Sonata form

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Sonatensatz form (also: sonata form , Sonata form ) referred to in musical theory of form a model or design principle, the shape of the first with the usually set (= header or "main block") of a Sonata or Symphony (and other chamber music genres is) described . Often the last movement also has the sonata form, while it is rarely found in the middle movements. In addition, the term “sonata form” can also refer to the cycle of movements in a sonata .

Structure of a movement according to the sonata form

An articulated after Sonatensatz die set normally consists of the following three main parts: exposure , implementation and recapitulation . However, this external trinity should not obscure the fact that the sonata main clause form is fundamentally dialectical, that it is therefore fundamentally based on the idea of ​​a duality, namely on two complexes of topics that in a general sense dialogise or contrast in opposite ways (these include properties such as Staccato / Legato , Forte / Piano , Tonical / Dominantic , and much more). This main body of a sonata head movement is joined by two optional parts of the movement that usually do not actually contain thematically exposed material, namely possibly a (slow) introduction at the beginning and / or possibly a coda that concludes the whole movement.

The structuring and naming of the three essential parts (exposition, development, recapitulation) are the result of decades of musicological theory building on a genre with a long history of development ; the terms used today were not established until the beginning of the 20th century (by Hugo Leichtentritt and Hugo Riemann, among others ). A significant part of the works to which the concept of the sonata main clause is ascribed, was therefore written a long time earlier. Since in practice there are so many deviations from the schema of the main sonata form (both in sonata movements of the 19th and 18th centuries) that younger musicology questions the suitability of the model as a whole, the following explanations are only intended as a guide without claim represent historical adequacy or normative validity. In fact, "the" sonata form (as cemented by the theory of the early 20th century and narrowed to the excerpt from the Viennese Classic) should not be misunderstood as something without preconditions. Rather, this type of sonata movement already represents the reshaping of older and originally simpler formal schemes that developed from baroque suite movement forms and already assumed more complex forms in D. Scarlatti and CPE Bach . Only the aesthetic functions of this primeval sonata form allow conclusions to be drawn about the further aesthetic intentions of the Viennese classical composers with the modified sonata form.


A shorter or longer introduction can be given even before the exposure begins. It usually appears in more extensive works, i.e. H. more in a symphony and less often in a piano sonata. She opens the movement at a slow pace before being followed by the exposition at a faster, contrasting pace. Typical for movements with an introduction are tempo indications such as Andante - Allegro ma non troppo .

In addition to the build-up of tension, the introduction also had a signal effect for the contemporary audience due to its typical beginning with forte : The audience should come to rest and perceive that a work is now beginning that needs attention. Therefore, such an introduction can often be followed by a piano theme at the beginning of the exposition , while works without an introduction usually begin with forte .

Slow introductions can be found, for example, in some symphonies by Joseph Haydn (e.g. No. 6 , No. 53 and many of the later works, cf. the " London Symphonies "), as well as in some symphonies ( No. 1 , No. 2 , No. 4 and No. 7) and sonatas (e.g. No. 17 ) by Ludwig van Beethoven .


The exposition (= "exhibition") presents the thematic material of the movement. It is typically divided into main clause , transition , subordinate clause and final group or epilogue .

main clause

The main clause of an exposition is in the basic key ( tonic key) of the movement. It appears at least twice - sometimes slightly changed - in exposition and recapitulation . This sentence contains the first topic , which the classical theory of forms typically ascribes a rather powerful character. Although this characterization is very often correct, it cannot claim to be general, since there are certainly examples of soft, lyrical main themes. In rare cases, the main clause can also contain further topics or topic-like secondary thoughts.

The main clause is followed by a mostly modulating transition (also called "intermediate clause ") as a connection to the subordinate clause. It often consists of a motivic continuation of the first theme or, especially in the works of the Early and Viennese Classics , often of rather athematic, motor-figurative phrases.

Since the term “first topic” suggests an existing “second topic” and this does not occur in all cases, it is preferable to use the more general comparison of main clause and subordinate clause .

Page set / page subject

The subordinate clause , which often (though not always) contains the second or a further subordinate theme - sometimes even several - is in a different key than the main clause. In the recapitulation , the secondary theme usually appears in the same key as the main theme . For main themes in major, the subordinate movement is usually in the quinth higher major key, also called the dominant key with the concept of functional theory . In the case of main themes in minor, however, the secondary theme is usually in the parallel major key (tonic-parallel key). The secondary theme often contrasts with the main theme and is typically more lyrical in character than this. This can be followed by a further part, the so-called “continuation” or “continuation”, which either connects to the motif of the subordinate theme or is characterized by rather non-thematic figures and ends in the so-called cadence part, which concludes the subordinate movement.

The end of the exposition is usually formed by a closing group (also called "epilogue") in the same key as the subordinate movement, thus confirming the aim of the previous modulation. It can contain new thematic material, connect motivically to the first topic or represent a motivic synthesis of the first and second topic. In symphonies of the later Romantic period (see Bruckner's symphonies), this final group / epilogue even sometimes develops into an independent, full-fledged 3rd theme, which sometimes plays a dominant role in the subsequent development.

