Sonata Form

(Here you can follow the exposition of the sonata Op. 14 No. 2, with the different parts being pointed out in text. You can also read more about that sonata HERE)

Before we start, a quick explanation of what tonic, dominant and subdominant is.

Every piece that we talk about on this blog (and at least 99% of the music you listen to) is in a tonality, C Major for example. That is the tonal “home” of the piece, and it will probably (but not always, as we shall see) start and end in that tonality.

Pieces therefore will, at some point, establish that tonality, which key the piece is in. After that, any “detour” into another tonality will destabilize the music.

The name of the tonality that is the key of the piece is called the tonic.

Other tonalities can be closer or further away in their relationship to the tonic. The further away they are, the more they destabilize the music.

The tonality with the closest relationship to the tonic, is the dominant, which is five whole tone-steps above the tonic:

The next closest relationship to the tonic is the fourth step, and that is called the subdominant, the one under (“sub” means “under” in latin) the dominant.

Those three tonalities, the tonic, the dominant, and the subdominant are the three that most pieces run through at one stage or another.

***

Let’s give Stewie a chance to show us how this sounds.

First, he shows us the tonic, in his, uh, song, in G Major:

Then he goes to first the subdominant (C-chord) and dominant (D-chord):

Then he finishes off with the subdominant parallel (A minor), the tonic parallel (E minor), which are, as he says himself, even further away, then he finishes back in the tonic. And then Brian enters and tells him how it sounds like.

***

It should be said that few things are the absolute truth when dealing with style, form and anything that tries to organize something as abstract as music is. Analyzing music will always be subjective.

Form is the way that a composer decides to organize a piece so that his ideas (with ideas, I mean melodies, motives, modulations, passagework etc) fit to become one entity.

A very common misunderstanding is to confuse form with musical “necessities” in how a piece of music works. For example, in what we now call Sonata form (a name that didn’t exist when Beethoven wrote his sonatas), most movements stop approximately halfway. When they stop, they almost always stop on the dominant (or, as we will see with Beethoven, an alternative to the dominant). Now, is that part of the form of the piece or is it a musical necessity? I’d say it’s the second. For over 200 years before Beethoven wrote his sonatas, basically all music pieces that are built on momentum (which would exclude, for example, menuets and to a certain degree, rondos), if they stop halfway, they stop on the dominant. How can they not? If they stopped on the tonic, the piece would not need to continue, by our ears. Or as Stewie puts it above: we are home, at the house. A piece can’t really stop on the tonic until the end, by necessity.

Compare it to the form or design of a car. Would you say that having four wheels is part of the design? Well, it is something the designer has to take into account, but as part of a design, he really has no choice than to stick with four wheels. Because it’s a necessity, just like a stop halfway in a music piece can’t end on the tonic.

Form is probably the part that most consumers of music will have trouble with in classical music, feeling it’s “difficult” or even “boring”. That’s because many times, classical composers treat form as part of what is creative in their piece of music. Many listeners, not used to this, get lost and loose attention.

Look at the form of a pop song. In a pop song, the audience (at least 95% of listeners I would say) knows the form, and therefore, they don’t have to pay attention to it. When a band start playing a piece, most of us are expecting a refrain, and we know it doesn’t come right away, but a little bit into the piece. In other words, we know the “geography” of the piece automatically. We also know that the song will probably take around 3 to 5 minutes. So basically, within a form that you know by reflex, you can feel whether you like the tune or refrain, the lyrics or the sound etc. It’s quite simple.

When a classical piece starts, and the composer is using form as a way to make the music more dramatic, interesting and intense, it’s easy to feel lost, because many listeners are not used to listen to music that way. That doesn’t mean that you can’t put on a symphony, lean back and enjoy the sound of it, not worrying about form at all. Of course you can. I would even say that it’s a great way to listen to a symphony. But you are then probably enjoying the sound colors of the orchestra and the harmonic and melodic beauties of the piece. It’s hard to follow form without getting a little more involved, but that involvement normally gives a strong emotional payback.

