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What is Sonata Rondo Form?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Good compositions follow certain patterns, even if those patterns aren't always immediately evident. In this lesson, we'll explore the sonata rondo form of composition, and see how it is often used in music.

Sonata Rondo Form

Old MacDonald had a farm, e-i-e-i-o; and on this farm he had a cow, e-i-e-i-o. What old MacDonald probably didn't have was training in Classical composition. So why are we talking about him? Old MacDonald's tune is based on a simple pattern of repetitive and changing lyrics, and while it may not be the most complex of melodies, this is a common feature found in many genres of music. In music of the Classical era in Western musical history (roughly the 18th century), composers experimented with new patterns and arrangements in music. They came up with some pretty great stuff too. One of their innovations was the sonata rondo form, a dominant pattern of Classical music. I bet Old MacDonald wishes he had that.

Elements of the Sonata Rondo Form

The sonata rondo form is actually composed of elements from two early forms of music, called (conveniently enough) the sonata and the rondo. To understand the sonata rondo, we first need to understand each of these earlier styles.

The Sonata

Let's start with the sonata. A sonata is a work divided into distinct sections, each defined by its take on a musical theme and key. Sonatas begin with the exposition, a section presenting the main musical themes of the piece. The exposition is generally followed by a development section which generally introduces new themes. The recapitulation comes after that, in which all themes are presented again, but this time in the tonic key (the base key of the piece). That's a very basic overview of the sonata form.

The Rondo

The other part of the sonata-rondo form is the rondo. To understand this, let's look back at Old MacDonald. If we give each new section of that song a letter so that 'Old MacDonald…' was A, 'e-i-e-i…' was B and 'and on this farm…' was C, the song would look like this: ABCB.

The rondo is also defined by an alternating pattern of repetitive and new themes. The first theme is called the refrain, which will be denoted by the letter A from now on. After each refrain comes a unique section called the episode. So, a rondo will generally be organized as refrain-episode 1 -refrain- episode 2 - refrain-episode 1, or ABACABA. In this pattern, we have three distinct musical themes, each appearing a different number of times.

Sonata Rondo Form

So, let's put this all together. When we combine the tonal organization of the sonata with the alternating patterns of the rondo, we get (voila!) the sonata rondo. Basically, this form overlaps two patterns: the exposition-development-recapitulation of the sonata with the rondo's ABACABA. We do this by highlighting the recurring patterns of the rondo and associating it with the parts of the sonata.

Here's what that looks like. If we look at the rondo pattern, we notice that the motif of ABA appears twice. So, that is the most common musical theme and is introduced in the exposition. To fit the exposition form, the first refrain is written in the home or tonal key of the piece, with the BA written in an opposing key. This creates musical tension. So, the exposition of the sonata rondo form contains two melodies, A and B, in a pattern of ABA and home key-opposing key.

Following that is the development section, which introduces a new theme. In the rondo form, the melody noted as C only appears once, so it fits into this section well. That makes this part of the sonata-rondo pretty simple. The development contains the C theme, played in several different keys to continue building musical tension and drama.

Finally, we arrive at the recapitulation. Once again, themes A and B appear in a pattern of ABA. This time, however, they are all played in the same key- the tonal or home key. This resolves all of the musical tension and brings the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

Okay, ready to put it all together? Using our notations, a sonata rondo form would look like this:

Exposition: A(tonal key) B(opposing key) A(opposing key)

Development: C(many keys)

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