Sonata form

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This article is about the form used in composing single movements of musical works.
For the multiple movement type of musical composition that often uses it, see sonata.

Sonata form, also referred to as compound binary form or the Sonata-Allegro form of the Classical era, is the type of musical construction often used in sonatas, symphonies, concerti, string quartets, or as independent movements such as an overture or tone poems. The term sonata is derived from the Italian sonare, "to sound" (as of an instrument), opposed to the cantata, from cantare meaning "to sing." A sonata is a musical composition that uses this form.


A movement written in sonata form falls into three sections called the exposition, development, and recapitulation. In the exposition, the composer introduces musical ideas consisting of a number of themes sometimes referred to as "subjects". Most commonly there will exist two subjects, sometimes contrasting in nature, and other times complementing in nature. The second subject will usually appear in the dominant key if the tonic is major, and the relative key if the tonic is minor. In the development section, the composer 'develops' this material in a kind of free fantasia, often migrating to musically remote keys. Finally, in the recapitulation, the composer repeats the exposition, often with certain modifications. <ref>'Sonata form', The Violin Site (Accessed 13/4/2008), <></ref> In abstract terms, then, sonata form looks like this:

[A B']exp [C"]dev [A B]recap

where a single prime (') means "in the dominant" and a double prime (") means "in remote keys".

Occasionally, sonata form includes an "episodic development," which uses mostly new thematic material. An example is the first movement of Beethoven's piano sonata Op. 14, no. 1. The episodic development is often the kind of development that is used in Sonata rondo form.

Variations on sonata form

Monothematic expositions

While it is customary for there to be two subject groups in sonata form, this is not always the case. Many composers throughout history have written sonatas in which there is one main theme stated; it being stated in both the tonic key and then later (perhaps in some altered form) in the dominant. Haydn seemed particularly fond of this practice.

Modulations to keys other than the dominant

The second subject may be in some other key besides the dominant or relative major (of a minor). Beethoven experimented with different tonal relationships in many of his sonatas such as the first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, in C major, which modulates to the mediant E major, or the opening movement of the "Hammerklavier" sonata, in B-flat major, modulates to the submediant G major. Alexander Scriabin (whose late sonatas were bereft of anything resembling the major and minor tonal system and therefore exempt from typical sonata-form tonal plan) often created contrast between subjects in his late sonatas by emphasizing different intervalic relationships such as his 7th sonata which first subject largely emphasizes minor thirds and major sevenths while the second subject emphasizes tritones and flattened sevenths.

Expositions with more than two key areas

Many expositions span tonal regions that are more than two keys. Some composers, most notably Schubert, composed sonata forms with three or more key areas. The first movement of Schubert's Quartet in D minor, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden"), for example, has three separate key and thematic areas, in D minor, F major, and A minor.

Modulations within the first subject group

Subject groups do not always have to stay confined to one tonal reigon. In the more complex sonata expositions there can be brief modulations to fairly remote keys, followed by reassertion of the tonic. For example, Mozart's String Quintet in C, K. 515, visits C minor, D-flat major, and D major, before finally moving to the dominant major (G major). In Bartok's only piano sonata, the first subject group spans four different tonal reigons; E major, G Major, B Major, and F# Major.


The role of the coda has always been an interesting one throughout history. Codas can vary widely in length, scope, and thematic material employed. While codas were typically short and only loosely connected in the classical era, Beethoven expanded the role of the coda greatly. Beethoven often treated codas as additional development sections. These codas could sometimes go on for as long or even a greater duration than the expositions or development sections themselves. Various other composers continued this trend throughout history such as Franz Liszt in his symphonic poems or Alexander Scriabin in his later piano sonatas where codas manipulated the characters in the exposition to an almost unrecognizable degree.

History of the sonata form

The growing demand for purely instrumental music in the baroque period led to the development of new forms, among which was the sonata. The sonata form was considered suitable for both church performance - the four-movement sonata da chiesa, or church sonata, (developed by Corelli) - and its lighter counterpart - the sonata da camera, or chamber sonata. By the age of Classicism, the structural principle of a "sonata form" dominated, in which an opening exposition, usually presenting two main, contrasting themes, was succeeded by a central "development" section, in which the themes were subjected to a variety of treatments. Then came a "recapitulation", in which the opening themes were repeated (often in shortened or slightly varied form), followed by a short "coda" to round off the movement. <ref>Wade-Matthews and Thompson, 'Composition through the Ages', The Encyclopedia of Music. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc.</ref>

Other Meanings

The term sonata can also refer to any piece in sonata form, but it is essential to separate the two meanings. As the title for a single-movement piece of instrumental music, "sonata" covers many pieces from the Baroque and mid-18th century that are not "in sonata form". Conversely, in the late 18th century or "Classical" period, the title "sonata" is typically given to a work composed of three or four movements. Nonetheless, this multi-movement sequence is not what is meant by sonata form, which refers to the structure of an individual movement. <ref>'Sonata form', Wikipedia (Accessed 13/4/2008), <></ref>

See Also


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Musical Forms
Polyphonic forms CanonCanzonaInventionFugueOrganumRicercarRoundSinfornia
Sectional forms Strophic formChain formBinary formTernary formRondo formArch formRitornello form
Cyclical forms BalletConcertoMassOratorioOperaRequiemSonataSong cycleSuiteSymphony
composed forms
BagatelleFantasiaEtudeImpromptuPreludeRhapsodySymphonic poem
Dance forms AllemandeBalladBoleroContradanceEstampieJigPolkaWaltz

French: CouranteGigueMinuetSarabande

Italian: BarcarolleSaltarelloTarantella

Polish: MazurkaPolonaise