Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
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Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In many ways, the structure of sonata form is similar to a 3-act play. In a play, the first act serves to provide background information and introduce the main characters. In the second act, these characters become entwined in a series of events that are sometimes dangerous, passionate, and often tense - perhaps even a bit confusing - but exciting. New characters are introduced, and more may be revealed about the main characters as well. As the second act draws to its completion, the drama begins to unwind in the final act. The main characters reflect on the series of events, and the audience can now see the characters in a new light. The key plot points and events from the second act are resolved, and information from the first act takes on new meaning as plot points converge. If the final act leaves too many unanswered questions, an epilogue may be added to provide closure and tie up loose ends.
In the Classical Era, sonata form was widely used and developed by composers such as Haydn and Mozart, and later expanded by Beethoven. As an example, let's look at the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550.
The first theme, played by the violins over a quivering viola backdrop, is hesitant, delicate, yet frantic. It is in the home key of G minor and features a three-note rhythmic motif: short-short-long.
A lively bridge passage links the two themes and subtly modulates into a new tonal area.
The second theme is in the sunny key of B-flat major. It is full of jaunty phrases that end with whimsical descending scales that cascade like a waterfall of notes.
In the development, fragments of these themes make brief appearances. If you listen closely, you can clearly hear bits of the short-short-long motif from the first theme.
In the recapitulation, the first theme begins almost exactly like it was in the exposition, but with an added countermelody played by the woodwinds underneath.
The bridge passage does not modulate, but remains in the tonic key of G minor.
The second theme, which was in B-flat major in the exposition, is now heard in the tonic key, G minor, sounding like a ghostly shadow of its former brightness.
A brief coda section brings the piece to its conclusion as it reaffirms G minor through an extended cadence.
Thus, the two themes in the exposition provide balance through contrast. The development provides action and excitement, and balance is restored in the repeat of the exposition themes in the recapitulation. The closing in the tonic key also provides fulfillment and resolution.
Sonata form, a Classical era invention used by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, is a structural device often found in the first movement of multi-movement genres. Typically, a piece written in sonata form has three main sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The exposition usually has two themes: the first in the tonic key (the main tonal area of the piece) and the second in a contrasting key, which are connected by a bridge passage. The development expands upon and explores these themes and adds new melodic ideas. The recapitulation recaps the themes, although this time both are in the tonic key. Sometimes, a coda section is added to end the movement.
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Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons