Sonata form

Sonata form

Sonata form is a large-scale musical structure used widely since the middle of the 18th century (the early Classical period). While it is typically used in the first movement of multi-movement pieces, it is sometimes used in subsequent movements as well—particularly the final movement. The teaching of sonata form in music theory rests on a standard definition and a series of hypotheses about the underlying reasons for the durability and variety of the form—a definition that arose in the second quarter of the 19th century[1]. There is little disagreement that on the largest level, the form consists of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation;[2] however, beneath this, sonata form is difficult to pin down in terms of a single model.

The standard definition focuses on the thematic and harmonic organization of tonal materials that are presented in an exposition, elaborated and contrasted in a development and then resolved harmonically and thematically in a recapitulation. In addition, the standard definition recognizes that an introduction and a coda may be present. Each of the sections is often further divided or characterized by the particular means by which it accomplishes its function in the form.

Since its establishment, the sonata form became the most common form in the first movement of works entitled "sonata", as well as other long works of classical music, including the symphony, concerto, string quartet, and so on.[2] In accordance, there is a large body of theory on what unifies and distinguishes practice in the sonata form, both within eras and between eras. Even works that do not adhere to the standard description of a sonata form often present analogous structures or can be analyzed as elaborations or expansions of the standard description of sonata form.


Defining 'sonata form'

According to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, sonata form is "the most important principle of musical form, or formal type, from the Classical period well into the 20th century".[3] As a formal model it is usually best exemplified in the first movements of multi-movement works from this period, whether orchestral or chamber, and has, thus, been referred to frequently as "first-movement form" or "sonata-allegro form" (since the typical first movement in a three- or four-movement cycle will be in allegro tempo). However, as what Grove, following Charles Rosen, calls a "principle" — a typical approach to shaping a large piece of instrumental music — it can be seen to be active in a much greater variety of pieces and genres, from minuet to concerto to sonata-rondo. It also carries with it expressive and stylistic connotations: "sonata style", for Donald Tovey as for other theorists of his time, was characterized by drama, dynamism, and a "psychological" approach to theme and expression.[3]

Although the Italian term sonata often refers to a piece in sonata form, it is essential to separate the two. As the title for a single-movement piece of instrumental music—the past participle of suonare, "to sound," as opposed to cantata, the past participle of cantare, "to sing"—"sonata" covers many pieces from the Baroque and mid-18th century that are not "in sonata form". Conversely, in the late 18th century or "Classical" period, the title "sonata" is typically given to a work composed of three or four movements. Nonetheless, this multi-movement sequence is not what is meant by sonata form, which refers to the structure of an individual movement.

The definition of sonata form in terms of musical elements sits uneasily between two historical eras. Although the late 18th century witnessed the most exemplary achievements in the form, above all from Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, compositional theory of the time did not use the term "sonata form". Perhaps the most extensive contemporary description of the sonata-form type of movement may have been given by the theorist H. C. Koch in 1793: like earlier German theorists and unlike many of the descriptions of the form we are used to today, he defined it in terms of the movement's plan of modulation and principal cadences, without saying a great deal about the treatment of themes. Seen in this way, sonata form was closest to binary form, out of which it probably developed.[3] The model of the form that is often taught currently tends to be more thematically differentiated. It was originally promulgated by Anton Reicha in Traité de haute composition musicale in 1826, by Adolph Bernhard Marx in Die Lehre von der musikalischen Komposition in 1845, and by Carl Czerny in 1848. Marx may be the originator of the term "sonata form".

This model was derived from study and criticism of Beethoven's piano sonatas.

Definition as a formal model

A sonata-allegro movement is divided into sections. Each section is felt to perform specific functions in the musical argument.

It may begin with an introduction, which is, in general, slower than the main movement. In terms of structure, introductions are an upbeat before the main musical argument.

The first required section is the exposition. The exposition presents the primary thematic material for the movement: one or two themes or theme groups, often in contrasting styles and in opposing keys, connected by a modulating transition. The exposition typically concludes with a closing theme, a codetta, or both.

