What is a sonata?

Sonata refers to a particular structure or form of music in which composers have written works ever since the 16th century. A sonata can be for solo instruments like the piano or a combination of two instruments like the piano and violin, piano and clarinet, piano and cello, piano and horn etc. There is another type of sonata for three instruments known as Trio Sonata which used to be popular in the 16thand 17th centuries in which two of the instruments really played the major role and the third held the tune rather like the Indian tanpura or drone instrument. Sonatas are usually in three movements but there is no fixed rule. The first movement is constructed with two melodies rather like the first movement of the symphony. A simple formula will help to understand this construction. Suppose we call the two melodies A and BA being strong and masculine, B being soft and feminine. How are they presented? The first part of the movement belongs to A then B is introduced and combined with A almost like a marriage and then out of the blending or the marriage of these two melodies a third melody or C emerges as the conclusion of the movement. Therefore we can map the flow of this movement with the following equation:

A       B       ABBA       C

Where refers to the first melody to the second melody ABBA to the blending of the two and C to the conclusion. In some sonatas there is an introduction before A, which appears rather like the opening of a door and we can call this section D. The first movement of the symphony and the concerto is based on this formula. So if you are good in catching tunes you should be able to follow these forms of music and have fun and enjoy yourself. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms all wrote beautiful Sonatas.

Listening Guide

Beethoven ‘Moonlight’ Sonata

Mozart Violin Sonata No. 26 B-flat Major, K. 378

Beethoven ‘Pathétique’ Sonata

Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38

Haydn Piano Sonata in E-flat major, Hob. XVI/49, L.59

Mozart Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457

Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47 (‘Kreutzer’)

Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24 (‘Spring’)

Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (‘Appassionata’)

Beethoven Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106 (‘Hammerklavier’)