Sonata Form

Sonata Form (sometimes known as Compound Binary Form or Sonata-Allegro or First Movement Form) is one of the most difficult forms of music to understand.
However, do not be afraid of it!!
If you can grasp a few crucial elements of Sonata Form then you will be able to have a good basic understanding of it.

Sonata Form Is Not The Same as The Sonata

Firstly, let me teach you about the big mistake people make about sonata form:
Sonata Form is NOT the same as the sonata!

The sonata is a piece of instrumental music made up (usually) of several contrasting movements (a movement is a bit like a “mini piece” within a whole sonata).

Sonata Form describes the structure of an individual movement.
You will usually hear it used in the first movement of a sonata, symphony or concerto (amongst other pieces of music as well).
Sonata Form started to be used by composers in the Classical period of music (1750-c.1820).

Sonata Form Has 3 Sections

A piece of music composed in sonata form has 3 clearly recognisable sections:

Sonata Form Structure

Exposition – this is when the composer introduces themes for the first time. In other words, the themes are “exposed” to the listener.

Development – the themes are altered/changed in a variety of different ways. These changes are said to be how the musical ideas are “developed”.

Recapitulation – this section is a “recap” of the musical themes from the exposition. The themes the composer introduced in the exposition are played again, often with some variation.

The Exposition

Sonata Form Exposition Structure
The exposition has 2 themes (called subjects).
The 2 themes contrast with each other.
The 1st theme/subject is often called the principal theme and the 2nd theme/subject is called the subordinate theme. A connecting episode of music is usually heard before the 2nd theme enters.
Contrast between the 2 themes is often achieved through differences in key.
(e.g. 1st theme/subject may be in minor key, 2nd theme/subject in the relative major key).
Also, there may be differences in pitch, rhythm, melody, etc…
The crucial aspect is that there MUST BE contrast between the 2 themes.

Normally you will find a coda at the end of the exposition.
The exposition ends in a different key and the whole section is usually repeated.

The Development

Sonata Form Development Structure
The key word to understanding the development is “Variation”.
The musical material that was introduced (“exposed”) in the exposition is reworked and extended through different musical techniques.
These composing techniques include:

  • Sequencing
  • Imitation
  • Augmentation and diminution
  • modulation
  • inversion
  • new rhythms

As a composer uses these techniques, the music develops.

The Recapitulation

Sonata Form Recapitulation Structure
In the recapitulation, the exposition is repeated with some changes.
Instead of simply repeating the exposition, composers tend to make some significant changes to add some variety.
For example, the 2nd theme/subject is often in the tonic (home) key.
Also, composers may add in ornamentation and alter the length of the themes.
Connecting Episodes are used to link the 2 themes.

A coda is often added to the end of the movement to give it a clear and memorable finish.

An Example of Sonata Form

Beethoven Piano Sonata in F minor 1st movement (Opus 2 no.1)

The first movement of this piano sonata by Beethoven is a fantastic example of sonata form.
I have produced an annotated score for you and an audio recording.
At the foot of the page, you can download a PDF of the annotated sheet music for the whole movement.
Let’s have a look at the sheet music for the different sections and listen to performances of them:

The Exposition

Have a listen to the exposition and follow the sheet music.
Beethoven sonata in f minor exposition sheet music
      Play Beethoven sonata in f minor exposition

The structure of Beethoven’s exposition is as follows:
1st theme/subject – bars 1-9. It is in the key of F minor and is 8 bars long.
Linking Episode – bars 9-20. The episode uses ideas from the 1st subject.
2nd theme/subject – bars 21-41. This is written in the relative major key (A flat major).
Coda – bars 42-49.
(This section is then repeated).

The Development

Have a listen to the development and follow the sheet music.
Beethoven sonata in f minor development sheet music
      Play Beethoven sonata in f minor development

Beethoven’s development is from bars 50-102.
Both the 1st and 2nd subjects are developed, exploring a number of different harmonies and tonalities.

The Recapitulation

Have a listen to the recapitulation and follow the sheet music.
Beethoven sonata in f minor recapitulation sheet music
      Play Beethoven sonata in f minor recapitulation

The structure of Beethoven’s recapitulation is as follows:
1st theme/subject – bars 103-109. This is written in the tonic key (F minor).
Linking Episode – bars 110-120. This differs from the episode in the exposition. For example, the start is transposed into the tonic key.
2nd theme/subject – bars 121-141. This is now in the tonic key (F minor) as opposed to the relative major (A flat major) played in the exposition.
Coda – bars 142-end. This is similar to the coda from the exposition, but has a few additions to make it longer and has been transposed into the tonic key.

Summary of Sonata Form

I hope you have found this introduction to sonata form helpful.
As promised, you can download pdf of the Beethoven sonata in F minor sheet music at the following link:

Download Beethoven sonata in F minor sonata form annotated sheet music

Remember, keep in mind the basic 3 sections of Sonata Form:

  • Exposition
  • Development
  • Recapitulation

Also, listen to as many examples of sonata form as you can.
Please feel free to message me if you have any questions.