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A Guide to the Minuet and Trio Form

Author:

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

The minuet was originally a French dance

The minuet was originally a French dance

The Minuet and Trio is a common form used in classical music composition. It turns up often as the third movement of symphonies and string quartets, and has also been used extensively in the piano works of Mozart and Beethoven, among others.

Why would any composer write a minuet and trio? It gives them a framework within which to work. Like sonata form, there are certain rules that need to be adhered to. And when writing a piece with four different sections - such as a piano sonata or symphony - it's important to make sure there's variety. The nature and placement of the minuet and trio means that it's easily recognizable, too, which helps listeners make sense of the music more readily.

So here's a simple guide that will help you understand and identify a minuet and trio the next time you hear it.

Structure of a Typical Minuet & Trio

The minuet came first, and the trio was added later. Minuets were initially written to be danced to. When the dance craze died out, composers continued to write pieces using the minuet style, expanding and modifying it to keep up with changing times.

A minuet has three beats in a bar and generally moves along at a leisurely pace. Composers as far back as Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) wrote them for the courts of kings and queens, where wealthy and upper-class people would gather to indulge in fine food and drink, strive to make a good impression on the ruling monarch, or simply make sure they were seen in the right places.

By the time of J.S. Bach the minuet became a musical form in its own right. The trio element evolved as a technique to make the minuet last longer and is simply another minuet stuck in the middle. Composers helped audiences identify the trio by scoring it for three instruments only - and that's where the name "trio" comes from.

Here's a picture of the basic broad structure of the minuet and trio form:

The minuet and trio follows the ABA pattern, which is also called ternary form

The minuet and trio follows the ABA pattern, which is also called ternary form

A Trio of Possibilities

The minuet at the beginning and the minuet at the end are the same. It might seem boring to us these days to repeat the whole first part of the piece again, but you have to remember that people usually heard music one time only. They weren't able to flick on the radio, pop a CD in their stereo or download it through iTunes. Their only encounter with the music would be when they heard it performed live, at a dance or a concert. The only way they could get to hear it over and over again would be if they had the sheet music and the ability to play it. Otherwise the tunes and harmonies would go in one ear and out the other. So composers used repetition to make it easier on them.

You'll notice that the minuet and trio is a three-part structure. That's important, because each one of the three parts also contains three parts. So part A, the original minuet, follows the ABA format, as does the trio and the concluding minuet. Here's what the structure looks like when it's broken down into its constituent parts:

Each section of the minuet and trio has three parts

Each section of the minuet and trio has three parts

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

You'll notice that section B - the trio - uses different letters to identify each of its three parts. That's because the music for the trio is unique. It might be based on what came before it, i.e. the minuet, but it will be varied in some way, usually by a key change and often with a different melody. So because the music is different, we use different letters to indicate that.

Minuet and trio form uses repetition extensively, as mentioned above. This is partly due to the fact that the composers want to familiarize their listeners with the music as quickly as possible, and partly due to the conventions of the genre. It's possible for modern performers to play the pieces without repeating sections - it all depends on how strictly they want to adhere to the composer's wishes.

Here's the way a typical minuet and trio would be played with the repeats:

Repeated sections helped llisteners learn the music faster and identify the parts of a piece

Repeated sections helped llisteners learn the music faster and identify the parts of a piece

Typical Examples of this Classic Form

Whether you realize it or not, you've probably heard a minuet and trio at one point in your life. Examples of the form are everywhere in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. You've probably come across this famous piece by Beethoven, particularly if you've ever had piano lessons. It's part of the repertoire that most pianists will learn during the first few years of their study:

The opening of Beethoven's well-known Minuet in G, which uses the complete Minuet and Trio form

The opening of Beethoven's well-known Minuet in G, which uses the complete Minuet and Trio form

Another equally famous example occurs in Haydn's 'Surprise' Symphony. Check out the third movement and see if you can identify the minuet and trio structure.

Adding Variety to Keep Things Interesting

With so much repetition you may be wondering how composers keep listeners from being bored. One way they can achieve this is by changing the endings of sections, for example by using first and second time bars. These subtle changes are enough to add variety to the music, throwing in a small twist that takes listeners by surprise and makes them take notice.

Another trick they employ is changing the music within a section. So, for example, in the opening minuet which has an A B A structure, a composer might choose to alter the final A-section and give it a completely unique ending, helping to make it stand out. Or they might indicate that the section be played medium loud the first time, and then very soft the second time. Pieces for orchestra can achieve differentiation by varying the instrumentation. Small changes like this can have a tremendous impact, especially in the hands of a master craftsman like Beethoven or Haydn.

