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A sonata is a instrumental composition for pianoforte or other instrument(s) with a piano accompaniment, e.g. a flute sonata. The word "sonata", specifically translated to "sounded," comes from the Italian suonare, to sound, contrary to the word cantata, or "sung." Typical features of the sonata may be found in other instrumental compositions, such as symphonies and chamber works, but the term sonata is usually reserved for works involving not more than two performers.<ref>Michael and Joyce Kennedy Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music, Fifth Edition</ref>

Origin and History

The term sonata originated in the 16th century to distinguish from works sung and works played. In the early 17th century, compositions for instrumental ensembles spanning five or more contrasting sections came to be known as sonatas. From here developed the baroque sonata, which had three to six movements and came in two forms, the sonata da camera, or "chamber sonata," and the sonata da chiesa, or "church sonata."

Sonata da Camera

The sonata da camera typically had several dance-like movements for two or three string players with a keyboard accompaniment. Corelli standardized the from as a suite consisting of an introduction, and 3-4 dances.

Sonata da Chiesa

The sonata da chiesa was also developed by Corelli and consisted of four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast. It had a more serious in character than the sonata da camera, appropriate for its ecclesiastical surroundings.

The earliest keyboard sonatas are by Salvatore and Huhnau and developed with Domenico Scarlatti and C.P.E. Bach. The greatest period of development for the sonata came in the late 17th century with Haydn, Mozart, and later Beethoven. By this time the sonata typically consisted of three movements in the order of slow-fast-slow. With Haydn and Mozart, this typically existed in the form, allegro-andante-allegro. Beethoven later introduced the minuet or scherzo to replace the third movement. The last movement of a three or four movement sonata is often in either sonata form or rondo form or is a set of variations. More modern applications of the term have been made, such as Walton's Sonata for Strings and C. Matthews' Sonata for orchestra. In contrast, the bottom line is that the technical term for a sonata for orchestra is a symphony, a sonata for four stringed instruments is a string quartet, and a sonata for piano or solo instrument with piano accompaniment is simply a sonata.

Tips in Writing Sonatas

There is no right or wrong way to compose a sonata as there are many different types of sonatas. Typically, sonata's should be written to showcase the performer. If at all possible, tailor your work to your performer. If one is not available, then the best solution is to research sonatas written by other composers.


Traditionally, sonata form is used in composing the first movement of the sonata. However, many composers have broken this tradition and have either truncated the form (omitting the exposition, development, etc.). Others have employed other forms completely.


Sonatas tend to be of medium to high difficulty (though certainly, there are plenty examples of Sonatas of low difficulty within the vast repertoire.) Key things to remember are that each instrument has it's own limitations and that it is best to work within those limitations. That's not to say you can't push the boundaries but you have to make sure that the work is playable on the instrument itself.


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