The question of how to structure materials can be difficult. We will examine a number of possible strategies and encourage you to develop your own.

No Limits

Because composing with sounds frees you from the limits of traditional music and allows you to work in whatever way suits you best, it can often be a challenge to work out how or when to start building sounds together.

It is sometime difficult to distinguish between individual gestures (that happen on a smaller scale) and larger structures (which happen on a larger scale). This is because both of them are types of structures. Gestures are made from sound events, while structures are made from collections of gestures.

In fact, the shape of small gestures can often inspire larger structural decisions, while large scale structural decisions can influence the types of smaller gestures that a composer decides to use.

Finding a Structure

Sometimes composers start out with a clear idea of where they want their piece to begin and where they want it to end up.

While, other times the structure will emerge as they gradually develop their piece.

Almost all pieces end up having a certain overall direction (they have a structure which takes the listener from X to Y). And these overall structures / directions are often fairly simple.


Composer Trevor Wishart argues that as you move to larger scales then the complexity of structure decreases.

What does this mean?

The structures which take place across whole pieces are often far simpler than the structure or make up of any smaller scale gesture or individual sound event within a piece.


This is because audiences are likely to get lost and confused within complex structures at a larger scale.

Traditional Musical Structures

Even though making music with sounds is different from making music with notes, the common structures used in traditional music can be highly useful in helping us to plan and focus our compositions made with sounds.

Traditional music is often divided into simple chunks described by letters, for example:

This is particularly the case with popular music where there are clearly defined verse / chorus structures within songs.

Dividing music up in this way allows us to easily talk about the structures of the piece. BUT, in reality, it might not be so easy to say where A ends and B begins.

Common Structures in Traditional Music

Below are some examples of common structural ideas which you might use to inform the structure of your whole piece.

Call and Response

This is a conversational approach and a common feature of improvised music and where there is a dialogue between sounds (or performers). An initial musical statement sounds, and a second musical statement responds. This process will then continue.

Imagine how a conversation or an argument in music would sound.


Three clearly defined sections A B A. But the final section is the same as the first. This gives a clearly defined beginning and end, and provides the listener with a sense of returning to where they began.


A clearly defined main theme (A) which recurs between new ‘episode’ sections. For example: A B A C A D A E… etc.

Continuous Variation

The development steadily continues and the piece gradually evolves and progresses. A B C D E F… etc.

Variation and Development

Similar to the Rondo, but the main theme is developed and evolves so that there is a sense of continuing development. A1 B A2 C A3 D A4 E A5… etc.

Visualising Form

Sometimes it can be useful to think visually about form and larger structures.

In these graphs, the vertical axis shows how far the original idea has been developed in the piece, while the horizontal axis shows the progression of time.

Think about how you’d like your own piece to develop and perhaps draw out your very own plan using a similar graph.

Composition Tip

We can take ideas from individual sounds to inform, larger structures within a piece. And we can then expand these ideas even further to inform the structure and development throughout a whole piece.


Choose a work from the listening room and try to work out its structure.

You may need to listen to the piece a few times.

Compare your interpretation of the chosen works structure with interpretations that other people have made.