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What is a Sonata and the Sonata Form in Music?

Posted on January 18, 2023

The term sonata is particularly difficult to pinpoint as its definition has evolved throughout music history and can mean different things depending on the context. We’ll try to make sense of this musical concept and explore the history and structure of the sonata form.

What is a sonata?

A sonata is a musical composition for one or more instruments that typically contains three sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. Sonatas originated in the Baroque period and were typically written for keyboard instruments such as the piano or harpsichord. 

Sonatas are similar to symphonies as they are both types of classical compositions that are usually written for orchestras. But there are some key differences between symphonies and sonatas. Symphonies typically have four movements, while sonatas usually only have three (or sometimes four). Symphonies are also typically longer than sonatas and use grandiose orchestrations with dozens of instruments. Sonatas, on the other hand, tend to stick to a smaller selection of instruments (usually one or two). 

Sonatas can be either homophonic or polyphonic. Homophonic sonatas are easier to follow because they have one melody with accompanying harmony. Polyphonic sonatas have multiple melodies that are played at the same time – this can make them sound more complex and difficult to follow. 

What is the sonata form?

The sonata form can be divided into three sections with an additional coda. The three main sections are exposition, development, and recapitulation. Each section has its own function and characteristics. 

Let’s look at the sonata form in more detail.

  • Exposition. The exposition section introduces the main musical theme. There can be multiple themes that differ from each other, although a single theme is enough. The exposition typically contains two contrasting themes, which are then repeated or developed throughout the rest of the piece. 
  • Development. The themes of the exposition section are varied in the development section, for example by changing the key of the exposition. Most often the development section doesn’t introduce any new prominent elements. The development is usually where the majority of musical tension and drama occurs. 
  • Recapitulation. In the recapitulation section, things come full circle as the exposition’s themes are reintroduced but in a slightly different way. This gives the piece a sense of resolution and finality. 

Types of sonatas

Let’s look at two different types of sonatas in music: sonata da chiesa and sonata da camera.

  • Sonata da chiesa: This type of sonata was typically written for church services and is therefore also known as a church sonata. These types of sonatas were performed during a religious mass. They are usually composed in a four-movement structure.
  • Sonata da camera: This sonata form is for chamber music (also known as chamber sonata), often but not exclusively written for one or two instruments. Unlike the sonata da chiesa, or the church sonata, this type of sonata was used for entertainment without a similar religious function. It often has three movements or more.

Learn more about sonata and other musical terminology

The sonata is an important form of classical music, with a long and varied history, and knowing the sonata form can enhance your understanding and appreciation of classical compositions. To learn more about music theory and terminology, check out our full Musician’s Glossary.

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