Key changes can also provide relief. Typically the trio is in a different key, for example the relative minor or the dominant. This has two benefits for the listener:

  1. It provides a new tonal center, something fresh for the ear
  2. When the original tune returns it brings a sense of familiarity and recognition

The Three-Part Form at a Glance

The most important thing to remember about the Minuet and Trio is that everything is in three's. Here's a quick summary to help bring it all together.

  • Each of the sections of the piece - minuet, trio, minuet - has three beats in a bar
  • There are three sections in total, making an A B A form, also called ternary (three parts) form
  • Each section is subdivided into three distinct parts
  • A minuet and trio is usually the third movement of a sonata, concerto, symphony or string quartet

And that's all there is to it. Test your knowledge by completing the short quiz below, and remember to listen carefully next time there's classical music playing to see if you can spot those minuets and trios!

Just a Minuet!

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Where does the minuet come from?
    • It comes from a misspelling of the word "minute"
    • No one knows
    • It started out as a courtly dance
  2. Why is the trio called a trio?
    • Because originally it was meant to be played by three people
    • Because it took three goes for composers to write one
    • Because there are three beats in the first bar
  3. What's another way to describe the form or structure of a Minuet and Trio?
    • Basic and repetitive
    • Ternary form
    • Old fashioned
  4. Which of these is another name for the trio?
    • Triplet
    • Tricorder
    • Minuet
  5. What techniques might composers use to make the trio stand out from the minuet?
    • Change the key
    • Use new melodic material
    • Assign different instruments
    • All of the above
  6. Why was repetition so important in classical music?
    • Because people only heard music on rare occasions
    • Because they were a boring bunch
    • Because it saved having to make up new material

Answer Key

  1. It started out as a courtly dance
  2. Because originally it was meant to be played by three people
  3. Ternary form
  4. Minuet
  5. All of the above
  6. Because people only heard music on rare occasions

Questions & Answers

Question: If say a trio is in the key of G major, then what is the expected key of its minuet?

Answer: The minuet comes first, so the keys of both sections will be related to the key of the minuet. Typically, the trio is in a key related to the minuet. So, if the minuet is in the key of G, for example, then the trio might be in the key of D, which is the V chord or dominant.

Question: Which instruments are used to play an ensemble?

Answer: An ensemble is simply a group. The word "ensemble" means together. Two people playing together is a duet, three is a trio, four is a quartet, five is a quintet, six is a sextet, seven is a septet, eight is an octet, nine is a nonet, and so on. But each of these is also an ensemble in the strict sense of the word because "ensemble" means playing together.

Question: What happens when the minuet has two different trios? What form would it have then? Would it become a minueto-trio1-minueto-trio2-minueto?

Answer: As stated in the article, the typical minuet and trio form has 3 parts: the minuet, the trio, and the minuet repeated. It's possible to add as many different elements as you want, but then it becomes something different. And when that happens, perhaps it might need a new name like those you suggest.

Question: Is the minuet and trio a type of ternary form?

Answer: Yes. If you check the article, you'll notice that it follows the ABA structure, which is also called ternary or 3-part form. The section headed "The Three-Part Form at a Glance" sums it all up for you.

Comments

Robert on June 13, 2020:

Great Explanation: I've written a minuet, but wasn't sure how different the trio should be. Now it's chrystal clear! --- Thanks John

David L on April 27, 2018:

This is why music is so often compared with architecture. It's largely about structure. The poetry revolves around the structure. The little trio section in the third movement of Schubert's fabulous string quintet. Beautiful.

Anonymus on March 27, 2018:

Thank you!

This helped my project for music theory come along quite nicely :)!

JohnMello (author) from England on March 08, 2018:

You're welcome, anonymus :)

Anonymus on March 08, 2018:

Thank you! This helped my project for music theory come along quite nicely! :)

Anynomus on November 18, 2017:

Really good. I decided to write a minuet, but didn't know what went into one. After reading this I finally understood what went into one. Thanks for teaching my how a minuet works.

JohnMello (author) from England on September 25, 2017:

Thanks i.i

i.i on September 25, 2017:

That was a truly wonderful explanation!

Jack Walsh on July 28, 2017:

Thanks, John!!! Exactly what I needed! Well explained and helpful.

JohnMello (author) from England on November 01, 2016:

Thanks sally sun :)

sally sun on November 01, 2016:

best explanation on google! well done!

JohnMello (author) from England on July 15, 2015:

Thanks Nhung Nguyen :)

Nhung Nguyen from Vietnam on July 15, 2015:

Nice explanation !

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