Sonata (From Latin and Italian sonare, 'to sound'), in music, literally means a piece "played" as opposed to cantata (Latin cantare, to sing), a piece sung. The term, being vague, naturally evolved through the history of music, designating a variety of forms prior to the Classical era. The term would take on increasing importance in the classical period, and by the early 19th century the word came to be used for a principle of composing large scale works, and be applied to most instrumental genres, being placed alongside the fugue as the fundamental method of organizing, interpreting and analyzing concert music. In the 20th century the term continued to be applied to instrumental works, but the formal principles enunciated and taught through the 19th century were weakened or loosened.


Usage of "sonata"

The baroque applied the term sonata to a variety of works, including works for solo keyboard, and for groups of instruments. In the transition from the Baroque to the Classical periods, the sonata undergoes a change in usage, from being a term for applied to many different kinds of small instrumental work, to being more specifically applied to chamber music genres with either a solo instrument, or a solo instrument with the piano. Increasingly after 1800, the term applies to a form of large scale musical argument, and in this sense is the general meaning in musicology and works on musical analysis. Generally if some more specific usage is meant, then the particular body of work will be noted, for example the "sonatas of Beethoven", will mean the works specifically labelled sonata, where as "Beethoven and sonata form" will apply to all of his large scale instrumental works, whether concert or chamber. In the 20th century, sonatas in this sense would continue to be composed by influential and famous composers, but many works which do not meet the strict criterion would also be created and performed.


In the baroque period, a sonata was for one or more instruments with continuo. After the baroque most works designated as sonatas specifically are performed by a solo instrument, most often a keyboard instrument, or by a solo instrument together with a keyboard instrument. Beginning in the early 19th century, works were termed "sonata" if the felt to be in a particular form, even if not labelled as "sonata".

In the classical period and afterwards, sonatas for piano solo were the most common genre of sonata, with sonatas for violin and piano and cello and piano being next. However sonatas for a solo instrument other than keyboard have been composed, as have sonatas for other combinations of instruments, and for other instruments with piano.

Brief history of the usage of sonata

The Baroque sonata

By the time of Arcangelo Corelli two polyphonic types of sonata were established, the sonata da chiesa and the sonata da camera.

The sonata da chiesa, generally for one or more violins and bass, consisted normally of a slow introduction, a loosely fugued allegro, a cantabile slow movement and a lively finale in some such binary form as suggests affinity with the dance-tunes of the suite. This scheme, however, is not very clearly defined, until the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Friderich Handel, when it becomes the sonata par excellence and persists as a tradition of Italian violin music even into the early 19th century in the works of Boccherini.

The sonata da camera consisted almost entirely of idealized dance-tunes. By the time of Bach and Handel it had, on the one hand, become entirely separate from the sonata, and was known as the suite, partita, ordre or (when it had a prelude in the form of a French opera-overture) the overture. On the other hand, the features of sonata da chiesa and sonata da camera became freely intermixed. But Bach, who does not use those titles, yet keeps the two types so distinct that they can be recognized by style and form. Thus, in his six solo violin sonatas, Nos. 1, 3 and 5 are sonate de chiesa, and Nos. 2, 4 and 6 are called partitas, but are admissible among the sonatas as being sonate da camera.

The term sonata is also applied to the series of over 500 works for harpsichord solo written by Domenico Scarlatti. These pieces are in one movement only, comprising two parts that are in the same tempo and use the same thematic material. They frequently involve virtuosity and are admired for their great variety and invention.

The sonatas of Domenico Paradies are mild and elongated works of this type with a graceful and melodious little second movement added. The manuscript on which Longo bases his edition of Scarlatti frequently shows a similar juxtaposition of movements, though without definite indication of their connection. The style is still traceable in the sonatas of the later classics, whenever a first movement is in a uniform rush of rapid motion, as in Mozart's violin sonata in F (Kochel's Catalogue, No. 377), and in several of Clementi's best works.

