Compound Themes - Interpretation

Updated: Apr 4

Compound Themes


16 measures (standard)


There are two types of Compound Themes

Compound Period

The compound antecedent can be built up of:

  1. Presentation

  2. Antecedent

  3. Compound Basic Idea

+ Continuation

The compound antecedent:

  • generally ends in HC

It can’t end in "consequent" as it would bring the b.i. back too early in the theme.

1. Presentation + Continuation

The reinstatement of the b.i. at the beginning of the presentation is perceived as a “repeat”, the “return” of the proper b.i. happens in the consequent.

The consequent can modify the second phrase as continuation=>cadential

2. Antecedent + Continuation

Harmonically: HC+HC+PAC

Antecedent-Continuation could feature a convenient cadential distribution like:

HC -> IAC -> HC ->PAC (rarely encountered in the repertoire)

The compound antecedent doesn't end in IAC (as it needs an HC by definition).

Instead, we tend to find

HC->HC->HC->PAC (quite commonly encountered in the repertoire)

This requires an HC=>PAC reinterpretation to realign the cadential strengths.

Reinterpreted HC: Though rare in the 8m simple-period, it is quite common in the 16m compound period.


The compound consequent can repeat the antecedent or end in cadential. In any case, it ends in PAC. The compound consequent can also end in continuation=>cadential


3. Compound Basic Idea + Continuation

The compound basic idea acquires the same hierarchy as the basic idea in an 8m period.

2. Compound Sentence

Compound presentation + Continuation

The concept of compound-basic-idea makes perfect sense within this framing.

The propelling/expressive qualities of this theme type make it perfectly suitable for opening large genres like the symphony and the concerto.

Compound presentation

An open-ended initiating unit is immediately repeated in the context of tonic prolongational harmonies. Cadences are not allowed

The c.b.i. is most often repeated in the dominant (statement- response). It is very rarely literally repeated and almost never sequentially repeated.

Antecedent-consequent or statement-response: Without cadence, there is no antecedent-consequent, therefore we label this phrase as an open-ended, statement-response, compound presentation, even in the presence of dominant harmony in the statement-response.


It fuses with the cadential function to end the theme in any of the three possible cadences.

Its fragmentation tends to go for 2m units, at least, to start with.

Compressed continuation

It is common to see compressed continuations 4m long. It is common to see ECP supporting continuation=>cadential phrases. In these cases, the composer generally repeats the continuation or adds a postcadential section as to restore the proportions of the compound theme (16m)

Standing on the dominant

If the sentence ends in a "HC", the composer will enhance the effect by adding a standing on the dominant. This postcadential material reinforces the dynamic energy associated with the instability of ending in the dominant.

Consequent Function (reinterpreted as continuation)

It is fundamental for the compound consequent to feature the return of the basic idea. It sometimes happens that the basic idea seems to have returned earlier but this is normally compensated with the fact that the b.i. returns in the tonic when in the consequent., while the b.i. Must have been repeated in a random harmony beforehand.

This is a summary of Ch 6 W. Caplin "Musical Forms". The intention of these summaries is to provide a guide into the most important features of the sonata form. The consultation of W. Caplin's book remains fundamental.

This material is intended to aid the understanding of musical forms in the frame of piano lessons at WKMT or composition lessons at WKMT.

#Caplin #compositionlondon #pianolessonsforbeginners #pianolessonsforadults #pianolessonsLondon #pianolessonsnearme #musictheoryatwkmt #adultpianolessons #pianotutorLondon

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