(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)
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.