A scherzo (/ˈskɛərts/, UK also /ˈskɜːrt-/, Italian: [ˈskertso]; plural scherzos or scherzi), in western classical music, is a short composition – sometimes a movement from a larger work such as a symphony or a sonata. The precise definition has varied over the years, but scherzo often refers to a movement that replaces the minuet as the third movement in a four-movement work, such as a symphony, sonata, or string quartet.[1] The term can also refer to a fast-moving humorous composition that may or may not be part of a larger work.[2]



The Italian word scherzo means "joke" or "jest." More rarely, the similar-meaning word badinerie (also spelled battinerie; from French, "jesting") has been used. Sometimes the word scherzando ("joking") is used in musical notation to indicate that a passage should be executed in a playful manner. An early use of the word scherzo in music is in light-hearted madrigals of the early baroque period, which were often called scherzi musicali, for example:

Later, composers applied the term scherzo (plural scherzos or scherzi) and sometimes badinerie[4] to certain instrumental works in fast tempos in duple meter time signature, for example:

The scherzo, as most commonly known today, developed from the minuet and trio, and gradually came to replace it as the third (sometimes second) movement in symphonies, string quartets, sonatas, and similar works. It traditionally retains the triple meter time signature and ternary form of the minuet, but is considerably quicker. It is often, but not always, of a light-hearted nature.

The main features include a 6 - 8 bar melody with one beat per bar feel.



The scherzo itself is a rounded binary form, but, like the minuet, is usually played with the accompanying trio followed by a repeat of the scherzo, creating the ABA or ternary form. This is sometimes done twice or more (ABABA). The "B" theme is a trio, a contrasting section not necessarily for only three instruments, as was often the case with the second minuet of classical suites (the first Brandenburg Concerto has a famous example). In some cases the scherzo is in sonata form, for example the third movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony in E Minor.

Appearance/examples in compositions


Scherzos occasionally differ from this traditional structure in various ways.

  • Some examples are not in the customary triple meter—for example, the scherzo of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, which is in 2
    time; or the trio section of the scherzo from his Second Symphony which is in 2
    time. Another example is Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18. This example is also unusual in being written in orthodox sonata form rather than the usual ternary form for such a movement, and thus it lacks a trio section. This sonata is also unusual in that the scherzo is followed by a minuet and trio movement—whereas most sonatas have either a scherzo movement or a minuet movement, but not both. Some analysts[who?] have attempted to account for these irregularities by analyzing the scherzo as the sonata's slow movement, which is rather fast. That would keep the traditional structure for a four-movement sonata that Beethoven usually followed, especially in the first half of his piano sonatas.
  • Joseph Haydn wrote minuets that are close to scherzi in tone — but it was Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert who first used scherzi widely, with Beethoven in particular turning the polite rhythm of the minuet into a much more intense – and sometimes even savage – dance. Although in 1781, Haydn substituted menuets for scherzi in all of his 6 String Quartets, Op. 33.

The scherzo remained a standard movement in the symphony and related forms through the 19th century and beyond. Composers also began to write scherzi as pieces in themselves, stretching the boundaries of the form.

In present-day compositions, the scherzo has also made appearances.


  1. ^ Britannica Online – scherzo
  2. ^ Russell, Tilden A. & Macdonald, Hugh (2001). "Scherzo". In Sadie, Stanley & Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56159-239-5.
  3. ^ a b Sir Jack Westrup & F. Ll. Harrison, Collins Encyclopedia of Music (1976 revised edition, Chancellor Press, London, ISBN 0-907486-49-5), p. 483
  4. ^ Boyd, Malcolm. Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 58
  5. ^ Niecks, Friedrick (2009). Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician. Echo Library. p. 494. ISBN 978-1-4068-5229-5. Retrieved 30 August 2010.
  6. ^ Samson, Jim (1992). "Extended forms: the ballades, scherzos and fantasies". In Samson, Jim (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Chopin. Cambridge University Press. pp. 101–123. ISBN 9780521477529.
  7. ^ Allsen, J. Michael (2002). "Piano Concerto No. 2, Johannes Brahms". Galveston Symphony Orchestra. Archived from the original on April 11, 2010. Retrieved 30 August 2010.
  8. ^ "Listening to Star Wars" by Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 1 January 2016
  9. ^ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015-12-18, retrieved 2015-12-23