What is Rondo Form in Music?

Rondo Form is one of the most popular and most composed forms of the Classical era. In the seventeenth century, many famous composers used this form as the last movement of their compositions. This is how the “rondo” emerged from the “rondeau”.

The rondo form has a section also called refrain that is repeated a lot through the movement similar to the medieval and Renaissance rondeau. The refrain varies with different sections that create contrasts.

Mozart’s famous piano sonata ” Rondo Alla Turca” is one of the most well-known rondos besides “Für Elise” by Beethoven. In the classical genre, the rondo is mostly used for ending a composition with a lively and pleasant finale.

The word “rondo” comes from the French poetry form, “rondeau,” often set to music in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The rondo form though has no similarities with the medieval and Renaissance rondeau form when you make a comparison.

In this article, we will go over the definition, history, evolution, and finally some examples from different genres and the recent history of the rondo form.

What is Rondo Form?

Rondo form is a musical form in which refrains and episodes cyclically follow each other. It’s a fairly modular structure that’s made up of these two sorts of components. It’s good to keep in mind that the refrain and theme are referring to the same component in rondo.

To be more specific, the rondo form is characterized by the cycle of the musical content that you hear. This cycle makes you feel like you’re going around in circles and turning back to the beginning again and again.

Even when you feel like something new is about to happen or you’re about to arrive at some sort of breaking point, near the conclusion of some episodes, you end up at the refrain once again.

Musical Form

Musical form is a fixed form to provide an order to the composer during the writing process. If you want to understand or interpret a musical piece, you need to know how it’s put together first.

To put it another way, it’s the skeleton of the composer’s musical design and the interpreter’s guide. There are four types of musical form:

The Iterative Type: a repeated initial melodic line.

The Reverting Type: the return of the initial theme following a contrasting phrase

The Strophic Type: the continuous transformation of a single section into multiple versions.

Progressive Music: introduction of new musical material in pairs of phrases.

The rondo is a reverting type form. As mentioned before, as a modular form comprising two components, refrains and episodes alternate in the Rondo structure.

What is a Refrain?

The refrain is the main theme that systematically reoccurs again and again and each time in the tonic key from the beginning till the end of a piece of music. At least, what your ear wants to hear is this ongoing process. You can modify the refrain. For a long movement, the most typical adjustment is to abbreviate the refrain in one or more of the repetitions. Another purpose may be to add content or ornamentation, such as shifting its tonal direction, to make it more interesting.

What is an Episode?

In contrast to the refrain, the episode contrasts the key and/or the theme. Keys or themes are enough to distinguish an episode from the refrain on their own, but it’s also possible for both to operate together.

A couplet is another name for an episode. A couplet involves just one or two phrases. The Latin originated word “couplet” means a group of two. Especially in the Baroque rondeau, this is a typical occurrence in musical writings.

Examples of Rondo Type Forms

Rondo form is particularly popular in the Classical era. So giving many examples from the popular and more recent genres is not easy.

Baroque Rondeau

Baroque Rondeau involves many refrains and episodes including short subsections. You see a high amount of refrains and episodes in this type of rondeau.

Refrain – Episode 1 – Refrain – Episode 2 – R. – E. 3 – R….. – Episode 0 – Refrain

Five-Part Rondo

The five-part rondo has five main sections. These five sections indicate the total number of the refrains and episodes in the piece of music: three refrains and two episodes.

The five-part rondo is the most well-known type as the standard ABACA rondo form. In a standard five-part rondo all of the refrains are in tonic with the same theme and the two episodes follow them in related keys being thematically independent of each other.

Refrain – Episode 1 – Refrain – Episode 2 – Refrain

 Ex. Für Elise – Beethoven

Seven-Part Rondo

Seven-part rondo is the longest rondo form. It involves four refrains and three episodes. Again, the three episodes have different thematic materials in relative but different keys. It may be asymmetrical or symmetrical rondo form depending on if episode 3 takes shape in the related key (asymmetrical) or in tonic (symmetrical). In addition, in a symmetrical rondo form, episode 1 and episode 3 have related thematic material.

The seven-part symmetrical rondo is also known as the sonata rondo form.

Refrain – Episode 1 – Refrain – Episode 2 – Refrain – Episode 3 – Refrain

   A (I)           B (RK)   A (I)          C (RK)    A (I)      D (RK)   A (I)  (asymmetrical)

   A (I)           B (RK)   A (I)          C (RK)    A (I)     B’ (I)          A (I)   (symmetrical)

These are the essential rondo types. To expand a rondo form, you can use transitions to make a connection between the refrains and episodes. For ending the rondo form, you can use a longer or shorter coda as you wish. 

Summary

A rondo form is a musical form in which refrains and episodes cyclically follow one another. As a modular structure it’s made up of these two components: the refrain and the episode. The refrain is the main topic that recurs repeatedly, much like what your ears want to hear. In contrast, the episode contrasts the key and/or the theme, in one or two phrases. I hope this article sheds some light on the subject and thank you for reading!

Arda Tuncer is a music producer, composer, songwriter, arranger, and performer. She releases music as part of the music duo, Kronik Leila. She has worked and collaborated with some prestigious orchestras around Europe, while also holding University positions as music theory professor and music research assistant. Arda studied music theory and clarinet at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and completed her degree at the Conservatory of Strasbourg in France.

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