Music Theory Resources
Rondo form alternates a primary theme called the refrain or rondo theme in the tonic key with contrasting episodes in other closely-related keys. Rondo themes are tuneful and catchy, often based on a phrase period. Rondos typically have a lighthearted, cheerful character, are most often in major keys, and usually in faster tempi. The form was very popular in the Classical era of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven who favored rondos for the final movements of their symphonies, concerti, and sonatas.
Rondo form is like rounded binary, ternary, and sonata form in that they are all based on reprising material. Like sonata form (and unlike binary and ternary) rondos typically have a transition between the refrains and episodes to accomplish the modulations. Rondos often end with a coda in the tonic key. Introductions in rondos are rare, as composers usually preferred to begin with a clear statement of the rondo theme.
rondo is a multisectional form in which the main theme or section (A) periodically returns after contrasting material. It may encompass a movement of a piece (usually the last movement) or be a separate piece itself. The two general versions are a Five-part Rondo and a Seven-part Rondo. Here are the sections for a typical seven-part rondo:
A. The A section: This is the main theme, sometimes called the refrain or rondo. It alternates with the other contrasting sections. All the statements of A are in the tonic key. The A section may exhibit an independent form such as binary or rounded binary (often without repeat signs). In subsequent appearances, it may be shortened or otherwise altered in appearance. After the main thematic part of the A section, there most likely will be a transition section to prepare for the entrance of the next section. This transition section is to be included in the total number of measures for the A section, but it is not to be included in any calculation of independent form for the section.
B. The B section: This is the first contrasting section, and will have a new theme. Such contrasting or alternating sections are sometimes called couplets or episodes. It will be in a contrasting key, dominant (V) if the main key is major, and the relative major (III) if the main key is minor. It is not likely that this section will exhibit an independent form. However, there will most likely be a transition section at the end of this section that prepares for the return of the A section. Again, this transition section is to be included in the total number of measures for the B section, but it is not to be included in any calculation of independent form for the section.
A. The first return of the A section. This may be complete, or only in part. It will be in the tonic key. There will be a different transition section from the original A section in order to prepare for the entrance of the next section. This transition section is to be included in the total number of measures for this A section, but it is not to be included in any calculation of independent form for the section.
C. The C section: This is the second contrasting section, and occurs after a repeat of the A section (either whole or in part), which will be in the tonic key. The key of this section may be almost anything. It may exhibit an independent form (sometimes with repeat signs). It will probably have a transition section at its end to prepare for the return of the A section. Once again, this transition section is to be included in the total number of measures for the C section, but it is not to be included in any calculation of independent form for the section.
A. The second return of the A section. This may be complete, or only in part. It will be in the tonic key. The transition section may be similar to the first transition section into the B section, but will probably be changed because of the different key for the returning B section.
B'. The return of the B section: This will most likely be restated in the tonic key. (In some versions, it remains in its original key, but this is less common.) Therefore, the transition into it in the A section will be somewhat altered, as will its transition to prepare for the final return of the A section.
A. The final statement of the A section: This may be considerably altered, and may turn into a coda for purposes of ending the movement (or piece).
In a five-part rondo, the second return of the A section and the return of the B section would be left out. The final statement of the A section would have the same purpose as the final A section in the seven--part rondo. See the diagrams on the next page.
Here are the two most typical rondo forms:
Types of Rondos
Three-part Rondo (symmetrical or arched rondo):
The simplest rondo form is a three-part rondo, or A B A. What makes a three-part rondo different from standard ternary form is the presence of transitional material between the sections. Rondo form is thus continuous and sounds more “connected” compared to composite ternary forms (like minuet-and-trio) that tend to sound more “squared off”. If the rondo is in a major key, the first episode will typically be in the key of the dominant (V). In minor keys it is usually in the relative major (III). Figure 1: Three-Part Rondo
The five-part rondo includes a second episode with new material (labeled C). Sometimes it may be a variation on the first episode (and should be labeled B’). The second episode is typically in a different closely-related key than the first.
A B A C A
major key: I V I ? I
minor key: i III i ? i
|Refrain||Episode 1||Refrain||Episode 2||Refrain|
Seven-part Rondo (symmetrical or arched rondo):
The seven-part rondo adds a third episode, usually in the tonic key. The second episode typically consists of new material (C). The third episode can either be new (D), or it may be a reprise of the first episode transposed to the tonic key (B’). When this happens, the seven-part rondo comes close to sonata form, with the third episode sounding like a “recapitulation” of (B).
A B A C A B' A
major key: I V I ? I I I
minor key: i III i ? i i i
sonata Rondo :
Rondo form can also be fused with sonata form into a hybrid design called sonata-rondo. The sonata-rondo was invented by Mozart in his string quartet K.157 and later adopted by Haydn, Beethoven, and others. Sonata-rondo form transforms the seven-part rondo into a sonata-form design by replacing the second episode with a development. The first refrain, first episode, and second refrain thus form an exposition, the middle episode serves as a development, and the final (A)(B)(A) forms a recapitulation.
Most classical seven-part rondos are hybrid forms with elements of the sonata mixed in. Thus, the first A and B sections become the primary and secondary themes in the exposition, and the C section is like a development. The returning A and B sections then are the recapitulation. The key scheme follows that for a sonata (which is actually the same as that given above for the seven-part rondo). However, the main distinguishing feature of this form (sonata-rondo) is the return of the A section (the primary theme) in the tonic key before the development section (the C section).Figure 4: Sonata-Rondo Form Exposition Development Recapitulation A B A C A B’ A (Coda) Refrain Ep1 Refrain Ep2 Refrain Ep3 Refrain I V/III I Other CKC I I I I
A B A C A B' A
major key: I V I ? I I I
minor key: i III i ? i i i
A B A C A D A
A B A C B A
Rondos are most frequently encountered in the finales of sonatas, chamber works, symphonies, and concerti. The five-part rondo often occurs in the slow movements of both Classical-era and Romantic-era pieces.
The Classical-era rondo originated in the Baroque-era French rondeau, which consists of a simple refrain form, usually found in dance movements (French chaconnes and passacailles, gavottes, sarabandes, minuets) or character pieces.
What all rondos have in common is the idea of the primary rondo theme presented in alternation with contrasting sections. The charts above illustrate the most common rondo designs but should not be seen as absolute rules. As with other forms, composers have been creative and inventive in finding ways to stretch and alter rondos to suit their artistic goals.