Sonata form

Don’t be put off by the fancy name! Sonata form is not just for classical music! It’s actually useful for modern music too – especially if you want to do something a bit more adventurous than typical song form. Basically, sonata form consists of three sections:

  1. The start (called the exposition)
  2. The middle (called the development)
  3. The end (called the recapitulation)

The first section (the exposition) presents the main musical themes, the middle section (the development) explores variations based on those themes and the final section (the recapitulation) returns the to main themes.

Classically, a musical theme was most often a melody, but you could use use a groove or a sound as a theme. It doesn’t really matter how you do it – so long as the theme has a distinct musical identity. That is, it has to be recognisable.

In the exposition, there are usually two themes. The exposition is divided into two sections – one for the first theme and the other for the second theme. Traditionally these two themes are in different keys, but if your music is more sonic (about sound) than harmonic (about harmony) then you can differentiate the two themes by using different sounds or different textures.

In the development, you can take elements of the main themes and explore variations of them. You can mash them up, combine them, change the style… anything really! You can explore several variations, one following the other. This section is usually best if it’s roughly a third to a half of the total length of the song/track.

In the recapitulation, you return to the main two themes. Usually this is almsot exactly the same as the exposition, except that the second theme is made more like the first theme. Classically, this is done by changing the second theme so that it’s in the same key as the first theme. In more modern music, you might make the second theme more like the first by using the same sounds or the same rhythms as the first theme.

As with all composition techniques, the best way to learn is to try it out for yourself! Compose several tracks using sonata form and see where it takes you!


    • MOK
    • May 12th, 2009

    Another item on the list of things to try…..

    But here’s a question: What is it that makes this structure ‘work?’

    I am familiar enough with transition form, and of course we’re all familiar with song form. I have a solid idea of why those forms sound coherent, why they feel like they have direction, why they feel like they have closure.
    Sonata though… I only have a little experience with it from way back in high school band, and no recollection of order, or direction in their compositions. It’s not making relative sense in my imagination.

  1. Indeed, what makes structure work? More specifically, what makes some structures work better than others?

    It’s an important question to ask, and the answer is not simple of straightforward. I’ll try to address this in a future blog post, but the subject is far greater than can be adequately addressed in 500 words.


    • MOK
    • May 14th, 2009

    I’ll believe that….

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