IV. Form

Foundational Concepts for Phrase-level Forms

John Peterson

Key Takeaways

  • This chapter describes the hierarchy of musical form, motives, and segmentation analysis.
  • can be understood as a hierarchical grouping of units.
  • The smallest of these groupings is a , which is a regularly recurring unit of music that’s typically smaller than an . In an analysis, we circle and label motives that recur and are transformed across a work. Avoid identifying large melodies or portions of melodies as motives—motives are short!
  • A is a way to show the grouping units of a passage or whole piece. To do a segmentation analysis, we begin by identifying phrase endings, which are often marked by . Then, we divide into smaller units using square brackets above the score to show the idea level.


One way to understand is as a hierarchical grouping of units. Example 1 shows that a piece contains movements, movements contain sections, sections contain themes, themes contain phrases, and so on.

Although the diagram in Example 1 looks quite simple, the relationships between the levels are a little more complicated in reality. For instance, sometimes two levels are collapsed into one: a single phrase might also serve as the section for a work, so it may not always be worthwhile to distinguish between each level. It’s best to think of Example 1 as a guide and not as something that strictly defines formal levels.

This chapter, along with the three that follow it, are focused on , or the various ways in which a phrase may be constructed of , , and . While phrases always contain ideas and motives, they may also contain subphrases, something to which we will return later.

Hierarchy of Formal units in classical music

EXAMPLE 1. Hierarchy of form in classical music.


A is like a little snippet of a melody. It’s a regularly recurring unit of music that’s typically smaller than an (ideas are discussed more below). Examples 2–4 below are videos that discuss a motive from a given work; you might select whichever video interests you most, or you might watch all three. They all contain the same basic information.

While we wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that all motives must be repeated, usually the most interesting ones to talk about are, so we tend to focus on motives that recur throughout a passage.

There are many kinds of motives (e.g. rhythmic, pitch, contour, timbre), but usually when we say the word “motive” we mean a pitch-based motive. If we want to speak about a motive that’s primarily recognizable from its rhythmic design, for example, we would specify “rhythmic motive.”

Motives tend to change across a work. Some common transformations are:

  • : making the durations of a motive longer than the original
  • : making the durations of a motive shorter than the original
  • : changing the direction of the motive (e.g. instead of going up, it goes down)
  • : changing the metric position of the motive relative to its original statement
  • : stating the motive backward in comparison to the initial statement
  • Intervallic manipulation: changing the size of the intervals that comprise the motive (e.g. m2 becomes M2)
  • Embellishment: adding embelling tones to the underlying basic shape of the motive.

EXAMPLE 2. Motivic analysis of John Williams, “Journey to the Island” and Main Theme from Jurassic Park. Listen to the main theme (0:48–1:06). Listen to “Journey to the Island” (1:20–1:46).

EXAMPLE 3. Motivic analysis: Beethoven, Symphony 5, I. Listen to a recording (0:00–0:27).

EXAMPLE 4. Motivic analysis: Miranda, “Aaron Burr, Sir” from Hamilton. Listen to a recording of the song (0:12–0:16).

  • Often when people are first asked to identify motives in a work, they tend to choose something too large, like an entire theme, for instance. Example 5 shows a common mistake in a motivic analysis of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: identifying a passage that is too long to be considered a motive. For a more useful approach, see the video in Example 3.
Beethoven Symphony 5, first movement. The first four measures are circled as an example of something that is too large to be considered a motive.


EXAMPLE 5. Beethoven, Symphony 5, I, mm. 1–13. The boxed measures indicate something that is too long to be considered a motive. Recording: 0:00–0:17.

Practice It! 1: Motivic Analysis

This Practice It! will guide you through a motivic analysis of the opening of John Williams’s “Duel of the Fates.” To begin, listen to the opening (0:15–0:26), then start the quiz.

The Idea Level, The Phrase, and Segmentation Analysis

A is a relatively complete thought that exhibits trajectory toward a goal, arriving at a sense of closure. While phrases are examined in more detail in the following chapter, here are two important points:

“Relatively complete” means that the phrase has a sense of beginning, middle, and end.

In much tonal music, closure is most often signaled by a , though other ways of achieving closure will be examined in the following chapter. That phrases end with closure is particularly important because it can help us to shape the passages we perform to give them a sense of trajectory toward their goal.[1]

When we analyze a phrase, we often begin with a , which uses square brackets above the staff to identify the phrase’s component parts.

The smallest level of a segmentation analysis is called the . If needed, see Example 1 for a reminder of where the idea level fits in the hierarchy of form. Ideas are short grouping units that contain the motivic material for the work. They are often two measures long, but they may be longer or shorter. Ideas may group together to create subphrases or phrases, something that is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

To perform a segmentation analysis, do the following:

  1. Identify potential points of closure
    1. Consider that phrases need a sense of beginning, middle, and end, so be careful that you’re not thinking too small to determine where a phrase ends.
    2. In tonal music, very often cadences tell us where the ends of phrases are.
  2. Divide each phrase into smaller units. (To identify these units, consider: if you were to coach someone to prepare this phrase, how would you divide it so they could practice it in smaller chunks?)
  3. Use square brackets above the staff to indicate those small units.
  4. Verify and label any cadences that are present.

The videos in Examples 6 and 7 both demonstrate a segmentation analysis. They contain similar explanations, so you might choose to watch whichever interests you most.

EXAMPLE 6. A segmentation analysis of Donizetti, “Me voglio fà ‘na casa.” Listen to a recording here (0:00–0:43).


EXAMPLE 7. A segmentation analysis of Clara Schumann, Piano Trio Op. 17, I. Listen to a recording here (0:00–0:32).

  1. Coming soon!

Media Attributions

  1. Sometimes people confuse the terms "phrase" and "phrasing." Usually when people say "phrasing" they are referring to the way a passage might be shaped (where to push and pull time, where and how to change dynamic levels, etc.), and they may or may not be referring to an actual phrase (a complete thought that ends with a cadence).


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