall into one of the categories (sonata, rondeau, etc) above. As you get better at identifying themes, you’ll be able to tell very quickly what form a movement has, and enjoy it more because of form’s imperative part in Classical music’s narrative.

Classical era music creates an expectation, playing with the audience thinking it knows what comes next. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to expect to happen, you’ll miss out on a good composer’s creative defiance of that expectation. Strict rules led to vast numbers of boring compositions that trapped classical music in the background noise of dinner parties, but the composers who rose above the rest were able to manipulate, turning rules into a vehicle for unique expressions that the audience could use the form to understand.

6 thoughts on “The Classical Era: Good Clean Form

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  2. […] in a fast-slow-fast succession. The first movement is in classic sonata form (What’s that? Click here). The second movement is beautiful, lyrical and features the signature Brahms rhythmic figure: both […]


  3. […] he listened to the music of Schumann and Brahms, studying and critiquing it. He fell in love with Mozart’s operas, Chopin’s solo piano works and other Western European sounds. He was one of St. […]


  4. […] form plus a mini-scherzo, and the third movement is a proper scherzo in ABA form (Review of form here). Dvořák manages to keep to the satisfaction of good craftsmanship while making all of his […]


  5. […] most famous melodies. The movement’s form is loosely based on a two-theme form (like sonata form). The strings open the movement with a frenzied tremolando (fast repetitions of the same pitch), […]


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