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(sənä`tə), in music, type of instrumental composition that arose in Italy in the 17th cent.

At first the term merely distinguished an instrumental piece from a piece with voice, which was called a cantata. Thus many early concertos, suites, and sets of variations were called sonatas. As the various instrumental forms acquired differentiated characteristics during the baroque period, the term began to identify two specific types: the sonata de chiesa, or church sonata, and the sonata da camera, or chamber sonata. Both were written most commonly for two melody instruments, usually violins or flutes, with a bass instrument and a keyboard instrument, both of which played the thorough bass (see figured bassfigured bass,
in music, a system of shorthand notation in which figures are written below the notes of the bass part to indicate the chords to be played. Called also thorough bass and basso continuo, it arose in the early 17th cent.
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). The sonata da chiesa was in four movements—slow, fast, slow, fast—and its contrapuntal style was largely derived from the canzonecanzone
or canzona,
in music, a type of instrumental music in Italy in the 16th and 17th cent. The term had previously been given to strophic songs for five or six voices; usually the canzone had three sections.
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. The sonata da camera was basically a suitesuite
, in music, instrumental form derived from dance and consisting of a series of movements usually in the same key but contrasting in rhythm and mood. The principle of the suite can be seen in the playing together of two dances in contrasting meters, e.g.
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 of dances, although nondance movements were added later.

In the late 17th cent. these two types merged into the outstanding baroque chamber music form, the trio sonata. This form was brought to perfection in the works of Arcangelo Corelli and François Couperin and adopted in the sonatas of J. S. Bach and Handel. In the later 18th cent. sonatas for groups of instruments began to be designated string quartet and symphonysymphony
[Gr.,=sounding together], a sonata for orchestra.

The Italian operatic overture, called sinfonia, was standardized by Alessandro Scarlatti at the end of the 17th cent. into three sections, the first and last being fast and the middle one slower in tempo.
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, and the term sonata was limited to pieces for one keyboard instrument or for one solo instrument (e.g., violin) with keyboard accompaniment. The keyboard sonata was developed in the works of rococo Italian composers such as Galuppi, G. B. Sammartini (1701–75), and P. D. Paradies (1707–91). This rococo sonata was more homophonic than the trio sonata, having one outstanding melodic line with accompanying harmonic background, such as the Alberti bass. In sonatas of this type, particularly those of C. P. E. Bach, an expressive quality and pianistic style were developed that influenced the classical sonata, perfected by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The classical sonata's movements are usually fast-slow-fast, and a minuet or scherzo is often inserted before the last movement. The first movement—and possibly one or more of the others—was in what is called sonata form. This is essentially a binary form, the first part being an exposition of two (or sometimes three) contrasted themes. The second part consists of a development of these themes and a recapitulation of the beginning exposition. Sonata form is employed in the string quartet, in the symphony, and to some extent in the concerto, as well as in the solo sonata. After the classical era the most significant development was the use of one thematic idea in all movements, in each of which the basic idea is transformed in mood and character. This type of sonata was fully realized in the Sonata in B Minor of Franz Liszt.


See critical studies of the composers mentioned; W. S. Newman, The Sonata in the Baroque Era (3d ed. 1972), The Sonata in the Classic Era (2d ed. 1972), and The Sonata since Beethoven (2d ed. 1972); C. Rosen, The Sonata Form (1980).



one of the major genres of instrumental chamber music. In its classic form, the sonata is usually a cyclic work in three movements, of which the first and last have fast tempi (the first is in the sonata form) and the middle has a slow tempo. It sometimes also includes a minuet or scherzo. The term “sonata” has been known since the 16th century and was initially applied to any instrumental piece (as opposed to the cantata—a vocal piece).

Two types of sonatas had developed by the early 17th century: the church sonata (sonata da chiesa) and the chamber sonata (sonata da camera). The church sonata is characterized by a cycle in four movements in a definite sequence of tempi (slow-fast-slow-fast or fast-slow-fast-fast) and the serious nature of the music. The chamber sonata is a free sequence of dance pieces. The distinction between the two types is not pronounced.

In the 17th century trio sonatas for two or three performers with a figured bass became popular. Sonatas for a single violin with figured bass were also of great importance, especially those by the composers of the Italian violin school—Vivaldi, Corelli, and others. Sonatas for the violin with a fully notated and richly elaborated part for harpsichord were introduced by J. S. Bach. In the early classical period (mid-18th century), the sonata underwent a marked development, particularly evident in the piano sonatas of C. P. E. Bach and D. Scarlatti. It achieved its final form during the Viennese classical period (late 18th century) in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and other composers. The sonatas of Beethoven, including 32 for piano, ten for violin and piano, and five for cello and piano, represent the summit in the sonata’s development. They are distinguished by profundity of content, a wide range of images, striking contrasts, and at times an almost symphonic scope. A number of Beethoven’s sonatas are cycles in four movements, which reproduce the sequence of movements in the symphony and quartet.

The romantic composers enriched and reinterpreted the classical, primarily Beethovenian, sonata. Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Grieg were among those who contributed to the genre’s development. In their sonatas, the tendency toward broad symphonic treatment of the genre increased, and the contrast of images was intensified. A striving for cyclic unity led to the creation of single-movement sonatas, the first of which were Liszt’s two sonatas for piano.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the use of brilliant techniques that revitalized the sonata. Examples can be found in sonatas by the French composers Fauré, Dukas, Ravel, and Debussy and such Russian composers as Scriabin and Metner. In the 20th century the sonata remains one of the leading musical genres. New forms and expressive means have significantly altered its appearance. Outstanding examples of contemporary music include the sonatas of Prokofiev (ten for piano and two for violin), Shostakovich (two for piano, two for violin, and one for cello), Hindemith (approximately 30 sonatas for nearly all instruments), and Bartók (six sonatas for various combinations of instruments). Since the 1950’s, the term “sonata” has at times, as in the distant past, been used to designate simply an instrumental piece, for example, K. Penderecki’s Sonata for Cello and Orchestra.


Popova, T. Sonata. Moscow, 1962.
Bagge, S. Die geschichtliche Entwicklung der Sonate. Leipzig, 1880.
Klauwell, O. Geschichte der Sonate von ihren Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Cologne-Leipzig, 1899.
Brandt, E. Suite, Sonate und Symphonie. Braunschweig, 1923.
Borrel. E. La Sonate. Paris, 1951.



1. an instrumental composition, usually in three or more movements, for piano alone (piano sonata) or for any other instrument with or without piano accompaniment (violin sonata, cello sonata, etc.)
2. a one-movement keyboard composition of the baroque period


(operating system)
The code name for the major Mac OS release due in mid-1999.
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