The exposition is followed by the development where the harmonic and textural possibilities of the thematic material are explored.

The development then re-transitions back to the recapitulation where the thematic material returns in the tonic key, and for the recapitulation to complete the musical argument, material that has not been stated in the tonic key is "resolved" by being played, in whole or in part, in the tonic.

The movement may conclude with a coda, beyond the final cadence of the recapitulation.

The term 'sonata form' is controversial and has been called misleading by scholars and composers almost from its inception. Its originators implied that there was a set template to which Classical and Romantic composers aspired, or should aspire to.

However, sonata form is presently viewed as a model for musical analysis, rather than compositional practice. Although the descriptions on this page could be considered an adequate analysis of many first-movement structures, there are enough variations that theorists such as Charles Rosen have felt them to warrant the plural in 'Sonata forms.'[4]

These variations include, but are not limited to:

  • a monothematic exposition, where the same material is presented in different keys, often used by Haydn;
  • a 'third subject group' in a different key than the other two, used by Schubert, Brahms, and Bruckner;
  • the first theme recapitulated in the 'wrong' key, often the subdominant, as in Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16 in C, K. 545 and Schubert's third symphony;
  • and an extended coda section that pursues developmental, rather than concluding, processes, often found in Beethoven's middle-period works, such as his third symphony.

Through the Romantic period, formal distortions and variations become so widespread (Mahler, Elgar and Sibelius among others are cited and studied by James Hepokoski) that 'sonata form' as it is outlined here is not adequate to describe the complex musical structures that it is often applied to.

In the context of the many late-Baroque extended binary forms that bear similarities to sonata form, sonata form can be distinguished by the following three characteristics:[3]

  • a separate development section including a retransition
  • the simultaneous return of the first subject group and the tonic
  • a full (or close to full) recapitulation of the second subject group

Outline of sonata form

The standard description of the sonata form is:


The Introduction section is optional, or may be reduced to a minimum. If it is extended, it is, in general, slower than the main section, and frequently focuses on the dominant key. It may or may not contain material that is later stated in the exposition. The introduction increases the weight of the movement, and also permits the composer to begin the exposition with a theme that would be too light to start on its own, as in Haydn's Symphony No. 103 ("The Drumroll") and Beethoven's Quintet for Piano and Winds Op. 16. The introduction usually is not included in the exposition repeat.

On occasion, the material of introduction reappears in its original tempo later in the movement. Often, this occurs as late as the coda, as in Mozart's String Quintet in D major K. 593, Haydn's Drumroll Symphony, or Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 ("Pathétique").


The primary thematic material for the movement is presented in the Exposition. This section can be further divided into several sections. The same section in most sonata form movements has prominent harmonic and thematic parallelisms (although in some works from the 19th century and onward, some of these parallelisms are subject to considerable exceptions), which include:

First theme (G major) and transition (to D major) from Haydn's Keyboard Sonata in G Major (No. 4), Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 1–12 About this sound Play .[5]
  • First subject group, P —this consists of one or more themes, all of them in the home key (also called the tonic)—so if the piece is in C major, all of the music in the first group will be in C major. Although some pieces are written differently, most follow this form.
Start of second subject (D major) of Haydn's Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 13–16 About this sound Play .
  • Transition, T —in this section the composer modulates from the key of the first subject to the key of the second.
End of second subject and Codetta (D major) of Haydn's Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 17–28 About this sound Play
  • Second subject group, S —one or more themes in a different key from the first group. If the first group is in a major key, the second group will usually be in the dominant. If the original key is C major, for example, the key of the music of the second group will be G major, a perfect fifth higher. If the first group is in a minor key, the second group will, in general, be in the relative major, so that, if the original key is C minor, the second group will be in E-flat major. The material of the second group is often different in rhythm or mood from that of the first group (frequently, it is more lyrical).
  • Codetta, K —the purpose of this is to bring the exposition section to a close with a perfect cadence in the same key as the second group. The exposition is commonly repeated, particularly in classical works. Often, though not always, the last measure or measures of the exposition are slightly different between the repeats, one to point back to the tonic, where the exposition began, and the second to point towards the development.