Let’s take one example, from Beethoven’s Appassionata. When Beethoven starts the piece like this:

that is still within what is expected, harmonically. The phrase starts on the tonic and ends on the dominant. But, when he then continues like this:

Beethoven basically throws everything conventional out of the window. Even if there has been nothing above the volume of pianissimo he has already created a musical tension. Because instead of continuing in a pattern that would be normal, which is going back to the tonic in the second part of the phrase, he restarts the same phrase half a step higher. This is, even if you hear it for the umpteenth time, a thrill. But it also makes the listener react something like “THIS was unexpected, anything can happen, what’s next?” as compared to listening to, say, the beginning of sonata op.2 nr. 3, where everything falls into place as expected.

***

The form of the sonata is not really a chart or a scheme with different sections to fill in. The pieces of music we call sonatas, and with a form we now call sonata form, were the result of an evolution in music towards musical drama that is balancing two things in one and the same piece: 1) a drama that involves a complex interacting between sections, and where the different characters and sections “feed off” each other. 2) a final result where all those pieces together form a balanced unity, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

If that sounds theoretical, compare it to a relationship between humans. Two persons are different, but when they meet, their differences interact and make the relationship more interesting. In the end, the two persons together as a couple are more interesting (at least as a story) and gratifying than each of them separately would be.

***

In Sonata form, the composer creates a tension, or drama, between two (or more) sections, and just like two people, the sections react and interact to each other. This is a difference from Baroque music: in baroque music, you certainly have two sections in different moods and tempi, but…they wouldn’t build off it as a Beethoven sonata does.

***

The piano and the development of the piano was crucial to Sonata form, because the piano is, after all, the only instrument who can carry all the things needed: melody, accompaniment, counterpoint, harmony…at the same time. In the piano part you have the soprano, the tenor, the orchestra and everything else needed to put on a high drama. And the pianist’s task is to direct all that so that the listeners feels it and get carried away.

***

Now, if the composer wants to “manipulate” you with his drama, he will need tools and above all, a form to do it (just like a writer or a film-maker). Let’s have a look at some of the tools which will shape the landscape, the form of the music:

You will usually hear different parts when a movement in sonata form is played. From beginning to end, the parts are most of the time three (there are many examples where there are more, or less, than three, but these are the ones you won’t do too well without):

Exposition (which is often repeated)

Development

Recapitulation or the “recap

The exposition: will present the different, conflicting themes, or parts, in the drama. At the end of the exposition, the music comes to a stop. When it stops, it is not in the tonality that started the piece. At this point, the music has created a situation where different themes, or sections have been placed against each other in contrasting ways, contrasting in more or less subtle ways.

The development: will take off as a reaction to the tension that the exposition has created. It can be done in many different way. Sometimes, to keep the music going, the best way is to throw in a completely new melody. Sometimes (quite often, actually), the composer starts the development with the beginning of the piece, but in another tonality. As here in a quick example from the Beethoven’s first piano sonata:

and here is the end of the exposition, it ends at 0.20. At that point, the development starts with the theme from the beginning, played in the “new” tonality:

The recapitulation: is, in many ways, the exposition played again, but with more or less of a resolution to the tension. The conflicting parts will (normally) be played again, but now with more “flow” and less tension, mainly because the recapitulation starts, and ends, in the same tonality. So when it ends (sometimes by adding a coda), that is in the tonic, and we come to a close.

***

The exposition has different parts, we call them different things, but for simplicity I will call them the following:

First theme: which can be a group of themes. This is the first “character” in our unfolding story
This theme is in the main key (tonart) of the piece.

Second theme: which can be a group of themes. This is the second “character” in our unfolding story
This theme is NOT in the main key of the piece.

Codetta: which also can be a group of themes. It brings the expositions to a close, and it will solidify the new key of the piece.

***

The Sonata form is actually more of a principle, a way to think of how to build a piece of music. Basically, the composer creates a conflict in the beginning of a piece which he has to resolve. It reminds me a little of mathematics: my father is a mathematician, and he has told me about how they create a “problem” to which they have to find the formula that solves it.

