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When I was in high school band class, one of the first forms of music we learned about was the sonata. I was mostly into punk rock at the time and didn’t appreciate the sonata form (also called the sonata allegro form) the way it deserved. After all, what is form in music, right? 

Now that I’m an adult, it’s not hard to see why sonatas are one of the most complex and beautiful forms of music on the planet. In an effort to give the sonata its due, let’s take a closer look at the components of this classical music structure, as well as listen to a few famous sonatas that any music aficionado should be familiar with.

What Is Sonata Form?

In short, it’s a type of classical music composition. Newer music history nerds often begin by asking experts to answer one critical question: A sonata form typically has what pattern in it? Sonata form consists of three main sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. To break it down:

  • Exposition. This section kicks off a sonata and sets the melodic theme for the remainder of the piece.
  • Development. Which part of the sonata form creates tension and drama? You’re looking for the development section, during which the composer plays around with different variations of the main theme of the piece.
  • Recapitulation. To conclude, the recapitulation section revisits and resolves the main theme of the piece. You might run across recapitulations when you search for a coda music definition, which describes a section that brings a piece of music to an end.

Now that we’ve established a sonata definition, let’s dive into some of the most well-known examples in music history.

History of the Sonata

The history of the sonata is long and very interesting. However, to avoid overwhelming you, let’s take a brief trip back to the early days of the sonata—and how we got to the form that we know and love today.

The elements that became associated with sonatas were developed and refined during the Baroque period (1580–1750). But historians agree that in the early Classical era (1750-1820), composers began to embrace a “new” change in music that put an emphasis on simplicity, philosophy, knowledge, and nature, allowing the sonata to evolve. While some of the earliest sonatas were written for the violin, the form eventually transformed into what we know it for today—a piano-driven type of music composition that we’ve heard millions of piano students work to master over the course of time.

Famous Sonatas

OK, the mechanics of sonata-allegro form make sense. But what does one actually sound like? To add some context to this lesson (and to create a lovely soundtrack for the rest of your day), let’s check out a few of the most famous sonatas in music.

Beethoven Moonlight Sonata Op. 27 No. 2

Beethoven’s Moonlight is the sonata that most people associate with sonatas. Ask a new pianist to play you something he or she has just learned, and there’s a good chance that this will be what you hear.

Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata No. 2

Want an intense opening to sonata music? Here’s a great one to start with, especially if you’ve ever wondered just how quickly someone’s fingers can dance across piano keys.

Haydn Piano Sonata No. 47 in B Minor

This is another one that’s ubiquitous among beginners, and thus is one of the most popular examples of sonata-allegro form on the planet. You’ll notice that throughout the roughly 12 minutes of the piece, the same three-note theme appears very often.

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