In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sonata Form

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Pedagogical Articles

Music Sonata Form
Gordon Sly
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0150


Sonata form developed in the later 18th century as a confluence of two surging musical currents: the emerging stature of—and concomitant appetite for—instrumental compositions and the reconceiving of the forms and uses of elements of contrast for controlled dramatic expression. Structurally, sonata form is nascent in the “rounded continuous binary” (A||BA) of the Baroque. Its ontogenesis is essentially rhetorical, and dramatically motivated. The design of the continuous binary’s opening section, an establishment of the tonic followed by a motion leading to a cadence away from the tonic, is greatly expanded. A “first tonal area” (FTA), or “first group,” is followed by a transition that both effects modulation (typically to the key of V in major, III in minor) and—just as importantly—announces as a point of singular emphases in the exposition the arrival of the “antagonistic” second key. The ensuing “second tonal area” (STA), or “second group,” is typically the largest of the exposition’s three main sections and very often larger and more thematically textured than the FTA and transition combined: This is a formidable antagonist that threatens the primacy of the tonic. The rounded binary’s digression (“B”), whose melodic ambitions modestly hold to being “other than ‘A,’” and which functions harmonically to achieve a locally unstable dominant, is subject to similar expansion. The development section’s searching, sometimes seemingly erratic, melodic, and tonal designs offer commentary on the exposition’s tonal dialectic and conclude emphatically with a retransition, whose role is to announce the imminent “double return” (of both tonic key and opening theme), which ushers in a recommencement of the exposition’s—now recast—tonal drama in the form of the recapitulation. Beyond the broad perspectives offered by overviews and theories, sonata form is addressed here chiefly via analytical application, mostly in English, organized largely by individual composers’ works and by idiosyncrasy of design. Given the tendency of modern scholarship to assimilate and build upon older contributions, it seems prudent to set recent work into prominence. Finally, owing to space limitations, forms derived from sonata form in some way—concerto form, sonata-rondo form, slow-movement form—are not addressed here.

Reference Works and Overviews

The preeminent music encyclopedias in English and German, respectively, are Grove Music Online (New York: Oxford University Press) and Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1998). Both offer sweeping overviews of sonata form (see Webster, Bandur 1998). The former is perhaps more wide-ranging; Bandur 1998 has a strong historical focus. Long admired for its balance of concision and depth, the single-volume Harvard Dictionary of Music has gone through four editions (1944, 1969, 1986, and 2003) under the auspices of two editors. The sonata-form entry was recast along with the change of editors between the second and third editions. Together, these articles (Ratner 1969, Wolf 1986) chronicle an evolution of summary views across much of the 20th century in the United States. To this group, one might add Tovey 1929 (“Sonata Forms”), written for the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (This was a substantially revised version of the article of the same name written for the celebrated 11th edition [1911] of the encyclopedia.) Tovey 1929 provides a highly etched account of the prevailing view of sonata form at the turn of the 20th century and the issues at stake as we approach the form. He also makes his own views on these matters crystal clear in a magisterial yet somehow inviting tone that only the English seem able to summon. Finally, William S. Newman’s encyclopedic Sonata in the Classic Era (Newman 1983) is an indispensable overview and reference.

  • Bandur, Markus. “Sonatenform.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Vol. 8. 2d ed. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 1607–1615. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1998.

    Includes description of and terminology associated with the form, a detailed historical account of its development, and an overview of analytical work.

  • Newman, William S. The Sonata in the Classic Era. 3d ed. New York: Norton, 1983.

    Originally published in 1963, with a revised edition in 1972, Newman provides a comprehensive overview of forms, styles, and works from the classical period. His wide-ranging discussion embraces reception and the history of the sonata idea through the late-18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

  • Ratner, Leonard G. “Sonata Forms.” In Harvard Dictionary of Music. 2d ed. Edited by Willi Apel, 791–794. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1969.

    A detailed overview, especially strong on the early development of the form. Many specific musical examples are cited to illustrate various features of formal design noted in the commentary.

  • Tovey, Donald Francis. “Sonata Forms.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica. 14th ed. Edited by J. L. Garvin, F. H. Hooper, and W. E. Cox, 208–232. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1929.

    Tovey’s imperial—at times imperious—prose style, and his antipathy toward schematic analysis (the labeling of first and second “themes” that had taken hold in England comes in for special derision), set the tone for a far more malleable, less prescriptive conception of the form that characterized much 20th-century writing. This article was reissued in Musical Articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1944) and again by Meridian Press in 1956 under the title The Forms of Music.

  • Webster, James. “Sonata Form.” In Grove Music Online.

    Among the noteworthy qualities of Webster’s excellent overview are an especially detailed account of features that distinguish sonata form from antecedent and related forms, descriptions of sonata-derivative forms (sonata without development, sonata-rondo, concerto), and illustration of his arguments via well-chosen musical examples—many of which, owing to the electronic delivery, can be conveniently both viewed and heard. Available online by subscription.

  • Wolf, Eugene K. “Sonata Form.” In The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. 3d ed. Edited by Don Michael Randel, 764–767. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1986.

    The tone of the article is set with Wolf’s early admonishment to the reader not to view the form as inflexible or prescriptive but as a pliable set of assumptions or expectations. This idea strongly reflects Tovey’s influence, which was certainly the foundation of “sophisticated” views of the form through the second half of the 20th century but has carried a particular intensity the last quarter of the century and now into the 21st century.

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