Typical tonal structure of classical seven-part rondo, late 18th and early 19th centuries
||VI, IV or
||VI or IV
In rondo form, a principal
theme (sometimes called the "refrain") alternates with one or more contrasting themes, generally called "episodes", but also occasionally referred to as "digressions" or "couplets". Possible patterns in the
Classical period include: ABA, ABACA, or ABACABA.
 These are sometimes designated "first rondo", "second rondo", and "third rondo", respectively. The first rondo is distinguished from the
three-part song form principally by the fact that at least one of the themes is a song form in itself, but the difference in melodic and rhythmic content of the themes in the rondo form is usually greater than in the song form, and the accompanimental figuration in the parts of the rondo (unlike the song form) is usually contrasted.
 The number of themes can vary from piece to piece, and the recurring element is sometimes embellished and/or shortened in order to provide for
A Baroque predecessor to the rondo was the
ritornello. Ritornello form was used in the fast movements of baroque concertos, and in many baroque vocal and choral works. The entire orchestra (in Italian,
tutti) plays the main ritornello theme, while soloists play the intervening episodes. While Rondo form is similar to ritornello form, it is different in that ritornello brings back the subject or main theme in fragments and in different
keys, but the rondo brings back its theme complete and in the same key.
Cedric Thorpe Davie is one author, however, who considers the ritornello form the ancestor, not of the rondo form, but of the classical
concerto form (which also occurs, as a form, in many a classical-era aria.)
A common expansion of rondo form is to combine it with
sonata form, to create the
sonata rondo form. Here, the second theme acts in a similar way to the second theme group in sonata form by appearing first in a key other than the
tonic and later being repeated in the tonic key. Unlike sonata form, thematic development does not need to occur except possibly in the
Examples of rondo form