Development Haydn's Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 29–53 About this sound Play .[6]

In general, the development starts in the same key as the exposition ended, and may move through many different keys during its course. It will usually consist of one or more themes from the exposition altered and on occasion juxtaposed and may include new material or themes – though exactly what is acceptable practice is a famous point of contention. Alterations include taking material through distant keys, breaking down of themes and sequencing of motifs, and so forth.

The development varies greatly in length from piece to piece and from time period to time period, sometimes being relatively short compared to the exposition (e.g., the first movement of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K 525/I by Mozart) and in other cases quite long and detailed (e.g., the first movement of the "Eroica" Symphony by Beethoven). Developments in the classical era are typically shorter due to how much composers of that era valued symmetry, unlike the more expressive romantic era ("Eroica" is considered to be the first Romantic symphony) in which development sections gain a much greater importance. However, it almost always shows a greater degree of tonal, harmonic, and rhythmic instability than the other sections. At the end, the music will usually return to the tonic key in preparation of the recapitulation. (On occasion it will actually return to the sub-dominant key and then proceed with the same transition as in the exposition). The transition from the development to the recapitulation is a crucial moment in the work.

Retransition Haydn's Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 54–57 About this sound Play .[7]

The last part of the development section is called the retransition: It prepares for the return of the first subject group in the tonic, most often through a grand prolongation of the dominant seventh. Thus, if the key of the movement is C major, the retransition would most typically stress the dominant seventh chord on G. In addition, the character of the music would signal such a return, often becoming more frenetic (as in the case of the first movement of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, Op. 53). A rather notable exception to the harmonic norm of the retransition occurs in the first movement of Brahms's Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 1. The general key of the movement is C major, and it would then follow that the retransition should stress the dominant seventh chord on G. Instead, it builds in strength over the seventh chord on C, as if the music were proceeding to F major. At the height of the musical tension, this chord triumphs with great volume and wide registral scope on the downbeat, only to take up immediately the first theme in C major – that is, without any standard harmonic preparation. Occasionally, the retransition can begin with a false recapitulation, in which the opening material of the first theme group is presented in a key other than the tonic. The surprise that ensues when the music continues to modulate toward the tonic can be used for either comic or dramatic effect.


Recapitulation Haydn's Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 58–80 About this sound Play .[8]

The Recapitulation is an altered repeat of the exposition, and consists of:

  • First subject group – normally given prominence as the highlight of a recapitulation, it is usually in exactly the same key and form as in the exposition.
  • Transition – Often the transition is carried out by introducing novel material, a kind of brief additional development section; this is called a secondary development.
  • Second subject group – usually in roughly the same form as in the exposition, but now in the home key, which sometimes involves change of mode from major to minor, or vice versa, as occurs in the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (K. 550). More often, however, it may be recast in the parallel major of the home key (for example, C major when the movement is in C minor like Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, op. 67/I). Key here is more important than mode (major or minor) – the recapitulation provides the needed balance even if the material's mode is changed, so long as there is no longer any key conflict.

Exceptions to the recapitulation form include Mozart and Haydn works that often begin with the second subject group when the first subject group has been elaborated at length in the development.

After the closing cadence the musical argument proper is said to be completed, and, if the movement continues, it is said to have a coda.


Coda Mozart's Sonata in C Major, K. 309, I, mm. 148–155 About this sound Play .[9]

After the final cadence of the recapitulation, the movement may continue with a coda, which will contain material from the movement proper. Codas, when present, vary considerably in length, but, like introductions, are not part of the "argument" of the work. The coda will end, however, with a perfect cadence in the original key. Codas may be quite brief tailpieces, or they may be very long and elaborate. A famous example of the more extended type is the coda to the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (no. 3 in E flat), although there are numerous others in Beethoven's music.

Explanations for why an extended coda is present vary. One reason may be to omit the repeat of the development and recapitulation sections found in earlier sonata forms of the eighteenth century. Indeed, Beethoven's extended codas often serve the purpose of further development of thematic material.

