Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is a Sonata?

The definitive video about what is a sonata and its form.

In this video, Robert gives you an easy-to-understand explanation of what a Sonata is and the compositional form it follows in classical music. Highly educational, this video is recommended for anyone interested in classical music and in one of its most important types of musical compositions which is, in fact, the Sonata.

Released on August 7, 2013

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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, I'm Robert Estrin here at and with a very important video. This subject today is what is a sonata? Boy, this is a very, very, significant subject that I'm going to try to consolidate down for you to its essence. Because you could actually take classes, you could take a course for a year in what is a sonata. One of the most influential musical forms of all time arguably. So what we're going to talk about today is one aspect of what a sonata is.

A sonata basically evolved from the Baroque Era which were single movement works. What we're going to talk about today is the Classical Era sonata; Mozart, Haydn, and later Beethoven. This form was multi movement works, but the sonata form is what I want to talk about today. Typically, the first movement of a sonata has a certain structure, sometimes referred to as a sonata allegro form because the first movement is usually fast or allegro.

What is the sonata form and why is it so important, that's what we're going to talk about here. Well, first of all, the fact of the matter is even though the sonata form was prevalent during the Classical Era that I referred to composers in the Romantic Era and into the 20th Century, up to today still write sonatas. And, in fact, not just sonatas have sonata form but chamber music, trios and quartets and symphonyies all have this form.

So what's so special about it? Well, even pop songs adhere to the sonata form to one extent or another. In the very simplest terms you could call it an A-B-A. It's a little more complex than that, but what I talk of A-B-A, I mean something happens, you have a musical statement, you have something different, and then you have the first statement again. Well, that's very simple but a sonata's a little more complex. And let's get into the nuts and bolts and for this particular discussion I'm going to bring up the famous Mozart sonata in C major K545 because most of you probably know it well.

The sonata form is, yes, kind of an A-B-A, but not exactly, it's more of an A-B-C form. The A is called the exposition. Why is it called that? Well, it exposes the themes. Typically, you start with one theme which is the theme I just played. The sonata is in C major and the theme is in C major, no surprises there. Well, after a while the theme ends, and you get to the second theme. The second theme is almost always in another key, typically the dominant. The dominant is the key of the five. So if you're in C major for your exposition, first theme, the second theme will usually be in the dominant which is G major, if it was in C major to begin with.

So let's where that happens here. Sounds like we ended. Yes, in fact, the first theme ended, and now we have a brand new theme in G major. And we just ended the entire exposition section and we're still in G major. And guess what happens now? Well, this happens in all sonatas, it repeats back to the beginning. And the entire exposition repeats. So it's very say to see where you are in the form because when you get to the repeat side that's the end of the exposition.

So then what happens? Then comes the development. The development is a free use of themes one and themes two. They can do almost anything. They can go in different keys, they can have little fragments, they can develop in whatever way the composer enjoyed developing the theme. Now, in Mozart and Haydn's time and earlier composers like Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and other, Hummel and early composers, the development was a shorter section.

Later in the hands of Beethoven and certainly the romantic composers like Schumann and later Brahms, the development really expanded to be almost a whole symphonic section into itself. So let's see what happens in this development section a little bit. But before we do I want to talk about what comes after the development. How do you know when you come to the next section? This is a great question. After the development comes the recapitulation.

Now, that's a big word, but recapitulation just means a return to the beginning. Remember, at the very beginning of this video I talked about the fact that it's kind of like an A-B-A. Well, the return to the beginning theme one will be in your tonic and theme two instead of modulating to the dominant a key five notes higher, it stays in the tonic so the piece ends in the tonic. But now, funny thing that I chose the K545 because he breaks the rules right out of the gate, and this is something you might want to be aware of.

It's not like somebody wrote a book, how to write a sonata and composers for hundreds of years decided to read this book and say, "This is how I have to write pieces." In fact, the sonata form works because it has a way of being digestible. Themes are introduced and reinforced by repeating them. Then they develop and just at the point where you feel lost, ah, they come back again and it's refreshing to enjoy them again.

However, in this particular sonata Mozart does not return the theme one in C major, he doesn't have a return of theme one at all except a quasi-return at the end of the development section in the sub-dominant in F major. That's right you'll hear the theme in... Which still isn't a recapitulation. It's not until the second subject that you get return, a true recapitulation.