The sonata in the Classical era

The practice of the classical era would become decisive for the sonata, which would move from being a term, to being considered the fundamental form of organization for large scale works. This evolution would take, however, 50 years. It would apply both to the structure of movements, (see Sonata form and History of sonata form) and to the layout of movements in a multi-movement work. In the transition to the classical period there were several names given to multimovement works, including "divertmento", "serenade", and "partita", many of which are now regarded as "sonatas". The usage of "sonata" as the standard term form such works is somewhere in the 1770's. Haydn labels his first piano sonata as such in 1771, after which the term "divertmento" is used very sparingly in his output. The term "sonata" was increasingly applied to either a work for keyboard alone, or for keyboard and another instrument, often the violin or cello. It was less and less frequently applied to works with more than two instrumentalists, for example piano trios were not often labelled "sonata for piano, violin and cello".

Initially the most common lay out of movements was:

  1. Allegro - which at the time was understood to mean not only a tempo, but the importance of some degree of working out of the theme. (See Charles Rosen's The Classical Style)
  2. A middle movement which was, most frequently, a slow movement, that is an Andante or Largo, or, less frequently, a Menuet. This could be in theme and variation form.
  3. A closing movement, early on sometimes a minuet, as in Haydn's first three piano sonatas, but afterwards, generally an Allegro, Presto, and often labelled Finale. This could be a rondo.

However, the use of two movement layouts also occurs, a practice Haydn uses as late as the 1790's. There is also in the early classical the possibility of using four movements, with a dance movement inserted before the slow movement as in Haydn's Piano sonatas No. 6 and No. 8. Mozart's sonatas would also be primarily in three movements. Of the works that Haydn labelled piano sonatas, divertmenti or partita in Hob XIV 7 are in 2 movements, 35 are in three movements and 3 are in four movements, there are several in three and four movements whose authenticity is listed as "doubtful". Composers such as Bocherini would publish sonatas for piano and obligato instrument with an optional third movement - in Bocherini's case 28 Cello sonatas.

But increasingly instrumental works were laid out in four, not three movements, a practice seen first in String Quartets and Symphonies, and reaching the Sonata proper by the early numbers Sonatas of Beethoven. However, two and three movement sonatas continue to be written through out the classical era: Beethoven's opus 102 pair has a two movement C Major sonata and a three movement D major sonata.

The four movement layout was by this point standard for the string quartet and all overwhelmingly the most common for the symphony. This layout is:

  1. An allegro, which by this point was in what is called Sonata form, complete with exposition, development and recapitulation.
  2. A slow movement, an Andante, Adagio or Largo
  3. A dance movement, a minuet, or, more and more, a scherzo.
  4. A finale in faster tempo, often in a "looser" form than an allegro.

This four movement layout became considered the standard for a "sonata", and works without four movements, or with more than four, were increasingly felt to be exceptions, and were labelled as having movements "omitted", or had "extra" movements. This usage would be noted by critics by the early 1800's and codified into teaching soon thereafterward.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Beethoven's output of sonatas, 32 piano sonatas, plus sonatas for cello and piano and violin and piano, forming a large body of music which would over time increasingly be felt to be essential for any instrumentalist of ability to master.

Sonata in the Romantic Era

The early 19th century began to establish conservatories of music, and codify the practice of the classical era. In this context, the current usage of the term "sonata" was established, both in terms of form, and in the sense that a full sonata is the normative example of concert music, which other forms are seen in relation to. Carl Czerny declared he invented the idea of sonata form, and music theorists began to write of the sonata as an ideal in music. From this point forward, the word "sonata" in music theory as often labels the musical form as well as much as particular works. Hence references to a symphony as a "sonata for orchestra". This is referred to by Newman as the "sonata idea", and by others the importance of the "sonata principle".

Among works expressly labelled sonata, some of the most famous sonatas composed in this era, there is the "Funeral March" sonata of Chopin, the sonatas of Mendelssohn and the three sonatas of Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt and later the sonatas of Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In the early 19th century the sonata form was defined, from a combination of previous practice and the works of important classical composers, particularly Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, but as well composers such as Clementi. Works which were not labelled "sonata" were felt to be an expression of one governing structural practice. The term "sonata" acquired the meaning of the structure of larger works. Because the word became definitively attached to an entire concept of musical layout, the differences in classical practice began to be seen as important to classify and explain. It is during this period where the differences between the three and the four movement layouts became a subject of comentary, with the prevailing theory being that the "concerto" was laid out in three movements, and the "symphony" in four, and that the four movement form was the superior layout. The "concerto" form was thought to be "Italianate" while the four movement form's predominance was ascribed to Haydn, and was considered "German".