Traditionally, the exposure is repeated so that the end of it can easily be recognized by the repetition signs. While the repetition of the exposition was only occasionally left out in the 18th century (e.g. in Op. 3. No. 4 by Franz Ignaz Beck ), composers have been refraining from repeating the exposition more and more since the middle of the 19th century.

The tension between the main movement and the secondary movement is an essential feature of the sonata movement form. It is always expressed in the tonal tension between the different keys of both parts. In addition, there is often a character contrast between the first and second topic. In such cases one speaks of thematic dualism .


The exposure is followed by the implementation in which the material presented in the various parts of the exposure is processed. One speaks of motivic-thematic work .

Bushings can be designed very differently. Typical is an "implementation introduction" that modulates away from the key at the end of the exposure, as well as the setting up of a "model" (or several) that is sequenced or otherwise processed. In the case of a thematic contrast, a dialectical confrontation between the two themes can take place in later works (e.g. Romanticism), which can lead to a change of character and dramatic increases in conflict. However, it can also happen that only one of the two themes is used in the development, or that the development is only contested with the motifs of the final group or even with the figurative work originating from transition or continuation. Sometimes a completely new musical idea even emerges as an episode in the development, e.g. B. in Beethoven's 3rd symphony "Eroica" in the 1st movement.

Characteristic for almost all implementations is an increased modulation activity , which often penetrates into harmoniously distant areas. Usually, executions ultimately lead to a “lingering on the dominant” (sometimes also a “wrong”), whereby the recapitulation is harmoniously prepared.


With the return of the main theme in the tonic key, the recapitulation begins . The recapitulation is a slightly modified repetition of the exposition. The tonal tension between the main and secondary theme is canceled because now (after the so-called setup ) the secondary theme also appears in the basic key. Any conflict between the main and subordinate sentences appears to be alleviated in the sense of an approximation. The most frequent changes take place in the intermediate sentence, since it has now lost its harmonic transition function.


The final part is called the coda (Italian: end piece ), in which the movement is usually increased and brought to an end with thematic material from the main theme. At the end of the recapitulation, a coda is often added, ranging in size from a short appendix to an extension of the final group in the exposition. The coda becomes a very important section, especially with Beethoven, which can take on the character of a second development. In the first movement of the 9th Symphony it is longer than the recapitulation. Often it is not only very similar in character, but also in the subject matter of the final group.

History of the origin of the sonata form

Originally (since the second half of the 16th century), “sonata”, in contrast to vocal composition (canzona), meant instrumental “sound piece”. Initially, the term denoted neither a specific form model nor a particular style of composition. The first works with the title "Sonata" were written by Italian composers such as B. Giovanni Gabrieli (1597, 1615). Gabrieli's sonatas served as role models through their formal structure and their improvisational style. The shape model consisted of several clearly described sections in contrasting tempo and texture (see sonata ).

Corresponding to the expansion of the cyclical three movements in the opera symphony to most other musical genres, an architecture developed in the basic structure of the symphonic movement, especially the first movement, which achieved exemplary validity and encompassed all genres of music, including the concert movement. In the period up to the end of the 18th / beginning of the 19th century, the layout of a symphony movement, which developed from the dance movements of the suite , was viewed as two-part (but sometimes with a subordinate threefold) and not as three-part. This two-part conception of the basic structure of the symphony (head) movement was retained until the beginning of the 19th century. B. in the review by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 from 1810 shows. It was only with the concept of sonata form that is common today that the overriding two-part structure gradually fell into oblivion.

The three-part da-capo aria with a high-contrast middle section and a recap in the basic key also influenced the structure of the later sonata movement. For the layout of the movements, harmonic progressions were more essential than the thematic-motivic work, which is emphasized by the sonata form. The arrangement of a symphony movement after Heinrich Christoph Koch in “An attempt at a guide to composition” (three volumes, published 1782 to 1793) consists of the following sections:

  • Part I (repeated or unrepeated):
    • First main period, if necessary with an appendix: section in the basic key and transition into the dominant or in minor movements into the major parallel; Section in the dominant, often associated with a “more singable sentence, which is generally to be performed with a reduced strength of the tone”, and cadence in the dominant.
  • Part II (repeated or unrepeated):
    • Second main period: beginning in the upper quint key mostly with the “theme” or “other main melodic parts”; harmonic deviations, repetitions or "dissections" of melodic turns. Degree in the dominant or return to the basic key (tonic).
    • Third main period: Beginning in the basic key with the “theme” or with a “other melodic main part”, resumption of the “most excellent movements” of the first main period in compressed form and remaining in the basic key.

The interpretation of this basic structure from the point of view of the increasingly important thematic-motivic processes ultimately led in 19th century music theory to the scheme of the sonata movement form described above, which was partially applied retrospectively ( i.e. ahistorically ) to the previously composed music of the Viennese classical music. The term “sonata form” as an ideal model abstracted from genre criteria (symphony, quartet, etc.) appears in a detailed description for the first time in Adolf Bernhard Marx's theory of composition (The theory of musical composition, Leipzig 1837–1847). Heinrich Birnbach, from whom Marx essentially took over the definition of the sonata movement, had still used the term “main form of a larger piece of clay”. Marx's theory of composition established the terms “exposition”, “main clause”, “modulation part”, “side movement” and “final group”. The "complete" scheme of the sonata movement form as described above with the terms customary today appears for the first time in 1904 in Alfred Richter's theory of musical form and was finally codified in Hugo Leichtentritt's theory of forms in 1911 .

