Formenlehre and the Understanding of Musical Form

Form in music theory in relation to perception and understanding of musical form

The form of a piece of music has been regarded as a central category for the evaluation of compositions since the 18th century. The Formenlehre (theory of forms) has developed beyond the theory of composition into an independent subject. This discipline not only deals with the structure of musical material, but also implies what kind of meaning arises for the listener. In the diverse discourses of Formenlehre, analytical methods and rules are formulated according to which the form (and thus the piece of music itself) is to be perceived. Many of these assumptions contradict the findings of empirical music research.

For the listener, grand-scale form does not seem to play an important role when listening for instance to a sonata movement (Cook 1987). Professional musicians notice formal "mistakes" in musical pieces only marginally better than listeners with no musical experience. It is also known from cognitive psychology that listeners have little awareness of formal relationships over a longer period of time (Tillmann & Bigand 1996, 2004). In contrast to these findings, analytical methods and a widespread teaching practice emphasize the structural and formal unity of a work, such as a symphony, as being of utmost importance. This practice is based not least on the fact that in the context of an interpretation, a preceding analysis is ascribed great importance.

In this project, we examine the relationship between an individual understanding of form, for example that of an interpreter, and categories of common Formenlehre. We assume that an individual understanding of form is an important factor for the intensity of the listening and interpretation experience. Each listener / interpreter has individual strategies for the perception of form based on his or her capacity and predisposition.