Sakura Salon 4/6/14 – Form in music; Sonata Form

Tonight we are delving into something a bit different – Sonata Form.  I was going to try and do this here on my own, but then I realized that this was already done, and better than I could ever do, by Leonard Bernstein.  So, tonight we will attempt to watch videos…

Links for the videos:   Part 1 Part 2   Part 3 Part 4

(Please note that there is a large overlap between videos #3 and #4.  If you stop video #3 at the 8:35 mark, you can then proceed directly to video #4).


Link for transcript of the show:


Information presented on notecard on Form, Sonata Form, and Leonard Bernstein himself:


Form in Music

When we think about the ‘building blocks’ of music, we always think about Melody, Harmony and Rhythm.  Perhaps we may think about Tonality or Orchestration. Do any of us ever think about Form?

However, form is vital in music – even now when the older, more rigid forms, may not be in use as much.     Current composers were asked about form, and some of the quotes are below:

Form and structure remain the most important aspects of any musical work… …as such, it is central to my work. 
(Gary Kulesha)

To me, form is the largest element of musical phrase in a composition. It is one of the more elusive attributes of composition. (Andrew Staniland)

So, at its most basic, what is form?   The word form used in music refers to the overall structure or plan of a piece of music. There are many types of forms, and various ways of using the term – such as a round, its older and bigger brother the fugue; various dance forms; or simple forms defined as ABA or AABB, etc. Ultimately, perhaps form is simply about the process of ordering – and disordering – our sonic world.

At some point in the twentieth century, some composers believed that form, like tonality, would disappear in Western music. However, both have proved more resilient than they thought. In the survey of contemporary composers, that question was asked:

Now that we don’t tend to use formal structures like sonata, rondo, variations, do you work with prefabricated forms of any kind, either musical or extramusical? (Text, plot, visual art, quotation, etc…?)

I have in recent years started working with very old-fashioned sonata allegros. Why? Because they work. Most of my music is still driven by the notion of “discourse”, ideas being presented and then developed. (Gary Kulesha)

…at the risk of sounding naive, I believe that all three ideas (Sonata, Rondo, Variations) are the (ever evolving) result of deep ways of unfolding a narrative, of an anthropological and timeless nature, rather than simply cultural products belonging to a specific era. (Osvaldo Golijov)

You cannot invent a new form. The sonata form is based on contrasts: two themes. All occidental music is based on contrasts. (Ana Sokolovic)

I love a passacaglia and a chaconne; the ritualistic nature of those older forms pleases me. (Nico Muhly)


Sonata (or Sonata-Allegro) Form

As noted above, historically one of the most important forms used in classical (or at least since the Classical period) music is the Sonata-Allegro form, or simply Sonata form. Sonata form (also sonata-allegro form) is a musical form that has been used widely since the early Classical period Since its establishment, the sonata form became the most common form in the first movement of works entitled “sonata”, as well as other long works of classical music, including Symphony, trio, quartet and so on.

The basic Sonata form is an ABA form as follows (and note that the rules are stretched and broken all the time; what follows is the basis):

A. The Exposition establishes tonic then modulates to a new key. If the exposition is repeated, a short transition may modulate back to tonic.

  • Theme 1, the first theme or group of themes, grabs attention. It is entirely in Tonic.
  • Transition or bridge, modulates to Dominant in major and to Dominant or related Major in minor. A dependent transition is motivically related to the first theme.
  • Theme 2, the second theme or group of themes, is in the new key and is usually a lyrical contrast to the opening theme(s).
    • A second bridge may link theme 2 and the closing theme.
    • A closing theme(s) or codetta, employs cadential figures and confirms the new key.

A1. Exposition repeats

B. The Development may begin like the exposition (transposed in another key) or with the closing theme or even a new theme in a new key. The development freely manipulates musical ideas (keys, themes, textures, dynamics and even tempos) evoking restlessness, drama, surprise and tense expectancy. The development provides an important contrast to the more direct and stable outer sections.   This is akin to improvisation in Jazz, but instead, in a sense the composer is improvising.

A. The Recapitulation is much like the exposition in structure and may employ an identical first theme. However the transition is altered to end on tonic or dominant so the secondary and closing themes confirm tonic.

Keys are as important as themes. Many Haydn sonatas are monothematic, i.e. S = F transposed.

Introductions and codas are common


Leonard Bernstein

Called by the New York Times the Renaissance Man of American Music, many today may not know the true extent of Leonard Bernstein’s talent.   The NY Times obituary, a fascinating read, is quite long, and includes the following nuggets:

His fast-burning energies, his bewildering versatility and his profuse gifts for both music and theater coalesced to make him a high-profile figure in a dozen fields, among them symphonic music, Broadway musicals, the ballet, films and television.

When he became the youngest music director ever, at age 40, of the New York Philharmonic, some friends and critics urged him to quit and compose theater music full time. Many regarded him as potentially the savior of the American musical, to which he contributed scores for ”On the Town,” ”Wonderful Town,” ”Candide” and ”West Side Story.”

At the same time, others were deploring his continued activity in such fields, contending that to be a successful leader of a major orchestra he would have to focus on conducting.

Still other observers of the Bernstein phenomenon wished he would concentrate on the ballet, for which he had shown an affinity (”Fancy Free,” ”Facsimile”), or on opera and operetta (”Trouble in Tahiti,” ”Candide”).

Or on musical education – His television programs on such subjects as conducting, symphonic music and jazz fascinated millions when he appeared on ”Omnibus,” the cultural series, and later as star of the Philharmonic’s televised Young People’s Concerts.  He was a teacher of rare communicative talent, as television audiences discovered.

And still others, a loyal few, counseled Mr. Bernstein to throw it all over and compose more serious symphonic scores. His gifts along this line were apparent in such works as his Symphony No. 1 (”Jeremiah”) of 1942, Symphony No. 2 (”The Age of Anxiety”) of 1949 and Symphony No. 3 (”Kaddish”) of 1963. He played the piano well enough to have made a separate career as a virtuoso. He was a facile poet. He wrote several books, including the popular ”The Joy of Music” (1959).

Late in his extraordinarily restless and fruitful life, Mr. Bernstein defended his early decision to spread himself over as many fields of endeavor as he could master. ”I don’t want to spend my life, as Toscanini did, studying and restudying the same 50 pieces of music,” he wrote in The Times.

”It would,” he continued, ”bore me to death. I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to write symphonic music. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician. I also want to teach. I want to write books and poetry. And I think I can still do justice to them all.”