***

Let’s take an example. This is the beginning (first theme) of Beethoven’s eight Symphony:

Confident, full of what one could call “one-dimensional optimism” (something Beethoven was a master of creating). What can possibly get in the way of his theme?

Well, enter second theme:

It’s more humble, more hesitating.

And in just a few seconds…the scenery has changed to almost being scary:

Now, listen to this part of the development

The first theme, so confident in the beginning, has turned into an incredibly dramatic character, threatening and also a little panicking. It is as if the music brought out the darker character of something that was, on the surface, shiny and confident.

And the musical story continues through the movement. When the movement ends, we have been through a number of characters, feelings and developments. And still, we have a feeling of one single movement with a perfect balance, not a string of different sections one after each other, put together in a mosaic way.

***

We will see along the way how Beethoven re-creates this form so that you will hear it in any shape possible. How Beethoven make this drama unfold, how he designs it is one of the things that makes his 32 sonatas so special.

14 comments

  1. Thank you so very much for this fascinating explanation. Exactly what I needed right now! I read your other posting about Op.2 No. 1 Part Two and I thought “counterpoint, yeah, yeah, but what’s the point with that …” :?

    As a novelist, I am of course obsessed with the idea of finding a structure and a point with the story, may it be in words or in tones. I have found it a bit disturbing that I have not been able to explain my experiences with some music before. I experience emotions while I’m listening but I am not always sure WHY I feel this and that, and this is rather frustrating. Sometimes I’m a geek, as I cannot just say “oh, nice melody” or “I like this” and be happy with that. I want to explain exactly WHY I like (or don’t like) some music … just as I can explain what makes a story good or poor.

    So, I think you just made my day by telling me something about the ideas behind the sonata form. it is quite amusing – and also rather logical – that the form is very similar to the typical development in storytelling. However, storytelling is often a bit more “circular”: you start with Plot 1 (main plot) and then you complicate things by introducing Plot 2 and even 3 … But in a typical Hollywood movie you then have to resolve them in reversed order: 3,2,1. If you resolve 1 and then goes on with 2, the audience/reader will not experience the satisfaction of having got to the final point – the recap!

    When listening to some “rhapsodies” I have, though, sometimes got a bit irritated over the fact that Theme 1 seems to vanish during the journey. Is a rhapsody different from a symphony/sonata in that aspect?

    You have to guide me further into the world of Beethoven’s, but meanwhile I listen to a favourite piece by Tjajkovskij, that I know you a very familiar with as well: First movement in the Piano Concerto No.1, B flat minor. First, I think the introducing theme is such a lovely one, with the piano marching BOM BAM BAM and the strings playing this sweeping, romantic melody – and then suddenly they make a shift with piano taking over the melody instead. The second theme is certainly a totally different story, rather nervous. And then, some 20 minutes later, in the last bars, there is a recap that always nearly move me to tears. I have not been able to explain why before, that it is a lot of tension that suddenly is resolved in just a few, united chords, that these two themes really are developed and combined, and finally make a common conclusion that is such a … relief.

    Wo-hoo! :D I think I understand this now, thanks to your essay here. This was a true aha moment to me.
    Oops, sorry that I mess up your nice Beethoven blog with Tjajkovskij … Well, I could make it all worse by mentioning Pink Floyd as well, but I won’t … not today …

  2. Great example with the 8th Symphony, the development part has a moment which to me is the equivalent of smashing your head against the wall over and over again, with all the confusion and dissonance there is, like doing a circle but more and more dramatic and tense until he “breaks the wall”, so to speak and there’s a highly rewarding feeling, and then a resting sensation. This is characteristic of Beethoven, in my opinion: the endless struggle, and the dark moments which make the brights brighter, contrasts taken to the extreme no one had reached before.

    But anyway, to answer Cristina’s question, if I’m allowed: a rhapsody is indeed different from a Sonata or a Symphony (which usually does follow the sonata form too); it’s less structured and more like freely arranged parts, which may have no relation with each other, giving it a feeling of improvisation in a way.

