Picturing Musical Forms: AB and ABA

Instructional Resource

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Picturing Musical Forms: AB and ABA

Instructional Resource

The National Association for Music Education General Music standard asks grades 6-8 to show familiarity with AB (binary) and ABA
(ternary) forms in composition. An example of a composition in AB form is the saraband. Commonly given examples of ABA are the
minuet and a certain kind of rondo. Below are three Smithsonian objects that might help students imagine those forms. The first
first is a print titled Sarabande. The second is a 1920s Viennese textile design called Menuett (Minuet).  The third is a painting titled
Rondo. Show the works toillustrate a discussion of the musical forms. Or, after a discussion, work together to deduce which of the pictures
is the "saraband," which the "minuet," and which the "rondo." For a few thoughts, see READ MORE or click the text box ↙or the pictures.


The artwork titled Sarabande is by Caroline Stone (b. 1936). The Smithsonian American Art Museum describes it as an abstract allegory of musicpresumably an allegory of the saraband (or sarabande). Do students see in this work a relationship between an A and a B?  What is the relationship between the violet squares and the tan squares?  Or the two squares that cross as they recede?

In the AB musical form, wrote Aaron Copland, "there is a general correspondence between the first and second parts. The A and B seem to balance one another; B is often little more than a rearranged version of A."

An examples of a saraband in public domain is one in Johann-Sebastian Bach' s Cello Suite No. 1, performed by Pablo Casals. Do students hear a mere restating of the A in the B, or do they hear a development of A in the B? Do they see mere repetition of the squares in the artwork, or do they find some kind of development?


The minuet began as a dance—the most familiar courtly dance of the eighteenth century. The dancing couples moved along a predetermined route making alternating patterns, first the form of an S, then in the form of a Z. The Minuet fabric here is described by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, as a pattern of "alternating fleurettes and curly cues and dots."

In each case, the minuet of the design and the minuet in music, the A and the B are two different things. S then Z then S again. Fleurette then curly cue then fleurette again.  ABA.

Minuets in the same Bach cello suite, performed by John Michel, are also in public domain. Do students hear mere repetition? Or, again, do they hear developments in the ABA pattern?

This might lead to questions of the different ways that pattern is used in music and in design. The fabric design was perhaps for a wallpaper. Is it the function of wallpaper to challenge us with interesting new developments in the pattern? Do we follow wallpaper, as if it were a story?

By the same token: How long can we stay interested in music with a wallpaper-like pattern?


The painting Rondo (Blue and Yellow) is a 1965 acrylic on canvas by Carmen Herrera, in the Hirshhorn Museum. The first clue that this is the rondo may be the round framing: rondo is Italian for "roundabout," and the musical term rondo refers to a circular returningwhat goes around comes around. In its simplest form, a rondo is an ABA. Composer have however built upon the form to take us farther steps away from A before we return to A. Some rondos, for example, are in the form ABACAA.

In the painting, it seems, A and B are represented by the colors yellow and blue. Students might consider: Is the painting's rondo an ABA?

A commonly given example of a rondo in music s the final movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8, the Pathetique, Students might listen to decide if Beethoven's rondo is an ABA. If they hear something more complex:

How might the painter have made the rondo more like Beethoven's?