Dr. Edward Murphy's "Sonata Form" Essay

Sonata Form
The most important factor about this form is the way the tonality relationships are handled. In the classical period this was as follows:

An opening theme is presented in one tonality. This theme usually ends with a PAC in that key. The next section is usually in a contrasting texture (tutti if the FT is non-tutti) and modulates to the dominant key usually through the new key's dominant, then to its V of V in order to strongly establish it. This section is called a transition.

The remainder of what is called the exposition is in the dominant key. In a sense, this dominant key is treated as if it is creating tension in relationship to the original tonic key. It is a "dissonant" key. The thematic material presented in this new key is usually in a contrasting texture to that of the transition. If the transition is tutti the music in the new key will be non-tutti. This material can be new or it can be taken from something heard previously, especially from the FT. The new material is usually concluded with a PAC. It is followed by another section in a contrasting texture that sounds like it might be "closing" the exposition, hence the term closing theme. This is also concluded with a PAC. A short cadential section follows that reaffirms the key with one or more strong cadences. It is called a codetta. A double bar normally occurs at this point.

The next area up until the "recapitulation" serves to create even more tension or dissonance in relationship to the FT and its key. It does this by modulating more quickly, having fewer strong cadences, using the theme in a less complete state, going to keys that are further removed from the tonic key, by actually using more dissonant harmony (normally through harmonic sequences), by having less regular phrasing, by using "tension creating" devices such as fugues or fugal procedure, by putting certain important "motives" together in various combinations in a sequential manner, by using buildups and by using repetitive devices such as ostinatos. The final part of this "development" section normally gets ready for the recap by featuring the dominant of it; this is done through a dominant pedal point in some prominent instruments such as the horns in an orchestral work.

The function of the recapitulation is to resolve the tension and dissonance that has been created through the "dissonance" of the dominant key in the exposition and also that created in the development section. This is best done by presenting most of the material in the tonic key, especially that material that was originally presented in the dominant key in the exposition. Usually the transition section in the recap is used as a point of relief; it will modulate to other keys, especially to the subdominant, in order to get out of the tonic for awhile.

Normally, the material that first appeared in the exposition will return in the recap but with the appropriate tonality adjustment. This is especially true of Mozart and Beethoven. Haydn normally is different. Once the material from the exposition has reappeared in the recapitulation in the "correct" key there is usually material added on at the end of this that did not appear at the end of the exposition. This is the coda. In composers that like long codas this might roughly follow the order of presentation of the development section, especially at its beginning. The coda is mostly in the tonic key but it may have other keys at the start, especially that of the subdominant.

Remember that the critical thing to have is the relationship of the tonic/dominant keys in the exposition and this becoming tonic key in the recapitulation. Everything else is extra to the fundamental basis of the form.

Dr. Edward Murphy, Professor of Music Theory, The University of Arizona
Used by permission.

Terms Used

Also see Robert Gauldin: Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music (Second Edition), pages 558-67; Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne: Tonal Harmony (Fifth Edition), pages 332-34; and Allen Cadwallander and David Gagné: Analysis of Tonal Music (Second Edition), pages 334-39.

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This page was updated 12 August 2013.
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