A Guide to Sonata Form

Now don’t go running away…!  In order to write about much of Tchaikovsky’s music I have to let you know something about how large scale works are built up.  I promise you, if you understand sonata form, it will greatly enhance your enjoyment of many pieces of classical music.

And, as an added bonus, I shall try to tell what the difference is between a sonata, a concerto and a symphony.  It’s not difficult, I promise you…

A symphony is for orchestra, usually in four movements (fast-slow-very fast-fast, at its most basic level).  That was the pattern established by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and continued to be used by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Grieg, among many others; so we really are talking about a huge range of music here.

A concerto is music for orchestra with a solo instrument or instruments showing off in the foreground.  A piano concerto is for piano and orchestra ( a ‘duel’ between the two, Tchaikovsky thought), a violin concerto for violin and orchestra, and so on.  There are things such as double concertos, for two prominent instruments and orchestra, or triple concertos, for three.  Concertos are almost always in three movements (fast-slow-fast) although, as you can imagine, there are a few exceptions.

A sonata doesn’t involve an orchestra at all; there are piano sonatas, violin and piano sonatas, and so on.  Again, almost always in their movements, following the pattern fast-slow-fast.

But what binds them all together is the use of sonata form; almost all symphonies, concertos and sonatas will have the first movement in sonata form, which is why I want to spend a little time telling you the basics of how it works here…

Sonata form developed as a means to handle longer structures in music; the need for repetition and contrast.  It began to be used as early as the 1730s but continued to evolve right up until the twentieth century.  It’s like a road map and if you can follow the map then the music will make so much more sense to you and you’ll know where you are.  So here goes with my little, gentle guide to sonata form.  Always remember that what follows are general rules, but if you get a good grasp of them, the exceptions are never really so very different.

Sonata Form

…is usually in three sections called the exposition, development and recapitulation.  But I should start with what often precedes all of these, the slow introduction.

A slow introduction was used first in music which was intended for dance.  Its use was simply to say to the assembled revellers, “Get ready.  We’re going to start any minute now.”  Later, it is sometimes omitted but right through Mozart and Haydn, up to early Beethoven, it was merely meant as an intention grabber.

(For example, listen to the first movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104; a perfect example.  When the loud and portentous bit is over, we start the exposition.)

But we’re not quite there yet; we have to note that, since this is a site mainly devoted to Tchaikovsky, he wrote one of the grandest introductions ever.  At the start of his first piano concerto there is a monumental introduction.  Can you recall it?  It’s one of the most recognisable pieces of music in the world with those crashing ascending chords and the glorious tune above it.  But, strictly speaking, it is part of the slow introduction.  We know that because, when it’s over, it will not reappear anywhere else in the concerto.  But who would be without it?

Now, the exposition is where the composer shows us his material, simply meaning the melodic material (tunes) that he’ll be working with.  This exposition is broken down into three sections:

First subject group:  This is the first group of melodic material.  It’s rarely one single tune, more like a few of them.  But they will always be in the same key and in the same mood.

Transition:  Now the composer has to form a bridge between the first subject group and what will follow.  He has to move the music into a new key and a new mood, ready for the…

Second subject group:  This is more likely to be a single tune (or melody, or theme) but the emphasis here will be on contrast between the new material and what has gone before.  Very roughly, the first subject will be relatively fast, the second subject relatively slow and probably more lyrical.

Codetta:  Literally ‘a little ending’ to show that we’re at the end of the exposition.  In earlier symphonies (Haydn, Mozart and some Beethoven, the exposition will now be repeated just to make sure you have the two contrasting ‘subjects’ firmly planted in your head.  Tchaikovsky very rarely does this.

Now we come to the development.  This will give the composer a chance to mix up the music of the first and second subjects in all sorts of ways.  He may take a fragment of something in the first subject group and do some work on that, repeating it in different keys, in sequences and in different parts of the orchestra.  The development is the battlefield of the movement!  I may take up only a short amount of time on it here but this is the central section of the form, where most of the drama will take place.  The composer will take us to a variety of keys and contrasting ‘versions’ of the material from the exposition.

When things have returned to some sort of normality and we hear the music return to the first subject group, we are at the…

Recapitulation:  Or, simply, a recap.  In other words, the composer repeats the exposition and the themes are returned to how they were in the exposition.  Of course there will be modifications and differences in orchestral colour but we are speaking of essentially recognisable music from before. There will be no transition this time (or very little) because all of this will now be in the home key, so there’s no need for a transition to change it.

CodaLiterally, the ending; a small section at the end to round off the music.


Now, you must understand that I’m speaking in wild generalisations here, but that was the essence of sonata form.  You might like to try it out with something like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart.  It is short and simple, easy to follow and the lines are very clearly drawn between the sections.  Watch out, though, because in most versions you’ll hear, the whole exposition will be repeated and there is no slow introduction.  We get straight into the exposition. That said, it shouldn’t present any problems.

Here’s a quick start guide, if you will, to everything I’ve said above:


(No slow introduction.  We’re straight into…)

First subject group (same mood, same key)

Second subject group (contrasting mood, different key)




(the composer plays around with what has gone before)



A shortened version of the exposition, ending in the home key, probably with a little…


Coda: just to round things off.


And finally, here’s a quick analysis of the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  This is a very short and uncomplicated sonata structure.  Just go to the link and listen while looking at this guide…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDNENgxTJuM  (right click this link to open in new window)

0:00 EXPOSITION:  We’re straight in, with no introduction.  First subject group.

0:48 TRANSITION:  Moving from G major to D major (changing key)

1:04 Second subject group, a contrasting melody.

1:50 Back to the start of the piece, EXPOSITION is repeated, with the same little codetta (just a few notes.)

3:20  DEVELOPMENT:  It sounds like we’ve gone back to the beginning again but note the change and shortening of the first subject to make it very slightly more sinister.  Then the second half of that opening theme is ‘developed’ or changed or modified.

3:52 RECAPITULATION:  Note how short that last section was – those by Tchaikovsky will be much longer!  We’re effectively back to the beginning.  The only difference from the exposition here is that there is no need for a transition (change of key) because the rest of the music will stay in its home key of G major but don’t worry if you don’t notice that.

5:25 After a little tinkering with the end of the recapitulation (descending notes, quietly played on the violin) we enter the CODA to round off.

Any questions…?



Filed under Musical Forms

7 responses to “A Guide to Sonata Form

  1. Beth Kloppman

    Nicely taught…I might wish to resume my piano lessons again. My love of music thanks You.

  2. Ronald

    Thanks, this is really nice. Do you happen to know of any annotated Tchaikovsky pieces on youtube/internet? I mean something like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br1EMrlGXyw but then for Tchaikovsky pieces. Just like you, i am obsessed by Tchaikovsky’s music, but unlike you, i have no musical training whatsoever… The only analysis that i could find was Bernstein’s analysis of Tchaikovsky’s 6th, from which i learned a lot – i wish i could find more materials like that.. Keep up the nice work and comments on youtube! 🙂

    • Thank you, Ronald, for a very generous comment. I was planning to do a sonata form study of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (yes, it is in sonata form!) and I’ll make that the top of my agenda now. I really appreciate your comment, Ronald, Thank you.

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