All About Rondo Form in Music

In today’s episode of PianoTV, we’re going to explore what rondo form is in music. We’ve explored other long forms on this channel before such as the sonata – and they belong to a similar era. Classical-era musicians really liked their complex forms!

We’ll talk about what a rondo form is, and we’ll use a very famous example along the way – Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique (the last movement).

Let’s get started!

What is rondo form?

Rondo form (or French rondeau) evolved out of the baroque ritornello. The baroque ritornello goes like this: The whole orchestra plays the main theme, and then soloists play the episodes in between (sort of like a chorus and a verse).

When a ritornello returns to the main theme (the “chorus”), it doesn’t directly copy the same thing like a traditional pop tune would do – it brings back the theme in different keys and in different ways. Rondo form, however, brings back the main theme in the same key (so more like our modern pop song).

Here’s the terminology you need to know:

  • Theme (sometimes called “refrain”) – This is the main part of a rondo that repeats
  • Episode (sometimes called contrasting themes, or “digressions”) – These parts change, and go in between the refrains

Rondo form usually looks like this:

ABACA (A is the theme, B and C are the episodes)

ABACABA

It can even look like this:

ABA

“ABA” looks on the surface to be the same as ternary form (three-part form), but you can usually tell the difference between them by the fact that there’s usually an embedded song form in one of these individual sections (they’re longer and more involved than regular ABA form). There also tends to be a more dramatic contrast between parts, whereas regular ternary form doesn’t feature a lot of variation.

Specifics on rondo form

But wait, there’s more!

Of course there’s more – this is the Classical era we’re talking about, after all.

Now that you know rondo form is made up of themes and episodes, let’s take a look at what keys/key changes we can expect for those themes and episodes.

What you see here is an outline of the different keys used in a rondo. For example, if our rondo is in the key of C minor (like it is for Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique), we can expect the rondo to play out like this:

A: I (C minor)

B: III or V (Eb major or G major)

A: I (C minor)

C: VI or IV (Ab major or F major)

A: I (C minor)

B: I (C major)

A: I (C minor)

Let’s take a look at the sonata in more detail and investigate for ourselves!

Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata

Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique was composed in 1798 when Beethoven was only 27 years old. It’s his 8th piano sonata, op. 13. We’re going to be inputting into this rondo form formula to see how it all works.

A: Main theme/refrain

Here’s an excerpt of the main theme, which you’ll hear four times in the entire movement. The last two times you hear it it’ll be shortened, but it’s overall the exact same notes each time. Let’s take a listen – it’s a very catchy ditty in C minor, the main key.

B: Episode 1 in Eb major

About a half-minute in, after a brief pause, we hear the first episode enter. A brief transition leads us to the key of Eb major, and as such it has some more tender-sounding moments than the refrain. It’s brief; less than a minute before kicking back into the main theme.

That’s another commonality with rondos and pop music – the individual sections are usually pretty short and sweet, so they are easier for us to listen to and digest than more complicated forms (like sonata form).

C: Episode 2 in Ab major

Leading into the second episode, we have a bigger build and a longer pause, which makes this entrance more dramatic.

It’s in the key of Ab major and starts off very gently, which creates a bigger contrast toward the end of the verse with a big build-up. There’s this truly excellent arpeggiated part (you can hear it in the full version) toward the end of the second episode that’s really lively, fast and attention-grabbing.

Then we return to the A section again, the theme – only this time it’s shortened to only 8 bars long.

B: Episode 3 in C major

We hit our final episode in C major. This covers the same material as the first episode, only it’s much shorter this time around (and in the key of C instead of the key of Eb major).

We then go to the final refrain, 12 bars long this time (still shorter than the original), before we hit the coda (ending) at bar 182. Let’s take a quick listen to that as well.

Coda

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this tour through Rondo form! Stay tuned – in the next week or so we’ll be doing a video on possibly the most famous piece written in Rondo form.

xo,

Allysia

Music credits

Performed by: Paul Pitman

Copyright: Public domain mark 1.0