What is "formal" music?

If a piece is described as very "formal", what exactly do they mean by that? Does it mean formal structure like traditional structure? I understand the definition of the word I just want to make sure I understand what it means in relation to music...

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  • petr b
    Lv 7
    8 years ago
    Favorite Answer

    I associate 'formal' in this context with 'format.' Unloading the word format from a lot of usual associations, it is simply something conceived of initially, or worked as a structural procedure, having a format as part of its basic working premise.

    If you think of the general usage for 'formal garden' it usually conjures up tended plants, very clearly arranged beds, arrays, etc. The more usual conception of those is classically symmetrical as well, but if you dispense with the symmetry as not attached to formal, perhaps the analogy would be more apt and then apply to, say, Elliott Carter's later works, or the spectralists, where 'organization' is simultaneously part of the seminal concept while having nothing directly related to past classical structures, or 'formats.'

    Actual architecture is long gone and far away from the classical symmetry of the 18th century, and music has moved in that parallel direction.

    As much as he was a true classicist, I would say all of Poulenc other than that large-scale sonata for two pianos, is 'informal' music, for example.

    I'm certain there are contemporary composers too, who, though the piece may be planned before one thing is notated, are still going more on intuitive impulses, making 'empirical' if you will, and personal choices vs. following a structural premise.

    I would have to guess almost all 'process' pieces are by nature, 'formal.'

    By that general ramble above, I'm wondering if a lot of Morton Feldman's later works are then equally both, since we know how he worked:-)

    Louis Andriessen is certainly, even at his most casual, a formalist.

    More currently, the works I've heard of David Lang, 'Child' and 'The litte match girl passion,' are to these ears 'formal' and Michael Gordon's 'Decasia' after several listenings and without the score, does not outwardly 'appear' so.

    I would love to know the official antonym, too, thinking 'casual music' just too funny....

    Just disassociate 'formal' with the more antique expectations of symmetry, and the premise still holds. (Lol, this whole thing is so abstract, and a bit of fun, but I hope this actually helped!)

    Best regards.

    P.s. Lately I just heard the term "miniaturist," as related to music wholly redefined to refer to a specific trend of a small group of composers specializing in music using an acute minimum of material, pitch content and length, i.e. a 'recent' minority phenomena. This is then a term appropriated and radically redefined from its previous generally understood meaning in use for over one hundred years.

    [ it seems, shockingly, to have come from within the halls of academe, and I find something of the overly precious and highly insular about that whole supposed redefinition. ]

    Ergo: There may be a current more specific use attached to 'formal music' coming from that same crowd, only known to a few within the current academic circuits.

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  • 3 years ago

    Formal Music

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  • 8 years ago

    Depends on your context. To me, "formal" music mean music that has a specific form, e.g. sonata, minuet, rondo, fugue, etc. with a prescribed phrase structure, key plan, time signature, and so on.

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  • 8 years ago

    "formal" music may be classical orchestral music that you need to dress in ties and suites to attend the performance in a grand concert hall, filled with high society people.

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  • 8 years ago

    it has no rap/hiphop/pop/coarse language, formal music is what we hardly find in this generation but Adele's Someone LIke You is a good example of formal music

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  • Anonymous
    4 years ago

    Well, it depends..

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