Variations on the standard schema

Monothematic expositions

It is not necessarily the case that the move to the dominant key in the exposition is marked by a new theme. Haydn in particular was fond of using the opening theme, often in a truncated or otherwise altered form, to announce the move to the dominant. Mozart also occasionally wrote such expositions: for instance in the Piano Sonata K. 570 or the String Quintet K. 593. Such expositions are often called monothematic, meaning that one theme serves to establish the opposition between tonic and dominant keys. This term is misleading, since most "monothematic" works have multiple themes: most works so labeled have additional themes in the second subject group. Rarely, as in the fourth movement of Haydn's String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 50, No. 1, did composers perform the tour de force of writing a complete sonata exposition with just one theme. A more recent example is Edmund Rubbra's 2nd Symphony.

The fact that so-called monothematic expositions usually have additional themes is used by Charles Rosen to illustrate his theory that the Classical sonata form's crucial element is some sort of dramatization of the arrival of the dominant.[citation needed] Using a new theme was a very common way to achieve this, but other resources such as changes in texture, salient cadences and so on were also accepted practice.

Modulation to keys other than the dominant

The key of the second subject may be something other than the dominant or the relative major (or relative minor). About halfway through his career, Beethoven began to experiment with other tonal relationships between the tonic and the second subject group. The most common practice, for both Beethoven and other composers, the mediant or submediant, rather than the dominant, is used for the second group. For instance, the first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, in C major, modulates to the mediant E major, while the opening movement of the "Hammerklavier" sonata, in B-flat major, modulates to the submediant G major.

Expositions with more than two key areas

Main article: Three-key exposition

The exposition need not only have two key areas. Some composers, most notably Schubert, composed sonata forms with three or more key areas. The first movement of Schubert's Quartet in D minor, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden"), for example, has three separate key and thematic areas, in D minor, F major, and A minor.[10]

Modulations within the first subject group

The first subject group need not be entirely in the tonic key. In the more complex sonata expositions there can be brief modulations to fairly remote keys, followed by reassertion of the tonic. For example, Mozart's String Quintet in C, K. 515, visits C minor, D-flat major, and D major, before finally moving to the dominant major (G major), and many works by Schubert and later composers utilized even further harmonic convolutions. In the first subject group of Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960, for example, the theme is presented three times, in B-flat major, in G-flat major, and then again in B-flat major. The second subject group is even more wide-ranging. It begins in F-sharp minor, moves into A major, then through B-flat major to F major.[11]

Sonata form in concerti

An important variant on traditional sonata-allegro form is found in the first movement of the Classical concerto. Here, the sonata-allegro's customary 'repeated exposition' is replaced by two different but related sections: the 'tutti exposition' and the 'solo exposition'. Prototypically the 'tutti exposition' does not feature the soloist (except, in early classical works, in a 'continuo' role), and does not contain the decisive sonata-exposition modulation to the secondary key. Only when the 'solo exposition' is under way does the solo instrument assert itself and participate in the move to (classically) the dominant or relative major. The situation is only seemingly different in the case of such late classical works as Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, where the soloist is heard at the outset: as the later unfolding of those movements makes clear, the opening piano solo or early piano flourishes actually precede the start of the exposition proper.

A structural feature that the special textural situation of the concerto makes possible is the 'ownership' of certain themes or materials by the solo instrument; such materials will thus not be exposed until the 'solo' exposition. Mozart was fond of deploying his themes in this way.

Towards the end of the recapitulation of a concerto movement in sonata form, there is usually a cadenza for the soloist alone. This has an improvisatory character (it may or may not actually be improvised), and, in general, serves to prolong the harmonic tension on a dominant-quality chord before the orchestra ends the piece in the tonic.

The history of sonata form

The term sonata is first found in the 17th century, when instrumental music had just begun to become increasingly separated from vocal music. The original meaning of the term (derived from the Italian word suonare, to sound on instrument) referred to a piece for playing, distinguished from cantata, a piece for singing. At this time, the term implies a binary form, usually AABB with some aspects of three part forms.

