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Binary form

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Binary form

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Binary form is a way of structuring a piece of music into two related sections, both of which are usually repeated.

Binary form was popular in the Baroque period, often used to structure movements from sonatas for keyboard instruments. It was also used for short one movement works. However, around the middle of the 18th century, the form largely fell from use as sonata form and organic development gained prominence. When it is found in later works, it usually takes the form of the theme in a set of variations. Many larger forms incorporate binary structures, and many more complicated forms (such as sonata forms) share certain characteristics with binary form.



Most strictly, a piece in binary form is characterized by two complementary, related sections of roughly equal duration. The first section will start in a certain key, and will usually modulate to a related key:

  • compositions in major keys will typically modulate to the dominant, the fifth scale degree above the tonic
  • compositions in minor keys will typically modulate to the relative major, the major key centered on the third scale degree above the tonic.

The second section of the piece begins in the newly established key, where it remains for an indefinite period of time. After some harmonic activity, the piece will eventually modulate back to its original key before ending. In 18th Century compositions, it was common for both A and B sections to be separated by double bars with repeat signs, meaning both sections were to be repeated.

Binary form is usually characterised as having the form AB, though since both sections repeat, a more accurate description would be AABB. Others, however, prefer to use the label AA'. This second designation points to the fact that there is no great change in character between the two sections. The rhythms and melodic melodic material used will generally be closely related in each section, and if the piece is written for a musical ensemble, the instrumentation will generally be the same. This is in contrast to the use of verse-chorus form in popular music - the contrast between the two sections is primarily one of the keys used.

Further Distinctions

A piece in binary form can be further classified according to a number of characteristics:

Simple vs. Rounded

Occasionally, the B section will end with a "return" of the opening material from the A section. This is referred to as rounded binary, and is labeled as ABA'. In rounded binary, the begininng of the B section is sometimes referred to as the "bridge", and will usually conclude with a half cadence in the original key. Rounded binary is not to be confused with ternary form, also lablelled ABA - the difference being the B section in ternary form is completely contrasting with the A material, as in, for example, a minuet and trio.

If the B section lacks such a return of the opening AA material, the piece is said to be in simple binary.

Sectional vs. Continuous

If the A section ends with an Authentic (or Perfect) cadence in the tonic key, the design is referred to as a sectional binary. This refers to the fact that the piece is in different tonal sections, each beginning at ending in their own respective keys.

If the A section ends with any other kind of cadence, the design is referred to as a continuous binary. This refers to the fact that the B section will "continue on" with the new key established by the cadence at the end of A.

Symmetrical vs. Asymmetrical

If the A and B sections are roughly equal in length, the design is referred to as symmetrical.

If the A and B sections are of unequal length, the design is referred to as asymmetrical. In such cases, the B sections is usually substantially longer than the A section.

See Also

Home | Up | List of musical forms | Ballet | Concertos | Dances | Gendhing | Opera | Operetta | Sonatas | Song forms | Aleatoric music | Arch form | Bagatelle | Ballad | Ballade | Ballet | Bar form | Barcarolle | Binary form

Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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