Sonata Form – A Useful Framework to Understand What We’re Hearing

You’ve probably heard the term Sonata Form tossed around before, but may be unclear as to what it means exactly. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states that the sonata form is “the most important principle of musical form, or formal type, from the Classical period well into the 20th century.” That certainly sounds important and worth further investigation.

Turning to Wikipedia, we get this less-than-helpful definition:

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.

You might think that you have an idea based on all those piano sonatas you studied as a kid, but alas, most sonatas do not follow sonata form!

Fear not. The concept is quite simple, and you are probably familiar with it already.

In my high school English class, I learned how to write an essay: First, write an introductory section, where we expose one, two, or three themes that we are going to be talking about. Then, write the main body of the essay, developing the themes we promised to talk about. Finally, wrap things up with a conclusion, reviewing the themes we’ve been discussing.

Guess what? That’s a great definition of sonata form. Of course, musicologists need fancy words to make their doctoral theses sound more impressive. So, the first part is called the exposition, the second part is called the development, and the third part is called the recapitulation.

Later in life, a major corporation sent me to a class on how to write technical courses for their employees. It was a week-long class, but it boiled down to this: For each course module, choose one, two, or three topics you want to teach. Start by telling the students what you are going to teach in this module, teach it, then tell them what you just taught. Sound familiar?

If sonata form is not typically used in sonatas, you may be wondering where it is used. In fact, it is used in lots of places. Often first movements of symphonies follow the form, and sometimes, final movements as well. It is also common in string quartets, quintets, and concertos, to name a few. In the Peninsula Symphony’s upcoming concerts featuring Jon Nakamatsu, entitled Perfect Fifths, listen for the sonata form in both the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth Piano Concerto (“Emperor”) and in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

Most of us are more familiar with the English language than music, so it may be difficult to identify the themes, and to know when we move from the exposition to the development and ultimately on to the recapitulation. But, once you get to know these components, the music makes so much more sense. As an example, let’s examine one of the works in the upcoming concert mentioned above: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, first movement.


First, we are exposed to the main theme which occurs throughout the movement, referred to as the Motto Theme. Here it is in measures 1 through 8:



We get the two Primary Themes in measures 42 through 49, and in measures 116 through 127, respectively:





For completeness, we get a Motive in measures 154 through 169:



and a Subordinate Theme in measures 170 through 181:


Now that we’ve been exposed to the themes and motives we’ll be working with, see if you can hear when we move into the Development section. Hint: This section begins with the first Primary Theme superimposed with the Motive. (If you are looking at a score, look around measure 191.)

Throughout this section, you will hear our themes, sometimes in full, sometimes just bits and pieces fighting with each other. The music gets more intense and complicated as these themes are layered on top of each other.


Finally, things calm down again, and we hear the bassoon bring us into the final section by playing the first Primary Theme once again as a solo (starting in measure 320). From here on, we hear the themes again, perhaps on different instruments and with different harmonization, but the themes are heard on whole and one-by-one, as Tchaikovsky wraps up the first movement and leaves our ears hungry for what’s to follow in the next.

It may take some practice listening for the themes and the three parts of sonata form in a movement, but just as the composer used the form as a framework for composing the work, we can use it as a framework for understanding and enjoying the work at a deeper level.

(Did you notice that this blog entry is in sonata form?)
[Special thanks to Ben Hollin for his help in inserting the musical notation and the music links.]

  • Eric Saund

    October 21, 2017 at 2:21 am Reply

    Excellent! Thank you!


  • barbara keer

    October 22, 2017 at 8:05 pm Reply

    This is wonderful

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