Sonata Form

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Sonata Form


the most developed of the noncyclic forms of instrumental music. The lengthy historical development of the sonata form led in the late 18th century to the crystallization of strict compositional norms in the works of the Viennese classical composers Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. These norms stipulated a sonata form consisting of three major sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation.

The exposition usually consists of four subsections: first theme, bridge passage, second theme, and closing section. The first theme is stated in a tonic key. The bridge passage prepares the second theme, which is in the dominant or relative key and may actually contain several themes. The closing section features a new theme or several motifs and phrases of a concluding nature.

In the second section—the development—the thematic material of the exposition is intensively developed and several keys alternate with one another.

In the third section—the recapitulation—the material of the exposition appears again, but the first and second themes are set forth in one (the tonic) key.

The sonata form often includes two optional sections—an introduction and a coda. This prescriptive plan for the sonata form has changed in the process of historical evolution, but its primary characteristics—three major sections and a juxtaposition of two or more themes that is capable of embodying significant contrasts of image and reflecting the conflicts of real life—remain the principal traits of the form. The sonata form is used in the first movements of cyclic works, such as the symphony, sonata, trio, and quartet, and in individual, independent works, such as overtures and tone poems.


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