Musical Form


The aim of this book is to discuss  fundamental principles of musical composition in concise, practical terms, and to provide guidance for student composers. Many of these practical aspects of the craft of composition, especially concerning form, are not often discussed in ways useful to an apprentice composer – ways that help him to solve common problems. Thus, this will not be a “theory” text, nor an analysis treatise, but rather a guide to some of the basic tools of the trade. It is mainly based on my own experience as a composer and teacher.
This book is the first in a series. The others are: CounterpointOrchestration, and Harmony.
For more artistic matters, related to composition, please see my essay on the musical ideas.
A pdf version of this book (in English) is available here. A French version of this book is available here. A version in Spanish is also available as a pdf, as is a version in Italian. These are the older versions, with no audio; updates in these languages are due before long.
This series is dedicated to the memory of my teacher and friend Marvin Duchow, one of the rare true scholars, a musician of immense depth and sensitivity, and a man of unsurpassed kindness and generosity.
Note concerning the musical examples: Unless otherwise indicated, the musical examples are my own, and are covered by copyright. To hear other examples of my music, please visit the worklist page.
Scores have been reduced, and occasional detailed performance indications removed, to save space. I have also furnished examples from the standard repertoire (each marked “repertoire example”). Unfortunately, copyright issues make it prohibitive to supply scores and audio for these: It would be impossible to continue supplying this work free of charge.
© 1995, Alan Belkin




  • Introduction: Why this book?
  • Stylistic assumptions
  • Forms and form
  • Using this book as a textbook
  • Sources
  • A final note

Basic Notions

  • Foreground vs. background
  • Flow vs. break; continuity vs. surprise
  • Articulation and degrees of punctuation
  • Rate of presentation of information
  • Stability vs. instability
  • Progression
  • Momentum


  • Psychological functions of structural elements
  • Structural requirements for the beginning of a musical work
  • Some typical starting gestures
  • The opening as a distinct section

Elaboration/Continuation, pt. 1

  • Organization of this chapter
  • General requirements for successful continuation
  • Transitional technique: the basis of satisfactory musical flow
  • Contrast
  • Suspense
  • Points of reference
  • Climax

Elaboration/Continuation, pt. 2

  • Flow
  • Major contrasts
  • Creating suspense over larger spans of time
  • Long range points of reference
  • Gradations of climax


  • How can the composer conclude the piece convincingly?
  • Resolution: the main issue
  • Rounding Off
  • Ending gestures
  • The ending as a distinct section: the coda

Forms: a Glossary

  • Introduction
  • Specific forms

Conclusion, acknowledgements, bibliography