Music Sonata
Thomas Schmidt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0202


The term “sonata” derives from the Italian: sonata or suonata is the past participle of sonare or suonare = “to sound” or “to play an instrument.” Literally translated, the term thus means “something that is sounded” or, more to the point, a piece of music that is played on instruments. As early as the 14th century, a “sonatore” was somebody who played an instrument, and a “sonata” was a performance by that person. According to the pragmatic definition by William Newman (in his standard work The History of the Sonata Idea), a sonata (1) is purely instrumental; (2) is written for a solo instruments or a small number of solo instruments; (3) usually consists of several contrasting movements or sections; (4) is based on relatively extended and complex structures; (5) is “absolute music”—that is, without specific programmatic or extra-musical content. Although Newman’s definition is a useful starting point, one could even take issue with some of its components. The limitation to one-per-part instrumental texture is rarely controversial, but the relatively small number of instruments only becomes the norm toward the latter end of the 17th century. The question whether a sonata is or isn’t specifically functional has to be asked anew in the light of much new research into and knowledge of music’s social context; the same applies to the concept of the sonata as “absolute” music. In any case, the sonata is central to the history of instrumental music as such. Its beginnings around 1600 coincide with the period in which instrumental music came into its own, with those two developments mutually codependent. The concept of “sonata” is only thinkable when one accepts that instrumental music can stand on its own, without reference to a verbal text; and the concept of instrumental music requires a genre or genres which make this a reality in name and in fact. This position of the sonata as the defining or leading genre of instrumental music remains largely unchallenged throughout the 17th century and into the early 18th century when compositions for almost any number of instruments and in almost any form could be thus named. But when other genres subsequently challenge this primacy, the sonata succeeds to hold its own in the panorama of instrumental genres, albeit increasingly restricted to solo or duo compositions. Even in the 20th century, when traditional genres generally recede in relative importance, innumerable works called “sonatas” continue to be composed. Furthermore, the term “sonata” is inextricably linked with that of “sonata form,” but which applies to symphonies, string quartets, and all kinds of other genres as well as to the sonata proper, while on the other hand, there are many sonatas which are not in “sonata form.” Composers such as Gabrieli wrote sonatas as early as the late 16th century, in what is rather diffidently called “free form.” The great master of the trio sonata around 1700, Arcangelo Corelli, established the formal paradigm for the next two generations, but a paradigm which has again nothing to do with “sonata form”; on the contrary, half of his sonatas are in dance form, the other in contrapuntal or again “free” form. Thus, “sonata form” provides no answer to the question “what is a sonata?” Conceptually, it is so closely linked with our understanding of the genre that bibliography on the sonata has to deal with “sonata form” as well.

General Overviews

The sonata repertoire is vast and stretches across many time periods, instruments, and styles, which makes a narrative encompassing the totality nearly impossible; the few publications taking this approach have chosen to divide their text into clearly delineated sections, usually by period. Still the most comprehensive survey is Newman 1983 in three volumes, focusing on a narrative of composers and repertory. This is sometimes restricted to a succession of brief descriptions, but occasionally with great insight into stylistic trends as well. Bockmaier and Mauser 2005 offers a useful alternative viewpoint in that it concentrates on ensemble sonatas, to the virtual exclusion of keyboard sonatas; on the other hand, the complementary volume from the same series, Edler 1997–2004, embeds the discussion of the piano sonata genre into the history of piano music in general. A pure discussion of terminology is Hinrichsen 1996, while Mangsen, et al. 2001 and Schmidt-Beste 2011 offer concise surveys, the latter including form and texture as well as genre.

  • Bockmaier, Claus, and Siegfried Mauser, eds. Die Sonate: Formen instrumentaler Ensemblemusik. Handbuch der musikalischen Gattungen 5. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2005.

    The only survey-type publication that does not discuss compositions for piano solo (which in this multivolume history of musical genres are discussed in a separate volume, Edler 1997–2004). Instead, the focus is on the ensemble sonata, embedding its forms and scoring types in the context of composing for small instrumental ensembles more generally: trios in particular, but also including works for up to nine instruments.

  • Edler, Arnfried. Gattungen der Musik für Tasteninstrumente. 3 vols. Handbuch der musikalischen Gattungen 7/1–3. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 1997–2004.

    Edler offers an unusual perspective on the piano sonata, focusing on the instrument rather than the genre. Aesthetics, function, and performing context thus play a greater role than elsewhere. Brief analytical descriptions of a great number of individual works are embedded into an overall historical and stylistic narrative, organized by genre; what is (perhaps surprisingly) lacking is a discussion of playing technique and development of the instrument. Reprinted with minor changes as Geschichte der Klavier- und Orgelmusik (3 vols. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2007).

  • Hinrichsen, Hans-Joachim. “SonataSonate.” In Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Edited by Hans-Heinrich Eggebrecht and Albrecht Riethmüller. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996.

    Unravels very thoroughly and comprehensively the history and uses of the term “sonata,” from the Middle Ages to the present day.

  • Mangsen, Sandra, John Irving, John Rink, and Paul Griffiths. “Sonata.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Like many of the major entries in Grove, this is much more than a dictionary article; it provides a compact introduction into the subject matter, discussing the principal trends, developments and composers, with a comprehensive bibliography at the end. First published in the 2001 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (rev. ed., vol. 23, pp. 671–688).

  • Newman, William S. The History of the Sonata Idea. 3 vols. New York: Norton, 1983.

    Somewhat dated, but unsurpassed as the by far most comprehensive survey of the genre (more than 2,200 pages in three volumes!), from the best-known to the most obscure representatives of the genre; least strong on 20th-century repertoire. Out of print but easily and cheaply available used. Originally published in 1959–1969.

  • Schmidt-Beste, Thomas. The Sonata. Cambridge Introductions to Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511974298

    Single-volume survey over the genre as a whole, from the beginning around 1600 until the late 20th century. Treats form, function and aesthetics, and scoring/instrumentation in three separate main sections, focusing on developments and on establishing connections in a coherent narrative rather than on completeness of repertoire, with major sections on the most important representatives of the genre (Corelli, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt).

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