When I find myself describing pieces I’ve played as having “Sonata Allegro” form I see a lot of blank stares, as most of you have not studied at a music conservatory, and quite frankly, have no interest in Classical music forms. I get that. However, I believe that all of you can enjoy a Sonata a little more than you otherwise would if you knew a little something of how it’s constructed, and so I thought I’d make it easier for you by writing this non-musical description. That’s my goal, anyway, ’cause I play a lot of Sonatas, and I want you there with me.
A Sonata is a multi-movement form, and the complicated bit I’m talking about is always the first movement, and “Sonata-Allegro” is the term that describes it. The fact that the first movement of any Sonata is the most complex reflects an interesting programmatic design, used in the time of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler, but not today: namely – the complex, cerebral stuff goes first, followed by movements of increasing simplicity. This is the exact opposite of today’s programming norm: look at any orchestral or instrumental program and you’ll find the light, easy stuff first. The real meat of the program is usually reserved for after intermission. Think opening act and then the headliner. These days the first half of the program, or the first movement of a longer piece, is used to ease an audience into it, and when they’re warmed up – BAM! – hit ’em with the serious stuff.
So the thinking at the time the Sonata was formulated in the mid-1700s – and the Symphony, which follows roughly the same form – was much different. Hard stuff first, when the audience is fresh, then more easy listening as they tire and grow fidgety. Makes a lot of sense when the audience was captive back in the day, but for today’s channel-switching crowd, the attract and BAM tactic is the way to go.
Anyway… back to Sonata Allegro form, which is in three sections: The opening section states the main theme, and then the counter-theme, which is always a of a different mood and in a different key, creating not only a contrast, but a conflict (notice lots of contrasting pairs here). The middle section is the most free-form part, where the themes are allowed to morph into different keys, intertwine, and create something new. The final section has the return of the main theme, the return of the counter-theme in the same key now, and the finish (the “Ta Da”).
A word about contrasting pairs: they exist throughout all Western music, and can be found in virtually any piece, classical, jazz, rock, whatever. It’s the juxtaposition of two opposing ideas that engages us, and their conflict compels the music forward to interesting places, away from the initially-established home, perhaps to another location for a while, but finally back again. It’s the two themes of a Sonata, or a Verse and Chorus, or a Melody and a Break, that provides the drive in our music. It forms the direction, the story, and that energy (“wait, something just happened”) compels us to listen.
The very musical scale we use, the Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti of Western music, is called Diatonic – think of it as “Bi-Polar”… Well, not really bipolar, that’s something totally different. But thinking of a North and a South Pole are helpful, because our 7-note scale has two magnetically attractive points: Do (sometimes called the Tonic – I will call it Home Base, but it’s really the more powerful pole, like Magnetic North), and Sol (called the Dominant, which I will call the Vacation Home, or the South Pole). Western music, and I mean virtually ALL of it, goes from pole to pole, starting at the powerful Do (Tonic), migrating to and secondly-attractive Sol (Dominant), sometimes to the thirdly attractive Mi or La or Fa, and then eventually back to Do.
Whew! Ok, that was the hardest part, and if you’re still with me, then the rest will be easy. If not, please re-read that last paragraph, or maybe it will help to think of the two poles of diatonic music as two destination points in a song, like Happy Birthday. The first line goes from the Tonic center to the Dominant center (Do to Sol), and the second line goes from Dominant to Tonic (Sol to Do). I’ll mark the TONIC IN CAPS / and dominant in lower case, like so:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO you; happy birthday to YOU (TONIC – dominant – TONIC)
OH SAY, CAN YOU SEE, BY THE DAWN’S EARLY light; what so PROUDLY WE hailed; at the TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (TONIC – dominant – TONIC – dominant – TONIC)
Now imagine lots more notes in between, entire fistfuls of phrases, making the arc from Tonic to Dominant last longer, maybe even a few minutes. Or, in the case of the Sonata Allegro form, the entire first theme is in the TONIC key, and the entire second theme is in a different key, usually the dominant. Two contrasting themes: in key, in mood, and in style. The statement of these two themes make up the bulk of the first section, called the Exposition. It’s sometimes repeated to really make the point stick.
Now for the second section, or the Development Section. Things happen, maybe we hear snippets of one theme or the other. We will be going to a new key, maybe Mi or La, or somewhere off the grid entirely. Exactly how far away from Home Base (tonic key) we go is up to the composer, and what (s)he’s trying to accomplish.
The final section, or Recapitulation (restatement), sees both themes return. Listen for the return of the first theme in the home key – it’s a BIG moment in any Sonata. Then, when we hear the second, contrasting theme, we hear it now also in the home key. Voila! The contrast is still there, but the conflict – as found in the opening section – is gone. The final section is all about harmony – see, these two different themes can work together – it’s all good. The big “Ta Da” ending I mentioned earlier is also called the Coda (meaning tail – whatever) and it’s always the cherry on top, a final statement to seal the deal.
There you have it. Sonata Allegro form. Now that you know what to listen for, the rest is just practicing hearing it. If you want more, there’s an excellent Wikipedia article on Sonata Allegro Form (with musical snippets) here. Enjoy!