The Classical era established the norms of structuring first movements and the standard layouts of multi-movement works. There was a period of a wide variety of layouts and formal structures within first movements that gradually became expected norms of composition. The practice of Haydn and Mozart, as well as other notable composers, became increasingly influential on a generation that sought to exploit the possibilities offered by the forms that Haydn and Mozart had established in their works. In time, theory on the layout of the first movement became more and more focused on understanding the practice of Haydn, Mozart, and, later, Beethoven. Their works were studied, patterns and exceptions to those patterns identified, and the boundaries of acceptable or usual practice set by the understanding of their works. The sonata form as it is described is strongly identified with the norms of the Classical period in music. Even before it had been described the form had become central to music making, absorbing or altering other formal schemas for works.

The Romantic era in music was to accept the centrality of this practice, codify the form explicitly and make instrumental music in this form central to concert and chamber composition and practice, in particular for works that were meant to be regarded as "serious" works of music. Various controversies in the 19th century would center on exactly what the implications of "development" and sonata practice actually meant, and what the role of the Classical masters was in music. It is ironic that, at the same time that the form was being codified (by the likes of Czerny and so forth), composers of the day were writing works that flagrantly violated some of the principles of the codified form.

It has continued to be influential through the subsequent history of classical music through to the modern period. The 20th century brought a wealth of scholarship that sought to found the theory of the sonata form on basic tonal laws. The 20th century would see a continued expansion of acceptable practice, leading to the formulation of ideas by which there existed a "sonata principle" or "sonata idea" that unified works of the type, even if they did not explicitly mean the demands of the normative description.

Sonata form and other musical forms

Sonata form shares characteristics with both binary form and ternary form. In terms of key relationships, it is very like binary form, with a first half moving from the home key to the dominant and the second half moving back again (this is why sonata form is sometimes known as compound binary form); in other ways it is very like ternary form, being divided into three sections, the first (exposition) of a particular character, the second (development) in contrast to it, the third section (recapitulation) the same as the first.

The early binary sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti provide excellent examples of the transition from binary to sonata-allegro form. Among the many sonatas are numerous examples of the true sonata form being crafted into place. During the 18th century, many other composers like Scarlatti were discovering this same musical form by experimenting at their keyboards with harmony and melody.

Theory of sonata form

The sonata form is a guide to composers as to the schematic for their works, for interpreters to understand the grammar and meaning of a work, and for listeners to understand the significance of musical events. A host of musical details are determined by the harmonic meaning of a particular note, chord or phrase. The sonata form, because it describes the shape and hierarchy of a movement, tells performers what to emphasize, and how to shape phrases of music. Its theory begins with the description, in the 18th century, of schematics for works, and was codified in the early 19th century. This codified form is still used in the pedagogy of the sonata form.

In the 20th century, emphasis moved from the study of themes and keys to how harmony changed through the course of a work and the importance of cadences and transitions in establishing a sense of "closeness" and "distance in a sonata". The work of Heinrich Schenker and his ideas about "foreground," "middleground," and "background" became enormously influential in the teaching of composition and interpretation. Schenker believed that inevitability was the key hallmark of a successful composer, and that, therefore, works in sonata form should demonstrate an inevitable logic.

In the simplest example, playing of a cadence should be in relationship to the importance of that cadence in the overall form of the work. More important cadences are emphasized by pauses, dynamics, sustaining and so on. False or deceptive cadences are given some of the characteristics of a real cadence, and then this impression is undercut by going forward more quickly. For this reason, changes in performance practice bring changes to the understanding of the relative importance of various aspects of the sonata form. In the Classical era, the importance of sections and cadences and underlying harmonic progressions gives way to an emphasis on themes. The clarity of strongly differentiated major and minor sections gives way to a more equivocal sense of key and mode. These changes produce changes in performance practice: when sections are clear, then there is less need to emphasize the points of articulation. When they are less clear, greater importance is placed on varying the tempo during the course of the music to give "shape" to the music.

