My friend Katie Ganson invited me to be interviewed by one of her classes the other day. One of the more interesting questions asked by a non-musician was whether or not there are pre-made forms for musical compositions like there are for term papers. I gave a brief answer in the class, but here are a few more developed thoughts.
Form, when it is working properly, is always the result of an honest grappling with the ideas involved. Form, when it isn't working properly, functions as a mold into which you can pour notes and words. Form is free and and expansive when it works properly. It is restrictive when it doesn't. We should not ignore the conclusions reached by those that preceded us. Many of the forms taught in text books are representative of those conclusions. It is interesting to discover how very few Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven sonatas actually conform to the textbooks. The classic forms are not prescriptions but discoveries that inform our creative endeavors. A theory teacher of mine was once on the hunt for a Mozart Sonata that fit perfectly into Sonata-Allegro form and asked if I knew one of the top of my head. I pointed out that if you want to find one, it is much easier to start your search amongst the kleinmeisters. I think that is as true for scholarly papers as it is for musical work. So, you can add the 5 paragraph paper with a 3 pronged thesis statement to jeans skirts and Space Odyssey scenes air brushed on the side of vans to the things that I hate in this world.