Types of Musical Compositions (The Idiot’s Guide)

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  • Learn about different types of compositions 
  • Explore terms used in classical music 
  • Discover how musicians are grouped for different compositions 
  • Also, check out our post on what articulation is in music!

Have you recently listened to an excellent classical music composition and are interested in learning more? Do you want to discover more types of compositions you might enjoy? You may want to expand your playlist or apply new information to your own compositions.

You may have noticed certain words used in different titles of classical compositions. It can be intimidating at first if you are unfamiliar with the terms.

There are centuries of amazing pieces of music out there that you may enjoy or help you take the next step in your journey. We are here to help!

Types Of Compositions 

Types of compositions can generally break down into three categories based on the number of musicians that play the music and several other factors we will explore.

From here, each category can get more detailed with different types of compositions, styles, and other characteristics. 

The three categories are:

  1. Solo Compositions – one primary performer (possibly with an accompaniment) 
  2. Chamber Music/Small Ensembles 
  3. Large Ensembles (i.e., orchestral) 

Next, we will go more in-depth with specific types of compositions and how they fall into these three categories. 

The following sections will explain more about different types of solo compositions, chamber music compositions, and compositions for large ensembles such as orchestral music. 

Solo Compositions 

First up, solo compositions can be for a single instrument or singer but oftentimes have an accompaniment such as a piano.

The piano could also be a solo instrument; solo piano compositions do not typically need a second instrument to accompany them. 

The gray area with solo compositions is that sometimes solos can appear in pieces of music with more players and may not be the primary focus of the composition. To clarify differences, let’s explain how that can work in different pieces of music. 

A violin can play an unaccompanied solo, such as the Chaconne movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor. Bach also has an entire collection of unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. 

Unaccompanied solos are often reserved for instruments that can provide harmony or additional supporting music to the main melody, such as a piano or classical guitar.

Bach composed the example above to push the boundaries of the solo instrument, writing “double stops” to create harmony and implying chord progressions using arpeggios. 

A violin (or any instrument) can also be featured in a composition such as a Sonata or Concerto, with either a single accompanying instrument or a larger group of musicians such as an orchestra. 

For example, let’s use Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra. In the first video, Joseph Lulloff performs with the Brevard Music Center Orchestra in Brevard, North Carolina. 


In this second video, Marcel Mule plays the same music composition along with a piano accompaniment but not with the string orchestra. In this context, the piano player reduces the original string score to cover parts

In both versions, the concerto features the saxophone, which was relatively new when it was written. Composers often use Sonatas and Concertos to feature the solo instrument.

Other examples of common solo compositions that you might see are:

  • Etudes– usually shorter compositions, often used for purposes.
  • Ballades– made popular for piano by Frederic Chopin in the Romantic time period.  
  • Fantasies– less structured and rigid than some other musical forms as the performer can improvise to a degree. It can also be in a larger group setting. 
  • Fugues– can be for solo organ, piano, guitar, or for a group of musicians to perform together. Fugues use counterpoint where different parts overlap, making the music sound conversational. 

Chamber Music/Small Ensembles 

Chamber music has been around for hundreds of years. It is music originally written for a smaller group of musicians to perform in someone’s home during events. 

During the Renaissance period, musical instruments were grouped in “consorts,” which were types of instrument families. Instruments from these consorts would perform for parties or other types of gatherings in upper-class homes of aristocratic families. 

The type of music evolved over time to include different types of instruments and different combinations. Today, many music publishers now release flexible arrangements of pieces to play on various mixed instrument groups.

This occurs more in lower-grade level music for educational purposes, but the trend is still prevalent. 

Common Groupings 

Below you will see common musical groupings that can perform chamber music or small ensemble music. 


A duet is when two musicians both have soloistic-type parts. Duets are different from solos with accompaniment since both parts share equal importance to the composition. Part one is usually higher than part two.

Here is Flower Duet for two flutes and piano by Lakmé, performed by Gina Luciani, Laurel Ann Maurer, and Jed Moss. Even though there are three musicians, the piano is considered an accompaniment to the two flutes. 


A trio is when three musicians each perform a different part. The three parts work together to create the full composition. With a trio, monophonic instruments or vocalists that can only play or sing one note at a time individually can create triads.

One might play or sing the root/tonic of a chord, another might play or sing the third, and another might play or sing the fifth. Other groups may have a piano or other polyphonic instruments as the third part, such as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A, Op. 50 performed by Livan on piano, Zenas Hsu on violin, and Yina Tong on cello.

The piano is not accompanying the other instruments but instead is featured. 


A quartet is when four musicians each perform a different part. One of the most popular instrumental quartets is a string quartet.

String quartets include violin I, violin II, viola, and cello. Adding a fourth player offers more possibilities with harmony and range. The different instruments can cover a wide range of pitches spanning most of a full-size piano.

