Most karate type martial arts have forms, whether you call them hyung, kata, poomse, etc. These important aspects of training are set patterns of techniques and movements that teach students a wide variety of principles such as breathing, focus, speed, power, timing, balance, application, and coordination. In some cases, they are also a link to the past, a direct connection to the original masters. In the very early days, a form was a form was a form. Over the many decades, forms have expanded and evolved. Different forms have different purposes and meanings, and it is important that we classify them accordingly. In my opinion, there are four distinct types of forms: training, classical, modern, and competition.
Before going into detail about these four types of forms, I feel it is important to note that I am primarily a Tang Soo Do practitioner and will therefore refer to Tang Soo Do forms as examples. I will also attempt to make a direct comparison to music for the non-martial artists out there.
These types of forms are rather simple and were created with the intention of teaching students simple concepts: basic technique sequences and learning patterns. Training forms do not have a martial application, they are intended for the primary reason of training. Tang Soo Do forms like Ki Cho Hyung and Sae Kye Hyung fall into this category. I would argue that most weapons forms in Tang Soo Do fall into this category as well. From a musical standpoint, think of training forms like the song chopsticks on the piano. It is a very simple song that most students learn when first learning to play. It is not intended to be played in a concert and it doesn’t require a lot of deep thought.
I almost called these types of forms ‘traditional forms’ but decided to go with classical instead. The word tradition gets thrown around a lot and means different things to different people. We have old traditions and new traditions. Using the term classical also fits well into my musical analogy. A classical form is a form that predates organized styles like Tang Soo Do, Shotokan, etc. These forms were created in order to document martial applications so as to pass on that information. The purpose of the form was not to create a form, but to teach fighting applications. Examples of this type include Pyung Ahn/Pinan, Bassai, Naihanchi, and Sip Soo/Jitte. In a musical sense, think about a symphony by Mozart. It is beautiful, complex yet simple, and incorporates many fundamental musical principles. The symphony is unique and one of the first of its kind. It can take students years to master one symphony or song, just like a martial arts form.
I refer to forms as modern forms if they were created after the formation of specific styles. The other important criterion is that they were created to be a form. The techniques in the forms have martial applications but the form was not created in order to explain that application, it was created in order to be a form. This is the opposite of classical forms. Examples of these in Tang Soo Do include Chil Sung, Yuk Ro, and Sae Kye Jang Kwon. These forms are advanced and have detailed, intricate meaning. They were created however to be forms, not to be blueprints that document a specific fighting style. For our musical analogy, think Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. This is a fantastic song that incorporates many different styles with unique characteristics. In my opinion it is a modern masterpiece. While extremely impressive in its own right, it does not have the same musical perfection of a Mozart symphony. It is an influential song that inspired many. However, classical works have influenced all music, not just specific genres.
The final type of form is the competition form. These forms were created by an individual with one purpose in mind, competition. It might be for a tournament or it might be for a demonstration. The techniques may have martial application, but it is likely because they were taken from another form. Competition forms are flashy and fun. They can be extremely challenging, but they are only intended to be for looking good. In our musical analogy think about you and your buddies creating a song for the school talenkt show. It probably sounds really good and certainly incorporates elements from many other songs and musical principles.
The above mentioned four types of forms are classifications I have created. You may agree with them, you may not. You may feel that a form is a form, or you may feel that there needs to be more classification. However, I hope we can all agree that there is much more to forms than just the specific movements. Their meaning, purpose, application (or lack of), are all different whether we classify them or not.