Over the last half-century, a critical tradition of examining scores, autographs, annotations, and the historical record has changed, sometimes subtly, on occasion dramatically, the way the sonata form is viewed. It has led to changes in how works are edited; for example, the phrasing of Beethoven's piano works has undergone a shift to longer and longer phrases that are not always in step with the cadences and other formal markers of the sections of the underlying form. Comparing the recordings of Schnabel, from the beginning of modern recording, with those of Barenboim and then Pratt shows a distinct shift in how the structure of the sonata form is presented to the listener over time.

For composers, the sonata form is like the plot of a play or movie script, describing when the crucial plot points are, and the kinds of material that should be used to connect them into a coherent and orderly whole. At different times the sonata form has been taken to be quite rigid, and at other times a freer interpretation has been considered permissible.

In the theory of sonata form it is often asserted that other movements stand in relation to the sonata-allegro form, either, per Charles Rosen that they are really "sonata forms", plural – or as Edward T. Cone asserts, that the sonata-allegro is the ideal to which other movement structures "aspire". This is particularly seen to be the case with other movement forms that commonly occur in works thought of as sonatas. As a sign of this the word "sonata" is sometimes prepended to the name of the form, in particular in the case of the "sonata-rondo" form. Slow movements, in particular, are seen as being similar to sonata-allegro form, with differences in phrasing and less emphasis on the development.

However, Schoenberg and other theorists who used his ideas as a point of departure see the theme and variations as having an underlying role in the construction of formal music, calling the process continuing variation, and argue from this idea that the sonata-allegro form is a means of structuring the continuing variation process. Theorists of this school include Erwin Ratz and William E. Caplin.

Subsections of works are sometimes analyzed as being in sonata form, in particular single movement works, such as the Konzertstück in F minor of Carl Maria von Weber.

From the 1950s onward, Hans Keller developed a 'two-dimensional' method of analysis that explicitly considered form and structure from the point of view of listener expectations. In his work, the sonata-allegro was a well-implied 'background form' against whose various detailed features composers could compose their individual 'foregrounds'; the 'meaningful contradiction' of expected background by unexpected foreground was seen as generating the expressive content. In Keller's writings, this model is applied in detail to Schoenberg's 12-note works as well as the classical tonal repertoire. In recent times, two other musicologists, James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, have presented, without reference to Keller, their analysis, which they term Sonata Theory, of the sonata-allegro form and the sonata cycle in terms of genre expectations, and categorized both the sonata-allegro movement and the sonata cycle by the compositional choices made to respect or depart from conventions. Their study focuses on the normative period of sonata practice, notable ones being the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and their close contemporaries, projecting this practice forward to development of the sonata-allegro form into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Musical criticism and sonata form

Owing to its centrality to classical music, the sonata form has been a topic of interest to musical critics since its origin. Contentious opinions include those of prominent critics including Eduard Hanslick,[citation needed] who praised the form for its intelligibility.


  1. ^ Rosen, C (1980) Sonata Forms (revised ed. 1988), New York, Norton, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Benward & Saker (2009). Music in Theory and Practice: Volume II, p.359. Eighth Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  3. ^ a b c d James Webster: 'Sonata form', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 27/3/2008), <>
  4. ^ Charles Rosen (1988) Sonata Forms, p.1. 2nd ed. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-02658-2.
  5. ^ Benward & Saker (2009). Music in Theory and Practice: Volume II, p.136. Eighth Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  6. ^ Benward & Saker (2009), p.138-39.
  7. ^ Benward & Saker (2009), p.140.
  8. ^ Benward & Saker (2009), p.140-41.
  9. ^ Benward & Saker (2009), p.151.
  10. ^ Wolff, Christoph, 'Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen: analytical and explanatory notes on the song D. 531 and the quartet D. 810' in Badura-Skoda and Branscombe (eds), Schubert Studies: Problems of Style and Chronology (1982), 143–171.
  11. ^ Marston, Nicholas, 'Schubert's Homecoming', Journal of the Royal Musical Association 125 (2000), 248–270.

Further reading

See also

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