For example critic JW Davison wrote in his The Works of Fredrick Chopin, on page 7 (1843):

Such are the impressions to which we are subject under the influence of this wonderful work – a very triumph of musical picturing – a conquest over what would seem it be unconquerable – viz. – the mingling of the physical and metaphysical in music – the sonata representing a dual picture - ...the battle of the actual elements and the conflict of human passions – the first for the multitude, the last for the initiated.

The importance of the sonata in the clash between Brahmsians and Wagnerians is also of note, Brahms represented, to his adherents, the adherence to the form as it was understood, while Wagner and Liszt claimed to have transcended the procrustean nature of its outline, for example Ernest Newman, not to be confused with William Newman, wrote, "Brahms and the Serpent" :

That, perhaps, will be the ideal of the instrumental music of the future; the way to it, indeed, seems at last to be opening out before modern composers in proportion as they discard the last tiresome vestiges of sonata form. This, from being what it was originally, the natural mode of expression of a certain eighteenth century way of thinking in music, became in the nineteenth century a drag upon both individual thinking...

This view, that the sonata is truly only at home in the classical style, and became a road block to later musical development is one that has been held at various times by composers and musicologists, including recently by Charles Rosen. In this view the sonata needed no description to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven's era, in the same sense that Bach "knew" what a fugue was and how to compose one, where as later composers were bound by an "academic" sense of form that was not well suited to the Romantic era's more frequent and more rapid modulations.

Sonata after the Romantic Era

The sonata was closely tied in the romantic era to tonal harmony and practice. Even before the ending of this practice, large scale works increasingly deviated from the four movement layout which had been considered standard for almost a century, and the structure of movements internally began to alter as well. The "sonata idea", as well as the term "sonata" continued to be central to musical analysis, and a strong influence on composers, both in large scale works and in chamber music. The role of the sonata as the an extremely important form of extended musical argument would inspire composers such as Hindemith, Prokofiev, Shostakovich to compose in sonata form, and works in traditional sonata structure continue to be composed and performed.

The piano sonatas of Scriabin would begin from standard forms of the late romantic period in music, but would progressively abandon the formal markers which were taught, and would be composed as single movement works, he is sometimes thought of as a composer on the boundary between romantic and modern practice of the sonata.

Farther afield, Pierre Boulez would compose three sonatas in the early 1950's, which while they were neither tonal, nor laid out in the standard four movement form, were intended to have the same importance as sonatas. Elliot Carter would begin his transition from neo-classical composer to avant-garde with his Cello Sonata.

The Sonata in scholarship and musicology

The sonata idea or principle

Research into the practice and meaning of sonata form, style and structure would be the impulse for important theoretical works by Heinrich Schenker, Arnold Schoenberg and Charles Rosen among others, and the pegagogy of music would continue to rest on an understanding and application of the rules of sonata form as almost two centuries of development of practice and theory and codified it.

The development of the classical style and its norms of composition would form the basis for much of the music theory of the 19th century and 20th century. As a form, it was compared to the baroque fugue as being at the pinnacle of formal organization, and generations of composers, instrumentalists and audiences were guided by the understanding of sonata as an idea. The sonata idea begins before the term had taken its present importance, as the classical era changed its norms of performance practice. The reasons for these changes, and how they relate to the evolving sense of a new formal order in music is a matter of a great deal of research. Some common factors which were pointed to include: the change of music from primarily vocal to being instrumental; the changes in performance practice, including the end of the use of the continuo and the playing of all movements of a work straight through; the shift from the idea that each movement should express one emotion, to one which integrated contrasting themes and sections; the move from polyphonically based composing to homophonically based composing; changes in the availability of instruments; the change in the formal organization of movements away from binary organization; the rise of more dance rhythms; and changes in patronage and presentation.

Crucial to most interpretations of the sonata form is the idea of a tonal center and, as the Grove Concise dictionary of music puts it: "The main form of the group embodying the 'sonata principle', the most important principle of musical structure from the Classical period to the 20th century: that material first stated in a complementary key be restated in the home key".

The sonata idea was described by Newman in his monumental three volume work, begun in the 1950's and published in what has become the standard edition of all three volumes in 1972. He notes that according to his research, theorists had generally shown "a hazy recongition of 'sonata form' during the Classical Era and up to the late 1830's" and places particular emphasis on Reicha's 1826 work describing the "fully developed binary form", for its fixing of key relationships, Czerny's 1837 note in preface to his Opus 600, and Adolph Bernhard Marx who in 1845 wrote a long treatise on the "sonata form". Up until this point, Newman argues, the definitions available were quite imprecise, requiring only instrumental character and contrasting character of movements.

