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The Sonata Form Used In Classical Music

There are a couple of definitions of “sonata” as it is applied to classical music.  From the Tales post, The Dual Personalities Of A Sonata:  “Literally, the word sonata means a piece played as opposed to a cantata-a piece sung.  Sonatas in classical music are are written for an instrument like a piano [piano sonata] or instruments [which may involve piano accompaniment].  For example, a violin sonata involves one violin and one piano-so, it sometimes is labeled as a “violin sonata” or a “sonata for violin and piano”.  So, you may say a piece labeled a sonata is a song for an instrument/s  to “sing”. 

But there is also another definition of the word sonata as it is used in classical music:  a  defined structure [i.e., form] that is used in the composition of many classical music pieces.  I believe that the great classical composer Franz Joseph “Papa” Haydn had much to do with the development of this form in composition of music.  This structure or form that a composer uses to write the movement of a piece is not just used for sonatas, as you might think.  It is also used in many large orchestral works, symphonies and concerti.  Sonata is not the only form that a composer can use to compose the movement in a piece.  There are many different forms that can be used for composition like rondos, theme and variations, trios, etc.  Usually, but not always, when the movement of a classical music piece isn’t designated by another name, the structure will be that of the sonata form.

Franz Joseph Haydn [1732-1809] helped develop the sonata form of composition in classical music

The sonata form consists of three different parts.  Like a book or a speech that has a beginning, middle and end, so does a classical movement in the sonata form.  The three parts are called exposition, development and recapitulation.  

1. Exposition is the start of the movement, with a major theme introduced.  This will define the character of the movement or piece of music. 

2. After the exposition comes the development.  This could be considered like the middle of the movement. This does not mean necessarily developing the first theme, but rather developing the flavor of the movement itself.  As the exposition defines the character of the movement, you could consider the development adding to it.  A new theme may or may not be introduced in the development. 

3. The final part of the sonata form is recapitulation.  This means that the movement will return to the opening of the exposition.  It will sound like the movement is starting all over again. 

So, I like to say in a piece or movement of music using the sonata form [structure] you will hear a beginning, then a middle, and then back to the beginning. 

Here are some examples of classical music using the sonata form:  

The first piece is the second movement, larghetto, of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A-Major in sonata form with the exposition lasts almost 2 minutes with the development from 1:59-3:30 and the recapitulation goes from 3:31-6:03.

From the first movement Allegro of Franz Schubert’s Symphony #5 you have the sonata form with the exposition from around :08-3:46 and then a short development from 3:47-4:38 with the recapitulation beginning at the 4:39 mark to the end at 6:44.   

The allegro final movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony is in sonata form with the exposition lasting about the first 2 minutes, then the development will last until about the 3:40 mark with the recapitulation and ending climax beginning around 3:45 – 7:04. 

And the final example is one of my favorite pieces, Felix Mendelssohn’s famous violin concerto in E-minor.  Two things to note about this video.  Because it is a concerto it will also contain a cadenza that will occur between the end of the development and leading into the recapitulation.  Also, the video will sound strange at the end as it sounds like it wants to continue to play; that is because there is no break between the first and second movements and this is the first movement.  The sonata form of this first movement will have the exposition for about the first 3 minutes with the development around 3:07-7:35, then a cadenza performed by the soloist Julia Fischer in this video from 7:38-9:13 leading into the recapitulation beginning at 9:15.

Please turn up the volume and enjoy some great music and see if you can tell the sonata form of exposition, development and recapitulation in these pieces. 

W.A. Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A-Major, Movement 2, Larghetto 

Franz Schubert: Symphony #5 in B-Flat Major, movement 1 Allegro:


L.V. Beethoven: Symphony #7 in A Major, Movement 4, Allegro con brio:

Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E-minor, Movement 1, Allegro molto appasionato:

Authored By Tales from a tribble

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