Listen to Haydn’s String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” performed by the Veridis String Quartet for an example of this instrumentation. This is the second movement of the larger work. 


A quintet is when five musicians each perform a different part. You may see an upright bass join the string quartet.

You may also see a woodwind quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn (not a woodwind, but it covers a specific range), and bassoon. Here is the Carion Wind Quintet performing Waltz No. 2 by Shostakovich. 

A brass quintet might comprise trumpet I, trumpet II, French horn, trombone, and tuba. Each of the five instruments covers a different range and introduces a unique color to the music.

Here is the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performing J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, originally composed for organ but rearranged to be performed by a brass quintet. 

Chamber Orchestra

The term chamber orchestra refers to a small orchestra of violin, viola, cello, and possibly bass that used to play in similar contexts. Instead of a singular instrument covering a part, chamber orchestras repeat parts within sections so multiple instruments play the same part. 

This creates a fuller “orchestral” sound rather than the sound of a small ensemble. Chamber orchestras grew in number over time until the large symphony orchestras you see today.

Here is the Chamber Orchestra of New York performing Debussy’s Clair de Lune, orchestrated by Salvatore Di Vittorio. Debussy’s original composition was written for solo piano. 

Large ensembles 

A large group can only perform some compositions. This might be because there are so many layers to the music, and more people need to perform the parts, or because the group performing simply has many parts duplicated.

For instance, there might be a larger section of violins all playing the violin I part. 

Symphony Orchestra 

A symphony orchestra is a large orchestra comprising strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments. A symphony is also a long composition comprising several movements, each with a different form.

Some of the most well-known classical music compositions are symphonies by famous composers or isolated movements from the longer work.

For example, the last movement in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony uses the famous hymn Ode To Joy and frequently appears in movies, television, and other contexts in addition to concerts.


An opera is a large-scale production including an orchestra and cast of vocalists that use music to narrate a story.

Similar to a Broadway musical, operas do not use additional amplification, so singers train to project their voices over the orchestra in the concert hall without a microphone. This gives the characteristic sound you hear many vocalists use in operas. 

Without singing in this style, there would not be enough resonance for the singer’s voice to carry. Here is Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun dorma” from Turandot.

While using microphones during this performance, the original performance of the complete opera would not have required microphones. 

Wind Ensemble, Wind Symphony, and Concert Band

Wind ensembles, wind symphonies, and concert bands are groups of musicians that play woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments.

There are no strings except a possible upright bass. These types of groups came around later than traditional orchestral groups. The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra performs Gustav Holst’s First Suite in Eb, Op. 28. 

Marching bands and drum corps also use similar instrumentation but typically perform outside on a field.

These groups also must move around the field into different formations while simultaneously playing their instruments. The 2013 show “e=mc^2” by Drum Corps International group Carolina Crown is here. 


What Is Compositional Form?

Form is an important contributing factor to how compositions are named. Form is the overall structure of a piece of music. Different sections follow recurring patterns giving compositions that use the same form more similarities. 

For example, a Sonata is a common type of composition and also a type of musical form. Sonata form is used in the first movement of a Sonata. The first movement has three sections, sometimes called ABA, or ternary form. The first section is called the Exposition.

The Exposition uses a primary theme, a transition, a second theme, and closing material. During the Exposition, you usually change keys.  

The second section is called Development. The Development uses musical themes from the Exposition but alters them differently to create tension in the music. This tension resolves in the next section.

The final section is called the Recapitulation, when you repeat the Exposition with slight differences and do not change keys. Other common forms are binary (AB), rounded binary (ABA’), rondo (ABACABA), and through-composed, which do not repeat a section.

Each letter represents a different section of the music. The form provides a framework and structure to the piece of music or movement.

Are Compositions Named After Tempos? 

Compositions like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings can also use tempo marking as a title. Adagio is an Italian word referring to a slow tempo. Usually, this occurs when one of the movements in a multiple-movement work is the “Adagio” movement. 

Longer multiple-movement compositions use different tempos and forms in different movements. 

For example, a Sonata usually has three or four movements. Sonatas use Sonata form in the first movement, followed by a slower movement such as an Adagio. The third movement can be a Minuet or other dance form. The fourth movement is usually another fast movement. 

This outline gives the composition a fast, slow, fast pattern. 

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, musical compositions can be written for any number of musicians, each with unique qualities. The main categories are solos for one performer, small ensembles for more than one performer, and large ensembles for many parts or when many people cover the same part. 

Each group can perform a wide range of compositions, each following a unique form. Some compositions are single movements, and some compositions have multiple movements making up a larger work. 

We hope this article answered your questions about music compositions. Best of luck with your next musical endeavor!

Before you go, check out our post on What Is A Music Scale (And Why We Use Them)!