What is a sonata?

A sonata is a basic musical form – that is the shape of a piece of music. It is one of the foundations of classical music and appears frequently in many different types of pieces.

The sonata form as basic idea usually appears as separate movements ( or sections of a movement). These movements or sections use related but contrasting keys and alternating rhythms (e.g. fast — slow — fast), all of which  will create a musical balance over the whole piece.

Sonata originally meant any music composed for instruments (latin for ‘to sound’), compared to Cantata (latin for ‘to sing;) however gradually it grew into a form of its own. The word sonata can be a confusing context as it can mean more than one thing.

A sonata written for 1 instrument (or 1 with accompanying piano) is known as a Sonata — for example, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata written for piano.

However, many different types of pieces are written in sonata form — for example a a trio is a sonata written for 3 instruments or a symphony is a sonata written for a large orchestra. They all follow the same musical form or shape.

The sonata can also appear as a form in a larger piece, for instance the first movement in a symphony will often have a sonata form.

Who/what plays a Sonata?

 A piece called a sonata is usually played by one or two musicians — a solo instrument or an instrument with accompanying piano.

However as many different types of pieces can also have a sonata form to them, they can be played by any number of musicians/instruments.

How long is a Sonata?

A piece with sonata form can be many different lengths – say from a trio to a symphony.

Famous Sonata Composers

As a sonata can mean a number of different types of pieces, most of the famous composers you will know probably have written many of them. Beethoven, is known for the many sonatas he wrote, for piano and other instruments.  His sonatas have had a great influence on many composers and musicians.



Piano Sonata 17 in D Minor, “The Tempest”, played by Daniel Barenboim

One of my personal favourites.  It got its name “The Tempest” from Shakespeare’s play, although there is no proof that they are related.  You can hear clearly the standard structure of fast-slow-fast clearly in the 3 movements in this piece.



Piano Sonata 14 in C sharp major “Moonlight Sonata”

The first movement of this sonata is very well known.  Beethoven has used a slightly different structure than usual; The sonata builds up to a dramatic climax rather than using the typical fast-slow-fast form.

Structure of a sonata

The sonata can typically be found in a 2-4 movement form.

This is the basic form of a 3 movements sonata (or you can think of it as parts of an individual movement). The form is similar to that of a pop song and can be known as the ABA – style.

  •  A – 1st movement – generally fast – introduction to tonic (key), and theme (melody)– referred to as the exposition.
  • B – 2nd movement – often slower, contrasting but related key, a playing around with part of all of the themes introduced in 1st movement. Known as the development.
  • (extra movement ) – known as dance or minuet will often appear here between the slow and the final movements.
  • A – 3rd movement – usually fast, goes back to theme and tonic key of 1st movement, known as recapitulation.

History of a sonata

Initially the word sonata meant ‘to sound’ and was used for any composition for instruments. During the Classical era (1760 – 1830)  it came to be used to mean the structure of an individual movement as well as the overall layout of a piece of music. This is the era when composers like Beethoven took the Sonata into the form we now know best.

Featured image via jrossol flickr

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