  3. Yes, I think I know exactly what place you mean, iroveashe, ah, now I got inspired to listen to the piece again…and put exactly that spot up on a stream.

    I love how he “deforms” the first theme with putting a huge accent on the second note.

    Thanks for answering Christina’s question about Rhapsody. It is extremely well put.

    Christina, I follow your way through the Tjajkovskij concerto, it’s a strange, strange building of a piece, actually. The first, famous theme is technically an introduction, but I don’t fault you at all for thinking it’s a first theme: it’s so dominant that how could one not? Plus, the second theme (which is the slow solo piano one after the nervous theme is built from the introduction theme…upside down (a little like in the first sonata). Beethoven will use an introduction, too, first time he will do so is in the Pathetique Sonata.

    I think I know the place you refer to in the recap, and actually, when one plays it, it’s one of the most memorable spots because you literally feel a release of tension, like you’re flying as the harmonies just are so beautiful.

    1. To PT:
      Nicely put; I liked everything you said up to the point about the Pathetique Sonata, though. In the well written and perfectly explained book “Thematic Patterns in Sonatas of Beethoven” by Rudolph Reti, it goes into great detail about how the introduction to the Pathetique Sonata is one whopper of a theme. According to Reti, it houses almost every theme to base almost every aspect of the rest of the themes in the Grave movement (and fascinatingly enough) the rest of the movements.
      This is why Beethoven sometimes only had 3 movements in his sonatas; a huge rule he broke for the sake of themes. A three note thematic pattern would be enlarged to the grandest scale; the same pattern but with KEYS of the individual movements. (ex. Appassionata Sonata no. 23.) Completely genius.

      1. Hi Rob, and thanks for an interesting comment:
        I haven’t read the Reti book so I should not judge it, of course. Sometimes, but not always, the thematic relation search goes too far for my taste. At times, like in the first movement of Op. 10 No. 3, it is definitely a part of the musical experience. Also, the motive relation in the first movement of the “Tempest” sonata is clarifying for the listener I think. But then again at times, it can feel like its more of a theoretical curiosity. Beethoven worked with small cells, those cells often being written down on the side in the notebooks. An interesting aspect of that is that small cells are quite essential to build longer pieces, which Beethoven certainly did. To build music from small cells of three or four notes is much more doable than to work from a long, sweeping melody.

        I’m not sure I understand the three movement thing, because the rule WAS to write in three movements, not four. All Mozart’s sonatas are three movements.

  4. I was wondering if you have the breakdown of the 1st Movement of the Beethoven Sonata op31 no.3. I would really appreciate it if you can help.

    Yours sincerely,

    Mary McKeown

      1. Oops! Sorry about that false statement. I had symphonies and sonatas mixed up. Bottom line though, Beethoven’s small 3 note cells would, if “zoomed out” would look like the movements themselves!

  5. From my heart, thank you PT for the sharing your special talent with us.
    The interesting Sonata Form opens to me day after day when
    I listen -again and again – to you discussions about the Beethoven
    piano sonatas.
    Your pianopresentation is clear, I enjoy listening to the good quality.
    I think we – your listeners and readers – gladly allow you to go even deeper into
    a Beethoven pianosonata if you suddenly should feel like it. Your audience is sharp…

  6. Hey man, this is reeeally great stuff and I hope you don’t mind if i use a few of your ideas in a project i’m doing at the moment. Obviously I need to reference your work, so a name would be much appreciated.
    Cheers

  7. Awesome ! When I try to explain sonata form to my students they are usually staring blankly at me, as though I am talking in another language (which i am, music is a language) but you have such an incredible way of explaining these concepts, if I may borrow some of your ideas to try and explain some of this to my students in a way they may be able to comprehend a lot better now. Thanks for sharing looking forward to reading more !!!

  8. I am trying to help my 4th grader fulfill an assignment of writing her own sonatina and I am really lost! Any advice you can offer would be appreciated. I need to know the “rules” of a sonatina so that a 4th grader can understand & write her own.

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