Sonata Form on Learning to Listen

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
November 9, 2012

ST. PAUL, Minn. — You voted, and you want to learn more about what we call 'Sonata form', so here goes.

Sonata form emerged as the most important compositional tool for composers in the 18th century. But where do you find it?

Sonata form occurs most frequently as the first movement of a symphony or other piece of music that has more than one movement.

This is one of those times where language can confuse us, because there are pieces of music called Sonatas, but which don't use sonata form. For example, some piano sonatas don't use sonata form at all for any of the movements.

So, we're speaking strictly of the form, and if you need a reminder of what musical form is, feel free to consult the Introduction to Musical Form episode of Learning to Listen.

I have three new words for you, and they form the big sections of sonata form: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation.

If we take a familiar piece of music, such as the first movement to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Serenade titled Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, we can talk through the divisions of the form. You can hear how these divisions fit together by listening to the audio included with this article.

It all starts with the Exposition. Mozart needs to do two things in the Exposition; he needs to give us a primary theme and a secondary theme. The Exposition allows composers like Mozart to lay out the basic thematic material of the movement.

But what happens next? Mozart messes around with it, he varies it; he develops it. That's what happens in the Development section. Within the Development, Mozart and other composers can be a bit more creative. Mozart takes melodies we've already heard from the Exposition and he plays around with them a bit. The Development section can become quite complicated, but the idea is as simple as that - taking the themes from the Exposition and developing them into something a little different.

The Development can be long or short. For Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Mozart wrote a relatively short Development.

Once the Development winds down, we actually go all the way back to the Exposition and play it again. Then all the way through the Development again. Once we're through that, we get to the Recapitulation.

Recapitulation means exactly what you might expect - we are going to hear the Exposition again with some minor adjustments that have to do with the key the piece is in and such. We do not hear the Development again.

Here is one more important word: Coda. Coda is a fancy way of saying 'ending'. Codas happen at the end of a piece or movement and are not exclusive to Sonata form. Mozart uses a Coda at the end of the first movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In summary, Sonata form has three main sections - the Exposition, the Development and the Recapitulation. Now, if you look Sonata form up online, you'll find that there is much more to learn about it. There are terms for the ways in which composers get from one section, like the Exposition, to the Development, and so on. There are also general rules regarding what keys the composer uses at what times during Sonata form.

But in a nutshell, that is Sonata form. Vote below on what you'd like to learn more about in the next episode of Learning to Listen from Classical MPR.

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