Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is the Most Important Musical Form of All Time? The Sonata

Interesting insight on the sonata

In this video, Robert enlightens you on the most important and substantial musical form, the sonata.

Released on February 17, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to Robert Estrin here for you with, What is the Most Important Musical Form of All Time? And hands down it's the sonata form. You would not believe how much music is based upon this form. And you might wonder, why is this so important? I mean, is there some book that people buy, How to Write a Sonata? What's the deal about this?

Well, first of all, a little bit of background. The sonata form was around since the Baroque time, but it really came into its own during the Classical era. During the Baroque, composers like Scarlatti wrote sonatas, but these were one movement works that had two sections, each of which repeated. But that's not what we're talking about today. We're talking about the classical sonata form, which has endured to this day. Not only are the sonatas prevalent from composers from Mozart to Prokofiev and beyond, but concertos, string quartets, symphonies, every kind of musical form you could imagine contains the sonata form within them.

Now first of all, what is a sonata? Briefly speaking, I have a video on this which will be in the description below. But briefly a sonata is a multi-movement work generally, except for those Baroque sonatas that I referenced earlier. Sonatas usually have at least two movements, typically three and oftentimes four movements. These are separate sections that are almost like separate pieces all unto their own, where a performer comes out naturally and will play a piece and it seems like it's over and they stop and then they start something sounds like a whole other piece. Well, that's a sonata. And you'll see the same thing in trios, quartets, duos, multi-movement works. Almost all multi-movement works contain at least one movement in what's referenced as the sonata Allegro form. The sonata Allegro, meaning fast, typically the first movement of a sonata's fast, and so they called it the sonata Allegro form because the first movement is usually in that form, although other movements can be also.

So what is so special about this form that so many composers have used it over all these hundreds of years and continue to to this day? Well, I could simplify it first and say, it's kind of like an ABA. You have a statement, you have something different and then you have the statement again. It's a little bit more complex than that. So what I want to do is first of all, outline the form for you. And what I'm going to do is make it easy and digestible by picking not a sonata, but a sonatina, which is essentially a small or sonata. And I'm going to use the famous Clementi Opus 36 Number 1 in C Major. And I'm going to show you what the form is intrinsically. And then I'm going to talk about how composers have used this form and why it's so effective and pervasive in all of music. So that's the famous C major sonata, Sonatina Clementi.

And sonatinas and sonatas start with a theme. This is called the exposition, where it's exposing themes, two themes. And this sonatina is in C major. So the first theme, of course, is in C major and it starts off with this catchy little theme. So that's the first theme. Since it's a sonatina, it's short, so it makes it very easy to digest. From there, a second contrasting theme is introduced. There's a little transition here. And you notice there was a G major scale there. That is the introduction into theme two, which always goes to another key. This is a trademark of the sonata form, and it generally goes into the theme of the dominant, that is the five, since this was in C major, it goes into G major. And from that point on, you're going to see all these F sharps.

And that is the exposition of this sonatina. You'll notice when you get to the end of the exposition, there is always a repeat sign. The exposition repeats. And you might wonder why. The idea is to cement these two themes into your head, because after the exposition comes the development section, and this is where the music gets really interesting. Composers will take these two themes and go wild with them. Clementi does this with it. After those sections repeat, that exposition plays through twice completely the same. Then it comes to this.

It went through different keys, different ideas. Now the development section is really interesting. Mozart and Haydn had development sections that were very compelling. Beethoven exploded the development sections, much longer going much further afield. Now before I explain the whole reason why this works so well, I've got to tell you the last section. You started with the exposition exposing two themes, the` theme in the tonic, and then the theme of the dominant. Then that whole section repeats. Then you have this development section. So what's next, the recapitulation. It brings back both themes one and themes two. So right there where I ended at the end of that development section, it comes back like the beginning.

Now there's always little deviations that composers make in their writing, because there wasn't a guide of how to write a sonata. This is just something that happens to work. And in this case, the recapitulation comes back an octave lower as you'll hear. So there we get the theme one again in the tonic as you'd expect, just like it was at the beginning except an octave lower. But now instead of going to G major, the dominant, it stays in the tonic key of C major starting with that C major scale.

So that is basically the form of a sonata, two themes in the exposition, tonic and dominant repeat, development section that a recapitulation. Now why does this work so well? The first themes are so strong in your head because you've heard the whole exposition twice through you. Look at all the synopsis of Mozart and Beethoven and Haydn and other composers and Schuman and Chopin. You know, this isn't just the Classical era. It goes through the 20th century. Poulenc and Prokofiev and Shostakovich. And at it's not just sonatas, it's their chamber music. It's so much music. Symphonies all use this form because it really works. After going far afield in the development, it's so refreshing to have those themes back again. And of course you want your piece to end in the key it began, which is why the theme two in the recapitulation stays in the tonic.

So that in a nutshell is why the sonata is the most substantial form of music of all time. It's not just because sonatas are so pervasive in music. It's because this sonata form has been used in countless compositions other than just sonatas. Again and again. Even popular music is loosely based upon the sonata form oftentimes, because the idea of what is familiar and what is unfamiliar and the interplay of those elements is universal to human nature. And it really works.

To close I'm going to play the first movement of this Clementi sonatina so you can hear how it sounds. Now in sonatinas, the second section also repeats, but for the sake of this, I'm not going to repeat the second section. I'm just going to repeat the exposition and just leave the second section one time through. So here we go, the first movement of the Opus 36 Number 1 in C Major, Clementi's Sonatina.

So you see how that architecture really works. It establishes these themes for you so you can really grasp the music and where you are, and you know when you're going far afield and you've got that great feeling coming back home. The sonata form just fits human nature. It really does. I think that's the answer. And I'm interested in all of your opinion about this. This is a great topic. You're welcome to leave comments on and I am here for you for future questions. Thank you all you subscribers, and we'll see you next time again. I'm Robert Estrin at, your online piano resource.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Jerome Danoff * VSM MEMBER * on February 18, 2021 @1:31 pm PST
Good presentation. This form is used in "jazz" a lot. First we play the melody, often by several different instruments and with a bridge section that may be in a different key (exposition section). Then we have several rounds of ad lib solos that may or may not follow the melody (but at least with most of the same chords - development section). Then we return to the melody, but usually with many liberties taken (recapitulation section). Never thought about this fitting a classical form before, but with your presentation, this all makes sense now. Thanks.
Robert - host, on February 19, 2021 @8:25 am PST
It's amazing how pervasive the Sonata Allegro form is!
Jeanette Hamilton * VSM MEMBER * on February 18, 2021 @11:33 am PST
Perfect, succinct, clear explanation of an
important subject in only a few minutes. You are an excellent teacher, Robert!
Ward Buckingham * VSM MEMBER * on February 17, 2021 @12:05 pm PST
superb synopsis stated in straight-forward "Sonata" summation...thank you!
denrus * VSM MEMBER * on February 17, 2021 @9:26 am PST
If you'd have asked that question of B.B. King, he would have said, "The most important musical form of all time would be the blues." Hey! A subject for a future video!!! Yeah, I know...this is a classical music site...Ask BB if the blues is a classical form. I can hear his answer now!!!
Robert - host, on February 17, 2021 @3:54 pm PST
You are right! If you limit this question to the last 100 years, the blues would certainly be a contender for the most important musical form.
Saif Terai on February 17, 2021 @6:15 am PST
Informative, Robert's contribution is invaluable.
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