What is the Most Important Musical Form of All Time? The Sonata

Piano Lessons / music theory / What is the Most Important Musical Form of All Time? The Sonata

Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about the most important musical form, the sonata form. You would not believe how much music is based upon this form. You might wonder why the sonata is so important. What’s the deal about this?

I’ll start with a little bit of background on the sonata.

The sonata form has been around since the Baroque era. But it really came into its own during the Classical era. During the Baroque, composers like Scarlatti wrote sonatas. These were one movement works that had two sections, each of which repeated. But that’s not what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about the classical sonata form, which has endured to this day. Not only are sonatas prevalent from composers from Mozart to Prokofiev and beyond, but concertos, string quartets, symphonies, every kind of musical form you could imagine contains the sonata form within them!

What is a sonata?

I have a video on this which will be in the description below. But briefly, a sonata is a multi-movement work generally, except for those Baroque sonatas that I referenced earlier. Sonatas usually have at least two movements, typically three and oftentimes four movements. These are separate sections that are almost like separate pieces all unto their own. When a performer plays a piece and it seems like it’s over, then they start something that sounds like a whole other piece. Well, that’s a sonata! You’ll see the same thing in trios, quartets, duos, multi-movement works. Almost all multi-movement works contain at least one movement in what’s referenced as the Sonata Allegro form. Allegro means fast. Typically the first movement of a sonata is fast, so it became known as the Sonata Allegro form because the first movement is usually in that form, although other movements can be also.

What is so special about the sonata form that has inspired so many composers to use it over hundreds of years?

I could simplify it first and say, it’s kind of like an ABA. You have a statement, you have something different, and then you have the statement again. It’s a little bit more complex than that. So what I want to do is first of all, is to outline the form for you. And what I’m going to do is make it easy and digestible by picking not a sonata, but a sonatina, which is essentially a short sonata. I’m going to use the famous Clementi Opus 36 number 1 in C Major. I’m going to show you what the form is intrinsically. Then I’m going to talk about how composers have used this form and why it’s so effective and pervasive in all of music.

Sonatas and sonatinas start with a theme called the exposition.

The exposition exposes two themes. This sonatina is in C major. So the first theme, of course, is in C major. It starts off with a catchy little theme. Since it’s a sonatina, it’s short, so it makes it very easy to digest. From there, a second contrasting theme is introduced. There’s a little transition using a G major scale there. That is the introduction into theme two, which always goes to another key. This is a trademark of the sonata form. It generally goes into the theme of the dominant, that is the five. Since this was in C major, it goes into G major. And from that point on, you’re going to see a lot of F sharps since it’s in G major. That is the exposition of this sonatina. You’ll notice when you get to the end of the exposition, there is a repeat sign. The exposition always repeats. Why does it repeat? The idea is to cement these two themes into your head, because after the exposition comes the development section. This is where the music gets really interesting. Composers will take these two themes and go wild with them!

The development section is really interesting.

Mozart and Haydn had development sections that were very compelling. Beethoven exploded the development section making them much longer and going much further afield. Now before I explain the reason why this works so well, I’ve got to tell you the last section. You started with the exposition exposing two themes, the theme in the tonic, and then the theme in the dominant. Then that whole section repeats. Then you have the development section. So what’s next? The recapitulation!

The recapitulation brings back both themes.

At the end of the development section, it comes back like the beginning. Now there are always little deviations that composers make in their writing, because there wasn’t a guide of how to write a sonata. This is just something that happens to work. In the case of the Clementi Opus 36 no.1 in C Major, the recapitulation comes back an octave lower. So we get the theme once again in the tonic, just like it was at the beginning, except an octave lower. But now instead of going to G major, the dominant, it stays in the tonic key of C major starting with the C major scale. So that is basically the form of a sonata. You have two themes in the exposition, tonic and dominant, repeat, development section, then a recapitulation in which the two themes are both in the tonic key of the piece. So, it ends in the key it began.

Why does this form work so well?

The sonata form works because the first themes are so strong in your head. You’ve heard the whole exposition twice through. Look at all the sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schuman, and Chopin. And it isn’t just the Classical era. It goes through the 20th century with Poulenc, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. And it’s not just sonatas, it’s also in their chamber music. Symphonies almost all use this form too, because it is so effective! After going far afield in the development, it’s so refreshing to have those themes back again. And of course you want your piece to end in the key in which it began, which is why theme two in the recapitulation stays in the tonic.

So that’s why the sonata is the most substantial form of music of all time!

It’s not just because sonatas are so pervasive in music. It’s because the sonata form has been used in countless compositions other than just sonatas again and again. Even popular music is loosely based upon the sonata form oftentimes, because the idea of what is familiar and what is unfamiliar, and the interplay of those elements, is universal to human nature. And it really works! It establishes these themes for you so you can really grasp the music and where you are. You go far afield, then you get that great feeling of coming back home. The sonata form just fits human nature!

I’m interested in your opinion about this. You can leave comments on LivingPianos.com. I’m here to answer your questions. I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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