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A Guide to Rondo Form in Music

Updated on February 23, 2017

A Typical Old Fashioned Merry-Go-Round

An old fashioned carousel found in southern France
An old fashioned carousel found in southern France | Source

What do a rondo and a merry-go-round have in common? If you look at the picture of the merry-go-round above you'll see an airplane just behind the horses in the centre. Every time the ride revolves the airplane keeps reappearing again. That's a simplified explanation of what happens in a rondo.

A rondo is a piece of music based on a recurring theme. This main theme alternates with other themes to give the piece variety. The main theme is usually referred to as theme A and is sometimes called the refrain. The secondary themes present the listener with contrasting material and are sometimes referred to as episodes. There are three basic patterns that a rondo might follow, which are:

  • A - B - A
  • A - B - A - C - A
  • A - B - A - C - A - D - A

You can see that these are all basically the same and that the third one is simply an extension of the other two. For the purposes of this article, we'll be focusing on the third pattern which was popularised by Mozart and Beethoven and is the most exciting and interesting of the three. Here's a graphic representation of the form that sets it out clearly for you.

Rondo Form Graphic

A graphic representation of the way rondo form is usually constructed
A graphic representation of the way rondo form is usually constructed | Source

Well Known Rondo Tunes

There are lots of pieces based on a rondo that you've probably heard many times before. Two that instantly come to mind are:

  • Mozart's Rondo a la Turca or Turkish March
  • Beethoven's Für Elise

No doubt you're familiar with these and perhaps you've even played them. In any event, listen to them again and you'll notice how the first main theme keeps coming back or recurring. That's what makes a piece a rondo in the first place. And now let's take a look at the various parts of a rondo in a little more depth.

Mozart's Turkish March

Rondo Form Structure Analysed

Rondo form is based around the main theme or principal theme which is also known as the refrain. This main theme or refrain is in the tonic key, so if the piece is in F major then the first theme is also in F major. Not only that but every time the main theme appears throughout the piece it is always in the tonic key or F major in this case.

Some pieces are in minor keys, of course, such as Mozart's Turkish March. In that example, the main theme is in the key of A minor whenever it appears. Beethoven's Fur Elise is also in A minor and follows the rondo structure A - B - A - C - A. The last movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata, Sonata in C Minor Opus 13, is also in a minor key. However, in this piece Beethoven uses the 7-part rondo replacing D with another variant of B which was common practice in rondo composition.

Here's a graphic that shows the rondo form in terms of its key structure possibilities. Note that section D often becomes a variation of section B, which is then written as B'.

7-Part Rondo Form Key Structure

Typical key structure of a 7-part rondo
Typical key structure of a 7-part rondo | Source

A major key and minor key with the same tonic are said to be parallel. D major and D minor have the same tonic, so we say that D minor is the parallel minor to D major.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Rondo Finale

Where Does Rondo Form Come From?

The word "rondo" has almost the same letters as the word "round" - which can be a bit confusing. In a round (such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat or Three Blind Mice), the same music is played or sung but starting at different times so that when they come together they fit together perfectly and produce pleasant harmonies. In a rondo, there are at least two unique themes that alternate with each other and that appear in different keys. So while the main theme of a rondo keeps coming back (i.e. coming round again) the form itself has nothing in common with the simpler round.

Some researchers have suggested that the rondo has its roots in the French rondeau. A rondeau is a form of medieval poetry with repetitions of a couplet between longer sections of poetry. The rhyme scheme includes A & B rhymes only making it only vaguely similar to the rondo's shortest form (A - B- A).

So what are the rondo's real origins? It's more likely that the rondo form grew out of the ritornello that was so popular in the Baroque era.

Composers Who Helped Establish Rondo Form

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A caricature drawing of Antonio VivaldiA sketch of Ludwig van BeethovenA drawing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
A caricature drawing of Antonio Vivaldi
A caricature drawing of Antonio Vivaldi | Source
A sketch of Ludwig van Beethoven
A sketch of Ludwig van Beethoven | Source
A drawing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
A drawing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Source

Ritornello Form & Links to Rondo

Just as the word "rondo" hints at something coming around, so the word "ritornello" reminds us of the word "return". In fact, ritornello is an Italian word meaning "little return".

As a form, the ritornello developed from the 16th to the 18th centuries. By then, composers such as Vivaldi helped to establish a set of standards or conventions that later composers would follow and expand on, including:

"Spring" from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons

Ritornello alternates with string solos
Ritornello alternates with string solos | Source
  • Ritornello themes for the full orchestra should alternate with episodes for the soloist or soloists
  • The opening ritornello may be composed of several smaller units which may be repeated or varied
  • When restated the ritornello is usually partial and never complete
  • The first and last statements of the ritornello theme are in the tonic, with at least one in the dominant and others in related keys

You'll find examples of ritornello in many of Vivaldi's concertos and in the Concerto Grossi of the Baroque period. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 3rd Movement is a perfect example.

In a nutshell, then, a ritornello is simply a recurring theme, and so it's pretty obvious that it would eventually lead to something else - something like rondo form. But even rondo form was destined to undergo something of a transformation in the hands of the masters.

Ritornello is an Italian word meaning "little return"

When is a Rondo NOT a Rondo?

When it's a rondo in sonata form which is also known as sonata rondo form.

One of the videos above features the last movement of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. A list of the 4 movements from that work would read like this:

  • Allegro
  • Romanze
  • Menuetto
  • Rondo

So although the final movement is called a rondo, it's actually in sonata form. This is one of the ways in which Mozart and then Beethoven took rondo form and injected it with new life and vigour. They combined it with sonata form to give it the feel of a rondo with its recurring theme but the scope of sonata form with its potential for development of the themes.

What makes it sonata rondo form? Well, it has the exposition, development and recapitulation sections you find in sonata form. It also has a coda. But the first theme keeps recurring just as it would in a rondo. The main difference in Mozart's hands is that, when the theme does return, it's always slightly altered. It might be shorter or in a new key. These kinds of changes avoid unnecessary straight repetition of the theme and help to keep the music fresh for the listener.

Here's the main theme from the 4th movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Main theme of the 4th movement from Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Main theme of the 4th movement from Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik | Source

Where Can You find Other Rondo Examples?

Now that you know what a rondo is, try to listen out for them. A great way to get familiar with the form is to listen to a few good examples beforehand and then to keep your ears open for new ones. Here are some you can find on YouTube right away:

  • Beethoven's 6th Symphony, last movement
  • Beethoven's 8th Symphony, last movement
  • Haydn's "Drumroll" Symphony (Symphony No.103), last movement
  • Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet, last movement
  • Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, fourth movement
  • Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, last movement

And don't forget to have a crack at the quiz below.

Quiz on Rondo Form


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    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 8 months ago from England

      Thanks chasmac, glad you enjoyed it :)

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 8 months ago from UK

      Excellent explanation, John. I was about to ask about ABACABA, but I see you've got it covered - Great!