Tuesday, September 14, 2010

9/14 Sonata Form

Needing form definition.
For someone like me who doesn’t play piano or in an orchestra, it may be difficult to follow the larger structure of a piece. Coming from a largely non-classical background, when I first started listening to Beethoven I would tend to lose focus during longer pieces, mainly because my ears were not accustomed to hearing these kinds of instrumental changes. In rock/pop music, the verse, chorus and guitar solo are pretty easily defined, but a 15 minute symphony movement (or even an average length string quartet adagio) can result in “attention-drift”. I really needed to train my ears to fully appreciate a piece. This is where music form and analysis helps. One of the reasons for this blog is to post my own audio-visual notes to structural analysis in connection with the work of Beethoven. Today I’ll try to run down classical sonata form so if you know it already then you may as well skip the rest….
Of course there's no reason you can't enjoy Beethoven without knowing any of this, it just adds to the  experience  - like enjoying football more if you know the rules.

The most important form (structure) to know in Beethoven’s music is “sonata form” (or “sonata-allegro form”). I should probably mention that B himself never heard of “sonata form”, it was just musicologists later on who needed to categorize these things for people like me. Anyways, the 1st movement of a piece such as a symphony, string quartet or sonata is usually in sonata form, and is usually at the ‘allegro’ (fast) tempo. Here’s a simplified explanation:

EXPOSITION – This is where the main theme and the secondary theme are presented. The first theme is in the tonic key (for example A major) and the second theme is usually in the dominant key (or 7 pitches higher, such as E major). The second theme can be other related keys as well, but usually it’s the dominant. If the main key is minor, the relative major is used instead of the dominant. Never mind. The main theme is usually faster and more “in-your-face”, while the second theme is more “laid-back” in contrast. In pop music there’s verse and chorus. This is like that a little.

EXPOSITION REPEAT – Repeat of what just happened. Optional.

DEVELOPMENT – Here’s where things get really exciting! The development is where the piece is showing off how many cool things can be done with the themes from the exposition. Here’s some tricks: changing the key, changing the length, cutting themes in half, repeat a phrase in ascending keys (sequencing), change the chord harmony but keep the melody, etc….it’s endless and these acrobatics are meant to tell a story (or a good joke). Beethoven did things in his development sections which were considered in “bad taste” because they were so outrageous. He was a real punk rocker in a sense. Also I sometimes think of the development as the “guitar solo” part (you know, the “showing off” part).

RECAPITULATION – The recap is a repeat of the exposition, except that there might be some variations in the harmony and also the second theme is usually in the tonic key. In other words, since both the first and second themes are both in the “home” key, we feel “at home”. In pop music the last chorus is usually “louder” – this is the same kind of feeling.

So basically the structure is A-A-B-A’. Pretty easy right? OK now we get to a more detailed sonata form chart:

  • May or may not contain themes from the exposition

  • 1st theme (can be several smaller themes but in the same key, ending in authentic cadence)
  • Modulating bridge (to get from the tonic key to the dominant/relative major)
  • 2nd theme/group
  • (modulating bridge, 3rd theme)
  • Cadence with 1st theme material (feeling of closure, sometimes called codetta)

EXPOSITION REPEAT (with possibly different codetta)

  • Modulations, Variations, Fragmentation of previous themes
  • New themes (optional)
  • Modulating bridge to recapitulation (retransition)

  • 1st theme (possibly a variation)
  • Non-modulating bridge
  • 2nd theme (possibly a variation)
  • (3rd theme)
  • Cadence with 1st theme material

  • Variation of previous themes, or partial motives
  • New theme?

That’s basically the kinds of things to listen for in a sonata form movement. Rarely will you get everything I listed but you should be able to find most of it.  Beethoven’s earlier pieces stuck pretty close to this formula (when it was actually sonata form and not a different form), but his whole career was spent stretching and bending the above formula. One of the great pleasures of knowing form in B’s music is knowing what to expect – and then being surprised. This experience of surprise never gets tired even after repeated hearings, in fact it actually gets fresher for some reason. After a while you get used to recognizing harmonies and tonic-dominant relationships, and when a piece goes off into some "crazy modulation", it’s like following an exciting chase scene from a movie.
Good form.
From Alan Belkin, composer:

"…Sonata form is thus an elaborate, suspenseful, narrative structure, with rich potential for digressions, elaborations, and complex emotional balances. It also provides the opportunity to explore material in different formal contexts.
It is very useful for long pieces because of its inherent suspense. It is adaptable to many harmonic styles, since the basic principles -balance through varied reprise; contrast and suspense in themes/motives and construction; intensive development of material, showing it many different formal contexts; connecting contrasting characters through elaborate and varied transitions - fulfill the psychological requirements for maintaining interest and intensity over an extended time period."

The other movements of symphony usually go something like this:
2 – Adagio (in ternary form)
3 – Scherzo (minuet/trio form)
4 – Finale (sonata form or rondo form)

I’ll go into these some other time…..tomorrow I'll post one of my usual audio-analyses using most of the above.

A few (of MANY) web resources to learn more about sonata form:

I also highly recommend Leonard Bernstein's Young Persons Concert episode "What is Sonata Form?" - check your library....the Youtube version seems to have disappeared....


  1. Beethoven is my favourite Composer. I've been to Bonn and Vienna to visit Beethoven's many rooms (now Museums). These visits gave me such joy - as did Ludwig van B.

  2. I've been to Vienna, but not Bonn yet - perhaps next year! Beethoven is always forever rewarding.