Sonata form

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Sonata form is a way of organizing a piece of music. It has been used a great deal since the Classical period (from the middle of the 18th century onwards). Listening to some pieces of music in sonata form will help to understand it fully. It is helpful to know something about the different keys.

Sonata form is not just used in sonatas. It can be the form for movements from symphonies, concertos, overtures etc.

In the Baroque period composers like Bach and Handel wrote a lot of dance movements such as minuets. These were in “binary form”. This meant that there were two sections. The two sections were often the same length, and were separated by a double bar line which meant that each section was repeated. The music would not be in the same key all the time. The first section would modulate (change key) and then the second section would gradually modulate back again so that it sounded finished at the end.

Domenico Scarlatti wrote lots of sonatas for harpsichord which are in binary form, but they started to get longer and more complicated. The first section would start with a theme (tune) in the main key, and then modulate to another key for a contrasting tune. The second section might be longer than the first second, starting off by modulating to strange keys before arriving back to repeat the main tunes. This kind of piece is the beginning of sonata form.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven developed the idea of sonata form. A movement in sonata form has three sections called: “exposition”, “development” and “recapitulation”.

  • In the exposition we hear all the main material: the first tune- or group of tunes - in the main key, then a contrasting tune or tunes in a related key (normally the “dominant” i.e. the key on the 5th note of the scale of the main key, or the relative minor). Or in the case of a first section in a minor key, one might frequently hear the second subject or subjects in the relative major.
  • In the development section the music is developed, going into several different keys. The music here feels unstable. There is a feeling of tension. The listener wants to get back to the main key.
  • In the recapitulation the exposition is repeated, but it changes towards the end so that it finishes in the main key. It feels as if the tension has gone and the listener feels happy.

This way of building a piece of music was used by almost every composer from the mid 18th century onwards – well into the 20th century. It gives scope for a very dramatic piece. Of course, composers sometime use it differently. There is often a sense of development during the whole piece, not just during the so-called “development section”. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony spends all the time developing the famous idea heard at the beginning: the first four notes (DA-DA-DA-DAAAA). Even the other three movements carry on developing this idea.