Sonata Form: Definition & Examples

This lesson will explore the structure of sonata form, a ground-breaking method of organizing music that was arguably the most dramatic and exciting structural development of the Classical era.
What is Sonata Form?
Sonata form, also known as sonata-allegro form, is an organizational structure based on contrasting musical ideas. It consists of three main sections – exposition, development, and recapitulation – and sometimes includes an optional coda at the end. In the exposition, the main melodic ideas, or themes, are introduced. In the development section, these themes are explored and dramatized. The recapitulation brings back and resolves the two original themes by placing them both in the tonic key, which is the main tonal center of the piece and almost always the key in which the piece begins and ends. Often, the tonic key is indicated by the title of the work. For example, if you see the title Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, you know that the tonic key of this piece is G minor. The coda, if present, is a closing section that wraps up the melodic ideas and reaffirms the tonic key with a strong cadence.
Sonata form is one of the most dramatic and influential musical structures of the Classical era (1750 – 1820). Its strict organizational formula satisfied the Classical era need for balance after the excesses of the Baroque era. It is sometimes called ‘sonata-allegro form’ because it was often marked to be played at a fast (allegro) tempo, as well as to distinguish it from the sonata, a specific genre of music, rather than a form. Sonata form was typically used for the first and sometimes the last movements of multi-movement works, such as concertos, symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets. During the Romantic era, the form also often appeared in tone poems, overtures, and other one-movement symphonic works.
Structure of Sonata Form
Exposition section of sonata form
Exposition Diagram
In the first section, the exposition, the main musical ideas of the piece are exposed. There are usually two contrasting themes. The first theme is always in the tonic key. A short, modulatory passage called a bridge leads to the second theme, which is in a related but dissimilar key. After closing with a strong cadence in the new key, the exposition is repeated verbatim so that the listener hears each melody twice. This repetition is important, because these themes will return in other sections.
Development section of sonata form
Development Diagram
The development is where the action occurs. In this section, the music modulates to foreign keys, new themes appear, and the melody often sounds much like an improvisation. It is exciting and vivid, taking the listener on a whirlwind aural journey that is loosely based on the themes established in the exposition. When these themes appear, they are usually fragmented, turned inside out and upside down, and can be difficult to recognize.
Recapitulation section of sonata form
Recapitulation Diagram
After the development, the recapitulation brings the melody ‘home’ to the tonic key. In this section, the original themes from the exposition are repeated (i.e. recapitulated, or ‘recapped’), although this time, both themes are in the tonic key. The bridge section still serves to connect the themes. However, this time the bridge does not modulate to a new tonal area, but remains in the home key, the tonic. This critical difference provides a strong sense of resolution and completion as the recapitulation ends in the tonic key, thereby ending the piece.
Alternatively, the recapitulation may lead to a closing section known as a coda (Italian, derived from the Latin cauda, meaning ‘tail’). The coda section may vary greatly in length. A brief coda may serve as an extension of the final cadence, while a longer coda may introduce new themes, further develop the original themes, and/or significantly extend the length of the work.
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