Newman also notes however that these codifications were in response to a growing understanding that the 18th century had a formal organization of music, and that it was important to understand it. Before the publication of Reicha, Czerny or Marx, there are references to the "customary sonata form", and in particular to the organization of its first movement. He documents in his works the evolution of analysis as well, showing that early critical works on sonatas, with some very notable exceptions, dealt with structural and technical details only loosely. Instead, many important works of the sonata genre or sonata form were not analyzed comprehensively in terms of their thematic and harmonic resources until after the beginning of the 20th century.

20th century theory

Two of the most important theorists in European musicology of the 20th century, Heinrich Schenker and Arnold Schoenberg, both had ideas with tremendous importance to the analysis and general understanding of the sonata. Their ideas were extremely rigorous, and placed tremendous emphasis on the long range influence of tonal materials. Both advanced theories of analysis of works which would be adopted by later theorists. Importantly, while the two men disagreed with each other, eventually their ideas were often used in combination.

Heinrich Schenker argued that that there was an urlinie or basic tonal melody, and a basic bass figuration. That when these two were present, there was basic structure, and that the sonata represented this basic structure in a whole work with a process known as interruption. Arnold Scheonberg advanced the theory of monotonality, which argued that a single work should be played as if in one key, even if movements were in different keys, that the capable composer would reference everything in a work to a single tonic triad.

For Schenker tonal function was the essential defining characteristic of comprehensible structure in music, and his definition of the sonata form rested, not on themes groups or sections, but on the basic interplay between the different "layers" of a composition. For Schoenberg, tonality was not necessary to comprehensibility, but the same importance of structural function of notes to "explain" the relationship of chords and counterpoint to an over-arching set of relationships. Both men argued that tonality, and hence sonata structure in tonal form, was essentially hierarchical - that what was immediately audible was subordinate to large scale movements of harmony, that vagrant chords and events were less significant than the movement between chords which asserted their central importance over others.

As a practical matter, Schenker applied his ideas to the editing of the piano sonatas of Beethoven, using original manuscripts and his own theories to "correct" the available sources, while many of these changes were and are controversial, the basic procedure, of using tonal theory to infer meaning into available sources as part of the critical process, even to completing works left unfinished by their composers, is used today and is an essential part of the theory of sonata structure as taught in most music schools.

See also

Famous Sonatas

(Still incomplete)

Classical (ca 1760-ca 1830)

Romantic (ca 1830-ca 1900)

  • Franz Schubert, (See List of Schuberts works)
    • Sonata in C minor (D 958)(September 1828)
    • Sonata in A major (September 1828)
    • Sonata in B-flat major (September 1828)
  • Robert Schumann
    • Piano Sonata in F# minor Opus 11
    • Piano Sonata in F minor Opus 14
    • Violin Sonata No 1 in A minor Op 105
    • Violin Sonata No 2 in D minor Op 121
    • Piano Sonata No 2 in G minor Op 22
  • Frdric Chopin
    • Piano Sonata #1 in C minor
    • Piano Sonata #2 in Bb minor, "Funeral March"
    • Piano Sonata #3 in B minor
    • Cello Sonata in G minor
  • Felix Mendelssohn
    • Sonata in E major, Op. 6
    • Sonata in G minor, Op. 105
    • Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 106
    • Cello Sonata in B-flat op. 45
    • Cello Sonata in D op. 58
  • Franz Liszt
    • Sonata after a Reading of Dante (Fantasia Quasi Sonata)
    • Sonata in B minor
  • Johannes Brahms
  • Peter Tchaikovsky
    • Piano Sonata in G op. 37 "Grande Sonate"
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff
    • Cello Sonata in G minor
    • Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor
    • Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor
  • Csar Franck Violin Sonata in A (sometimes played on cello and now also on flute)
  • Edvard Grieg
    • Piano Sonata Opus 7
    • Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor Opus 45
    • Cello Sonata in A minor Opus 36

20th Century (Including Modern) (ca 1910-2000)


There are many books on the sonata form and history of the sonata, among them

The History of the Sonata Idea


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