The "standard model" of the sonata form, as it is usually used analytically, was designed by Marx as a form of description of Beethoven's symphonies and is therefore hardly or only to a limited extent suitable for corresponding works from the second half of the 18th century. A rigid application of this scheme as a yardstick for many works of the 18th, but also the 19th century can arouse misconceptions if the number of topics appears to be too many, too few or in an “unsuitable” place, if there are implementation and reprise sections are not specifically separable or harmonious courses appear conspicuously different from "prescribed". The normative claim that this theory of forms suggests, especially when applied to works of the (early) classical period, leads to the fact that the pieces are devalued as "unfinished" forerunners of an ideal to be striven for.

The romantic music of the 19th century (e.g. Carl Maria von Weber , Franz Schubert , Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy , Frédéric Chopin , Robert Schumann , Franz Liszt , Anton Bruckner , Johannes Brahms ) further developed the sonata form, whereby in addition to an expansion of the form In the sense of absolute music , a trend emerged which only used the sonata form as an external framework for the transport of poetic or programmatic content (examples: Symphonie fantastique , Faust symphony ). Nevertheless, the sonata movement form, in the area of ​​tension between absolute music and tone poetry well into the 20th century, repeatedly challenged composers to grapple with it, as exemplified by Debussy , Ravel , Prokofiev , Hindemith , Britten and others. v. a. To give evidence.


  • Markus Bandur:  Sonata form. In: Ludwig Finscher (Hrsg.): The music in past and present . Second edition, material part, volume 8 (flute suite). Bärenreiter / Metzler, Kassel et al. 1998, ISBN 3-7618-1109-8 , Sp. 1607–1615 ( online edition , subscription required for full access)
  • William E. Caplin: Classical Form. A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Oxford University Press, New York 1998, ISBN 0-19-510480-3 .
  • Burkhardt Köhler: On the structure of the> sonata main clause form in the opening movements of some Mozart piano concertos (with special consideration of KV 450) < In: Miscellanorum De Musica Concentus , Karl Heller zum 65th Birthday, Rostock 2000, pp. 179-207
  • James Hepokoski, Warren Darcy: Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types and Deformations in the Late Eighteenth Century Sonata . Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York 2006, ISBN 0-19-977391-2 .
  • Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen : Sonata form, sonata main clause form. In: Concise dictionary of musical terminology . Steiner, Wiesbaden, ISBN 978-3-515-10167-7 , 25th delivery, spring 1997 ( online ).
  • Ulrich Kaiser: Form functions of the sonata form. A contribution to sonata theory based on a critique of William E. Caplin's understanding of shape functions. In: Journal of the Society for Music Theory. 15/1 (2018), pp. 29-79 ( online ).
  • Erwin Ratz : Introduction to the theory of musical forms. About form principles in the inventions of J. S. Bach and their significance for Beethoven's compositional technique . Österreichischer Bundesverlag, Vienna 1951; 3rd edition Universal Edition, Vienna 1973, ISBN 3-7024-0015-X .
  • Charles Rosen : Sonata Forms . WW Norton, New York 1980, revised edition 1988, ISBN 0-393-30219-9 .
  • Thomas Schmidt-Beste: The Sonata. History - Forms - Aesthetics (= Bärenreiter Study Books Music. 5). Bärenreiter, Kassel 2006, ISBN 3-7618-1155-1 , pp. 62–135.
  • James Webster:  Sonata form. In: Grove Music Online (English; subscription required).

Web links

References and comments

  1. a b Hugo Leichtentritt: Musical theory of forms. Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig 1911.
  2. Ratz 1973, p. 36: "Since the modulatory function of the transition no longer applies and only the transformation of the character through the transition has to be fulfilled, we often find special highlights in the presentation of the musical content at this point."
  3. a b c d Stefan Kunze: The symphony in the 18th century. In: Siegfried Mauser (Ed.): Handbook of musical genres. Volume 1, Laaber-Verlag, Laaber 1993, ISBN 3-89007-125-2 .
  4. Koch understands a "periodeme" to be a larger, coherent section or passage.
  5. ^ Heinrich Birnbach: About the various forms of larger instrumental pieces of all kinds and their arrangement. In: Berlinische Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung , 1827, p. 269 ff. Quoted in Kunze (1993)
  6. ^ Michael Walter : Haydn's symphonies. A musical factory guide. CH Beck, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-406-44813-3 , p. 16.
  7. ^ For example, the early symphonies by Joseph Haydn such as Symphony No. 1 , Symphony No. 6 or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony KV 19 .
  8. Kunze (1993) writes: When "in romantic music other prerequisites for musical thought developed, the basic structure degenerated into a schema (" sonata movement ") which - separable from the" content "- no longer represented musical reality."