Characteristics of Sonata Form

The word 'sonata' comes from the Latin sonare meaning 'to sound' and thus refers to instrumental as opposed to vocal music. Sonata form is used to structure a single movement of a work and does not refer to a complete work, be it a symphony, string quartet, concerto or solo sonata.

The two fundamental ideas expressed in sonata form are:

- Repetition

- Contrast

The structure developed from the two-section binary form, except that sonata form includes a repeat (recapitulation) con the first section.

The three sections are called : 

- Exposition

- Development

- Recapitulation

This provided a pleasing symmetry to the form, rather like an arch shape with the exposition balanced with the recapitulation.

Sonata Form Structure


In this central section, the composer 'develops' one or both ideas of the exposition. The development can be based the complete melody or a fragment (motif) from it. Sometimes the composer will use several motifs and combine them in different ways, thus creating new variants of the original subjects. The section features various keys , but deliberately avoids the tonic and dominant keys. The music of this section is often adventurous as the drama unfolds and is constantly changing and restless because of the exploration of different keys.


In the first section the main themes are presented or 'exposed'. The first theme - called the first subject - is always in the tonic or home key. This theme is usually the most lively and rhythmic. There follows a short linking section called the bridge passage during which the music modulates (changes key) at which point we reach the contrasted second subject. The contrast will be both the mood and key of the music. The new key will be related to the tonic key of the music, such as the relative major (minor) or the dominant key. The whole of the exposition section is then often repeated so that the listener becomes unfamiliar with the two subjects before the development occurs.


The final section balances with the opening exposition. The composer recaps the first subject in the tonic key. The bridge section then follows to balance with the opening section, but does not modulate as the second subject is now heard in the tonic key as the work is drawing to a close. The work can conclude with a short rounding-off section called the coda.