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Help the listener perceive musical form with repetition and contrast

This is an excerpt from Music Fundamentals for Dance by Nola Holland.


Provide a fundamental understanding of music and how it applies to dance performance, composition, and teaching with
Music Fundamentals for Dance.

Repetition and Contrast

Repetition and contrast are the two most basic elements of musical form. These concepts evolved as a response to the human need for comfort in the familiar and then, becoming bored with the familiar, a change to something new. Repetition and contrast also help the listener perceive musical form. The repetition of a phrase reinforces the melody and makes the listener more acquainted with it; then a new, different phrase is introduced (the contrast).

Repetition is the opposite of contrast. Repetition may be immediate (AA, meaning that a phrase may be immediately repeated without a contrast) or come after a new idea has been presented (ABA; the B section is the one contrasting the A section). In longer musical works that incorporate thematic development (e.g., sonata allegro form), when the original melodic or thematic statement (A) follows a contrasting section (B), it is restatement rather than repetition. The term restatement implies that the first section (the melody or theme) follows a contrasting melody or theme.

Repetition is common to all musical forms. It may be literal, meaning exactly the same, or it may be varied. If the repetition is varied, a composer will include enough of the original statement for the listener to recognize it. In diagramming varied repetition, it is shown as A1, meaning that the A section has repeated and is similar to A, is embellished, or is altered. Repetition, depending on the way in which the material is repeated, can also be used in creating a much longer work. Ideas may return in their original form, or they may be transformed to present nuances and therefore new meanings.

The American folk song “Polly Wolly Doodle” is a short example of repetition and contrast. In this song, the repetition comes when the second verse, or part A, returns after the chorus. The chorus presents something new to hear—a contrast from the verse. Yet, the last line of the chorus is a repeat of the last line of the verse. It brings the listener back to something familiar. Notice how the notes and the text on the third staff and the sixth staff in figure 6.1 are identical. When the phrase “Sing Polly Wolly Doodle all the day” comes at the end of the verse as well as at the end of the chorus, it is the same. This concept of repetition and contrast is found in the simple form of nursery rhymes and in more complex musical forms such as the classical concerto. This simple part A and part B formula is also a basic song form. (Note: Instrumental recordings and samples of “Polly Wolly Doodle” are readily available on the Internet if you are unfamiliar with it.)

This concept of repetition and contrast also applies to dance. Repetition in dance may be immediate and as short as a single movement. For example, the movement phrases in many of Petipa’s classical-era ballet variations are often composed of three repetitions of a movement followed by a variant of the step or a different movement performed as the fourth movement in the phrase sequence. Likewise, modern dance choreographer Laura Dean built her early choreographic style on the repetitive use of spinning (turning). Knowing how to incorporate the techniques of repetition and contrast or repetition and restatement can greatly enhance choreographic development just as it does musical development. It can lead to expansion of a work. It gives choreographers or composers somewhere to go with their ideas, lengthening and expanding both musical works and dances.

As stated earlier, contrast is a different part of a song or musical work; it comes after a first part. In basic song form, the contrasting section may be the chorus (refrain). Generally speaking, in musical form, the contrasting section is referred to as part B simply because it follows the first section or phrase, which is usually called part A. Binary form in music means that there are distinct A and B sections in a song or work. Understanding binary (two-part) form enhances and expands this discussion of repetition and contrast.

Binary Forms

Binary form can be as simple as part A and part B, but it can also become quite complex. Simple binary form means that a work is divided into two distinct sections, AB or AA1. The difference between the two sections, the A section and the B section or the A section and A¹ section, is what establishes the form as binary. There is usually a repetition of each binary section so that a diagram of the sections would look like AABB or AAA1A1. Most binary forms begin and end clearly. The first section, the A, may end with a weaker cadence and be harmonically open. As discussed in chapter 3, when the cadence is harmonically open, it gives the listener the impression that more music will follow, that the music will continue. Sometimes the A section ends on a harmonically closed cadence and the B section has a fresh start. The second section, B, usually ends in a harmonically closed cadence, meaning that the cadence gives the listener the impression that the music has come to a harmonically closed or final conclusion. Each section is usually composed of different musical material but may share a common motive. Part B material may also be based on or drawn from part A. The two parts may be connected by a transition (link), and each may also have a codetta (a short ending section), although it is very unusual for part A to have a codetta. After parts A and B, there may be a coda, or a longer final section.

Baroque Binary Form

Binary form was the form of choice for many baroque composers (c.1600-1750). It was dominant in much of the era’s instrumental and vocal music, especially music for dance. The popularity of the binary form continued into the 19th century.

Simple binary form is the most common form in dance movements of the early classical period, and it was still used in the later 18th and 19th centuries for short character pieces and for themes of theme-and-variation movements. Slow movements of concertos, the stylized dance movements of sonatas, and other multimovement works may also employ binary forms. Bach and Handel, both baroque-era composers, included many dance-based sections or movements in their suites.

Baroque Dance Suites

Among baroque-era binary forms, the suite is of special interest to dancers. A baroque dance suite consists of stylized dance music based on the actual baroque court dance forms. Many early suites have 4 movements, but in other suites there may be as many as 20 movements. Music historians credit J.S. Bach with creating a standardized suite order beginning with the allemande, followed by acourant, then asarabande, and concluding with agigue. These are only a few of the baroque-era court dances. The music to which each dance was performed was also given the same name. This is but one example of how music and dance of past eras were inseparable. However, it is important to remember that baroque suites consisted of stylized dances, meaning that the music has the rhythm, meter, and flavor of the actual baroque dance but was for listening, not dancing, even though it evolved from the actual music that accompanied the specific dances.

In baroque-era suites, composers often inserted other dances between the sarabandeand the gigue. These dance movements might have been a minuet, gavotte, bourrée, passepied, polonaise, rigaudon, anglaise, or loure. Sometimes the suite may have had a prelude (an introductory musical section) or a lyric, nondance movement called an air, which is composed in free form or in ritornello form. Free form occurs when composers themselves determine the music’s form; they do not follow a standard form structure. Ritornelloform includes a short, recurring passage. Again, these stylized dance forms were binary in their musical form.

In the 19th century, the themes for sets of variations or short character pieces used simple binary form. During the 20th century, composers revived the use of binary form in neoclassical music (neoclassicism was a mid-20th-century use of classicism’s precepts where beauty, order, clarity, restrained emotion, and succinct statement prevail). Binary form is also a part of more complex structures and forms.


Read more from Music Fundamentals for Dance by Nola Holland.


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