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Introduction to sonata theory

A classical sonata is a multi-movement work for solo instrument, chamber ensemble, or orchestra with at least one movement in sonata form. Almost always, the first movement of a sonata is in sonata form. The last movement is typically an upbeat finale, which can be in a number of different forms. Inner movements (second movement of a three-movement sonata; second and third movements of a four-movement sonata) are typically slow movements and/or dance movements (minuets or scherzos). Any non-dance movement in a sonata can take sonata form, but rarely all of them at once. Commonly, only the first movement takes sonata form, or the first and one other movement. The other movements will take other standard forms, such as minuet/trio, theme-and-variations, rondo, or sonata-rondo. In this unit, we will focus on sonata forms, particularly as they are found in first movements of instrumental sonatas.

Sonata form

Sonata form shares many structural properties with small ternary form (specifically the rounded binary variant). In fact, one can consider sonata form to be a larger, more complicated version of small ternary form. Thus, much of what you know about minuets will assist you in learning the basic structure of sonata movements and hearing their key features.

Like small ternary, a standard early sonata movement has a two-reprise structure (later sonatas shed the repeat of the second reprise; still later sonatas often shed both sets of repeats):

||: A :||: B A' :||

Like in small ternary form, the A section exhibits exposition function, and the A' section exhibits recapitulation function. The B section fulfills many of the functional roles of contrasting middle. However, the B section in a sonata movement has other, unique functional characteristics that require a distinct name. In sonata form, we call the function of the B section development. As in minuets, it is common and acceptable to refer to the A section as "the exposition," the B section as "the development," and the A' section as "the recapitulation," as long as we retain the conceptual difference between formal functions (exposition, development, recapitulation) and formal containers (A, B, A').

Cadential goals

Sonata form is anchored around a few important cadences. They serve as signposts for the formal structure, as well as goals of the music leading into them.

As in small ternary form, the exposition tends to end with a PAC in a secondary key (V in a major-key movement, III in a minor-key movement). Rather than being simply a norm, though, this cadence is essential to the form. This PAC is called the essential expositional closure, or EEC.

Likewise, the recapitulation has a corresponding cadence, also familiar from small ternary form: a PAC in the home key, which tends to correspond thematically with the EEC. This I:PAC is called the essential sonata closure, or ESC.

The development section, like the contrasting middle in small ternary form, typically ends with a HC in the home key or a dominant arrival in the home key, which prepares the arrival of the recapitulation.

||: exposition V:PAC :||: development I:HC recapitulation I:PAC :||

The exposition and recapitulation each have an additional cadential goal that is not shared with other small-ternary-like forms. These goals each occur between the beginning of the formal unit and the cadential goal (EEC or ESC), and they often—though not always—involve a pause or stoppage of melodic or harmonic motion. Thus, each of these halfway cadences is called a medial caesura (MC). Both PACs and HCs, in the home key or in a secondary key, can function as medial caesurae.

Modules and rotation

Sonata theory incorporates formal modules similar to those found in pop/rock songs. A module is a formal unit that has definitive internal characteristics and definitive locations in the movement. That is, there are certain events or properties that tend to happen in each module type, and these modules tend to appear in a certain normative order. (In Hepokoski & Darcy's book Elements of Sonata Theory, these modules are called "action spaces." We will use the more generic term "module" to parallel our study of other types of musical forms besides sonatas.)

The exposition of a sonata presents these modules in order: primary theme (P), transition (TR), secondary theme (S), and an optional closing zone (C).

The development of a sonata restarts this cycle, or rotation (cycle is Summach's term from our pop/rock unit; rotation is the term used by Hepokoski/Darcy), and progresses through it in order. Sometimes modules are omitted, but rarely are they re-ordered.

The recapitulation, as in other small-ternary forms, re-presents the modules of the exposition in the same order, but altered in order to reach the ESC in the home key.

Defaults and deformations

Sonata form is not a single recipe for structuring a movement. It is a set of norms that are almost always violated, or at least altered, in some way in a composition. Thus, we can talk about individual pieces being "in dialog with" sonata norms. That is, they incorporate enough of the definitive elements to be considered "in sonata form," but they carry enough unique elements to cause some tension with the norms. Over time, some of the unique elements used by classical composers were adopted by others and became norms for a later generation. Thus, even the "typical" sonata movement is different at different times and places in history.

In general, though, for each element of sonata form, we can identify default properties of that element. Sometimes there are multiple possibilities that can be considered normative. For example, the most common cadence used for the MC of a classical sonata movement is V:HC. This is called the first-level default. The second most common MC cadence is a I:HC—the second-level default. Where multiple possibilities are normative, but one is more common or preferred over another, we use this language.

Non-default properties of a particular sonata movement are called deformations. For example, a II:IAC MC is not at all typical of classical sonatas. Thus, we would consider it a deformation. It does not mean that a II:IAC cannot function as an MC (though I can't think of an example). However, it means that a II:IAC is a purposeful move by the composer to contradict the norm. As such, any analysis should address this deformation and attempt to explain its musical and historical significance.

Further details

The remaining sonata resources on this website are largely in reference format. Rather than walk through the details in the manner of a typical textbook, they will provide you with the defining features of the elements described in as concise a manner possible. This consision will serve you well when referencing these resources quickly during analytical activities. However, it will also force you to wrestle with them in the context of real pieces in order to understand them fully. If you simply read these resources, you will not understand sonata form. You must make use of them while performing assigned analytical and listening tasks in order to assimilate the information and develop the skills necessary to apply them musically.

Hepokoski & Darcy's book, Elements of Sonata Theory, was listed as a recommended, but not required, resource for this course. If you purchased it, you may make use of it for more detailed explanations and more plentiful examples. It is probably not the best place to begin your study of a new concept, but it will be a valuable supplement to the online resources and in-class activities.