Now why is that? Why is the recapitulation second theme and the tonic instead of the dominant? Well, it's so the piece ends in the key it began in. So listen to the development going into the recapitulation of the Mozart sonata K545. And, yes, it ends in the key it began in, C major. So, yes, Mozart broke the rules. Did he just break the rules in this piece? No, and that's what makes music so great. It's not a bunch of rules. It's just expectations set up structures you expect and the little twists and turns, like a great novel or a Hitchcock movie. That's what keep you on the edge of your seat wondering what's going to happen next because you set up expectations as a composer just to keep the audience captivated.

And that's the genius of a Mozart and why a Mozart sonata is so compelling to listen to and a Hummel sonata maybe not so much but maybe worth listening to anyway. Thanks for joining me. Robert Estrin here at and I'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Isaac on August 18, 2013 @7:44 am PST
I have been wanting to know what a sonata is for a year.
Sandra * VSM MEMBER * on August 7, 2013 @9:55 am PST
Good review, Robert. I was just thinking about sonatas and was about to look for information about their structure. Haven't had information about them since I was a kid!
Thank you.
Bob Price * VSM MEMBER * on August 7, 2013 @9:44 am PST
I'm getting double videos Please fix
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on August 7, 2013 @10:49 am PST
Hi Bob. What do you mean with "double videos"? I will be glad to help!
Bob Price * VSM MEMBER * on August 7, 2013 @11:14 am PST
I get most, if not all, of your offerings in duplicate. Since I'm only paying for one subscription, you might want to check.
Bob Price
Robert Price
Robert C Price
all at 311 West Seneca St. etc.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on August 7, 2013 @11:56 am PST
Thank you Bob for your reply.

So, do you mean you are getting twice the same Newsletter via email? That may mean that we have two different emails in your name in our database. Please contact me by sending a message about this issue from the page below:

Please, be sure to mark the message to my attention ("To the att. of Fabrizio Ferrari", so I'll get your message directly and I'll have the chance to solve this problem for you personally. I don't want to share your personal information on this public webpage, so assistance via email is actually needed for this issue. Thank you!
Bob Price * VSM MEMBER * on August 8, 2013 @7:51 pm PST
To the att. of Fabrizio Ferrari
It's just that you're sending all communications to me twice -- two emails every time there's an announcement. Love the service, though!

Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on August 8, 2013 @8:01 pm PST
I understand... that's most probably due to the fact we have two different email addresses in our database that send you the same Newsletter twice to you. Could you please contact me here below:

by sending all the email addresses you owned in the past few years? That will help to figure and fix this.

Glad to know you like the service, thank you!
Bob Price * VSM MEMBER * on August 8, 2013 @8:10 pm PST
Probably, possibly is the only one that's current.

Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on August 9, 2013 @8:46 am PST
Thank you Bob, but the only one we could find from the username 'bobp0303' is the one on gmail:

bobp0303 @

Did you own an email with a different username? Thanks.
Bob Price * VSM MEMBER * on August 7, 2013 @12:40 pm PST
This IS the message, thank you. All my various aliases point back to the same address - 311 West Seneca Street
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on August 8, 2013 @10:01 am PST
I am sorry Bob, but I don't understand why you are writing about your physical address... isn't this a problem related to your email address? I am afraid to have not understood your reported issue.
Donald J. Puent on August 7, 2013 @8:16 am PST
Mr. Estrin does an excellent job explaining what a Sonata is and does it with my favorite Mozart piano piece. This is a complicated subject and he does it very well. His knowledge and enthusiasm catches on fire with me. Great job.
Steven Cooke * VSM MEMBER * on August 7, 2013 @5:28 am PST
Dear Robert,

Your videos are GREAT! I get them through Virtual Music website. I really appreciated your discussion on playing Baroque music and the difference between the harpsichord and piano. I am a brass player myself, with only the rudimentary training in piano as the basis of my musical training. I refer a lot of friends to your webpage for specific piano playing information and demonstrations that are beyond my ability to express.
ghadeer on August 7, 2013 @3:14 am PST
Hi... I could not watch it on my I pad maybe because I do not have a flash player.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on August 7, 2013 @9:15 am PST
Hi and thank you for your comment. You should be actually able to watch this video on your iPad, it is a YouTube video and they are compatible on iPads too (I have just checked on my iPad and it works fine). What model and iOS version do you own?
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