A minuet, sometimes spelled menuet, is a social dance of French origin for two persons, usually in 3/4 time. The word was adapted, under the influence of the Italian minuetto, from the French menuet, meaning small, pretty, delicate, a diminutive of menu, from the Latin minutus; menuetto is a word that occurs only on musical scores. The word refers probably to the short steps, pas menus, taken in the dance. At the period when it was most fashionable it was slow, ceremonious, and graceful.
The name is also given to a musical composition written in the same time and rhythm, but when not accompanying an actual dance the pace was quicker. Stylistically refined minuets, apart from the social dance context, were introduced — to opera at first — by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and in the late 17th century the minuet was adopted into the suite, such as some of the suites of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Händel. As the other dances that made up a Baroque suite dropped out of use, the minuet retained its popularity. Among Italian composers, the minuet was often considerably quicker and livelier, and was sometimes written in 3/8 or 6/8 time. A minuet was often used as the final movement in an Italian overture. Initially, before its adoption in contexts other than social dance, the minuet was usually in binary form, with two sections of usually eight bars each, but the second section eventually expanded, resulting in a kind of ternary form. On a larger scale, two such minuets were often combined, so that the first minuet was followed by a second one, and finally by a repetition of the first. The second (or middle) minuet usually provided some form of contrast, by means of different key and orchestration. Around Lully's time, it became a common practice to score this section for a trio (such as two oboes and a bassoon, as is common in Lully). As a result, this middle section came to be called trio, even when no trace of such an orchestration remains.
The minuet and trio eventually became the standard third movement in the four-movement classical symphony, Johann Stamitz being the first to employ it thus with regularity. A livelier form of the minuet later developed into the scherzo (which was generally also coupled with a trio). This term came into existence approximately from Beethoven onwards, but the form itself can be traced back to Haydn.
An example of the true form of the minuet is to be found in Don Giovanni.