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Understanding Sonata Form: A Key Component to Classical Music

Updated on November 5, 2012

Sonata Form Graph


What is Sonata Form?

Sonata form is a structural device used primarily in writing instrumental classical music that began its rise to prominence in the middle of the 18th Century. The form was usually used to write the first movements of many different genres of musical works; this included genres such as sonatas, chamber works like string quartets and piano trios, and symphonies, but it would show up in other types of works and in other movements as well.

Since so much music was written using this form, understanding its components can change the way a person listens to classical music, helping to improve the classical music listening experience.

This article will focus on the history and parts of sonata form. This will be followed by an analysis of how the form works, using Beethoven's 8th Piano Sonata's (Pathetique) first movement as an example of how sonata form could have worked in a piece of music.

Origins of Sonata Form

Sonata form started to arise around the middle of the 18th century. Around this time the Baroque Era in classical music was ending, and the Classical Era was beginning. One of the most significant changes from the Baroque to the Classical Era in music was reduced use of polyphonic music in favor of homophonic music.

As less and less polyphonic music was being written, a lot of the forms suited for Baroque music did not work as well for the new type of music that was being created in the Classical Era. This resulted in the need for new types of musical structure. This unique opportunity allowed for the rise of sonata form.

Sonata form's origins lie with the binary and rounded binary forms of the previous century. Binary form is a musical piece that is in two parts. It has an A section and a B section with each section usually having its own unique melodic aspects and a different key center. Rounded binary form was a binary form that returned to it's A section at the end of the B section, so the form would usually look like ABA.

Sonata form has an ABA type aspect to it, but its much more involved than that. Nevertheless binary form was a key starting point for what would eventually evolve into sonata form.

Sonata Form Chart

Sonata Form Section
Expected Key
First Theme Group
First Transition
Set up Modulation to V
Second Theme Group
Second Transition
Modulate to Development Key
First Theme Group
First Transition
Modulate but return to I
Second Theme Group
Final Transition/Ending

Sonata Form Explained

Sonata form essentially contains three sections that are called the: exposition, development, and recapitulation. These three sections will be present more or less in almost every composition that is said to use this form. Additionally you may find introductions and codas that can be added to the form, but they are not required.

Exposition - The exposition of sonata form introduces listeners to the two themes or theme groups that will be used. The first theme or theme group will be introduced in the tonic key and then it will begin to transfer to the second theme group. The second theme or theme group is introduced but in a different key, usually V, but not always. After playing the second theme group another transition occurs that brings listeners to the development.

Note: Two themes being used is the most common variation of sonata form that is used. However there are versions of sonata form that use one theme, sometimes found in the works of Haydn, and there are versions that use three themes, sometimes found in the works of Schubert and Bruckner.

Development - This section of the form usually modulates through a wide variety of keys. The thematic material explored in the exposition is reintroduced in new combinations, permutations, and with other creative aspects. The development leads to the retransition, which is used to lead listeners into the recapitulation.

Recapitulation - The recapitulation brings back the thematic material from the exposition and states both themes in the tonic key. Variances on themes can occur here, and often times the recapitulation will lead into a coda.

The sonata form chart should provide a more visual display of how the form works. It's also important to understand that these aspects of sonata form act more as guidelines, and they can be interpreted liberally by the composer. To hear how sonata form works it's best to listen to a piece of music that uses the form.

Pathetique First Movement Video

Sonata Form in The First Movement of Beethoven's 8th Piano Sonata (Pathetique)

Above is a video for the first movement of Beethoven's 8th Piano Sonata. Listen to the performance and see if you can hear the different aspects of sonata form being used, a chart and a more detailed explanation will be provided below.

It's very helpful to have a score of the music on hand in order to better understand the specifics of the form. A link is provided to the score in italics below. After clicking on the link, scroll down and click on one of the pdfs or copies of the score to find the music:

Beethoven Piano Sonata 8

One final note, the exposition is repeated in this sonata which is why there are two times listed in the table below. Exposition repeats were common during the Classical Era when Beethoven was writing music.

Beethoven treats the sonata form as more of a set of guidelines rather than strict set of rules. The keys he modulates to in his exposition are different than the keys that were normally modulated to at that time. This can be seen by comparing the Pathetique chart to the sonata form chart.

His introduction, exposition, and recapitulation are also very long, while his development ends up being very short, only a minute and a half (that's shorter than the introduction). However, a lot of ideas that would normally be found in the development start showing up in the exposition and recapitulation, specifically in the first and second transitions.

In other words Beethoven expands his exposition and recapitulation at the expense of his development. Nevertheless, musically this works very well, and thus this can be seen as one of the ways that a composer might expand the boundaries of sonata form.

The contrast between the emotional characteristics of the first and second theme is also striking. The first theme is fast paced and adventured packed, while the second theme is very lyrical. Sonata form was a great device to present two very different themes together in the same piece of music. Beethoven demonstrates this perfectly in the first movement of the 8th Piano Sonata.

Sonata Form Pathetique Chart

Sonata Form Section
Measure Numbers
Video Time (Approx.)
C Minor
mm. 1-10
First Theme
C Minor
mm. 11-26
1'52" and 3'35"
First Transition
C Minor to E-flat Minor
mm. 27-50
2'04" and 3'49"
Second Theme
E-flat Minor
mm. 51-88
2'24 and 4'08"
Second Transition and Exposition Coda
E-flat Minor to E flat Major
mm. 89-132
2'56 and 4'40"
Development based off of Introduction
G Minor
mm. 133-136
Development based off of First Theme
E Minor to D Major
Development based off of First Transition
F Minor - G Minor
mm. 149-166
Extended Retransition based off of First and Second Themes
G Minor
mm. 167-194
First Theme
C Minor
mm. 195 - 202
First Transition
C Minor to F Minor
mm. 203 -220
Second Theme
F Minor to C Minor
mm. 221-252
Second Transition
C Minor
mm. 253-284
Based off of First Theme and Introduction
C Minor
mm. 285-310

Sonata Form and Listening to Classical Music

Understanding sonata form and how it works in a piece of music can help improve a listeners appreciation of classical music. It also provides some formal groundwork for aspiring composers to model possible compositions off of.

Regardless if you enjoy classical music, listening to it and being able to identify sonata form in various compositions can help set up your listening expectations for a piece of music. There are myriad ways this form has been used through the years, and it has been the structure to some of the greatest pieces of classical music that were ever written.


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