I was wondering about composing a piano sonata. I only composed nocturnes and piano waltzes. Now I would like a piano sonata. Is there a specific rule for composing a piano sonata?


The word "sonata" may refer to different things. In the Baroque period a sonata was just an instrumental piece (like Scarlatti's sonatas). I suppose, though, that the OP may be referring to the term applied to the classical period, in which case it can have two different, although related, meanings:

1) The sonata-allegro form, usually simply abbreviated as "sonata form", which is a rather complex musical form that epitomizes the theme-development concept of the classical period. It follows a structure of thematic exposition, development and recapitulation. The typical structure is as follows:

  • Exposition

    • Introduction
    • 1st theme
    • bridge with modulation
    • 2nd theme
    • closing theme
  • Development

    • free form development of the themes that appeared in the exposition
    • retransition (modulation to the original tonality)
  • Recapitulation (the themes of the exposition return, but may be differently arranged, somewhat modified, etc.)

    • 1st theme
    • bridge (without modulation)
    • 2nd theme
    • closing theme
    • coda

There may be many variations to this model, namely not all sections may exist, some may be more complex than represented here, harmonic structure may also be more complex, etc.

This page is worth reading for an initial better understanding of the sonata form.

2) The Sonata genre - chamber music pieces made of several (usually three) movements, written for solo instruments or for two instruments (in which cases the piece is formally called a sonata), for three instruments (it is then called a trio), four instruments (a quartet), etc.

The overall form of a sonata has changed along time and is not always scrupulously followed by composers, of course, but it's useful to define a paradigmatic sonata of the classical (e.g. Haydn, Mozart, Clementi and early Beethoven) period.

It's a three movement structure following a fast-slow-fast overall organization, much like a symphony, but with three movements instead of the usual four movements of a symphony.

  • First movement - sonata-allegro form.
  • Second movement - usually slow, such as adagio or andante and follows essentially a ternary (i.e. ABA) thematic form, although of course there can be many more or less complex variations to this basic form.
  • Third movement - usually fast (e.g. allegro) and can have different forms such as rondo (a kind of theme and variations form), sonata-allegro, ternary, minuet and trio, or others.

In a sonata there's usually some unifying elements among the different movements, say a recurring motif, allusions to one or several of the themes of the first the movement in the other movements, an overall harmonic relationship, etc.

Many composers have named pieces as sonatas that do not follow the traditional format and the format itself has become more and more loose along time, the term being sometimes used somewhat arbitrarily to name pieces of reasonable complexity and extension for a solo instrument, namely the piano.

But if the purpose is to adhere to the classical guidelines, I would say that to name a piece a sonata, there should be at least a strong theme development approach, preferably with a multi-movement structure and some application of the sonata-allegro form.

  • Note that "classic sonata form" as described here (and in many textbooks) was only invented by theorists in the 19th century, after the actual practice of (supposedly) using it to write music was already dead. If you look at the actual sonatas, symphonies, quartets, etc, by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, you will find most of them don't follow these supposed rules. – user19146 Apr 30 '16 at 22:47
  • Good point alephzero. Still I think that good form was a main concern of the classical period, and although there wasn't a "Sonata Form for Dummies" in the time of Mozart, there were some commonly understood principles and concerns, at work most of the time (until Beethoven started to disrupt them, anyway). Going back to the original question, I agree that trying to apply these so called rules in a blind and non creative way will probably be a rather sterile exercise, but they are a starting point. – José David May 3 '16 at 19:56

No rules, but some models. Look at pieces titled "Sonata" from Mozart and Beethoven. I won't analyse their structure for you - anyone considering writing an extended piece of music is surely quite capable of doing that for themself - but note that a piece of music of any length NEEDS a structure. Use the classic Sonata Form if you will, or use something else. But don't just meander!

  • If the OP wants to really understand "classic sonata form", read this: amazon.co.uk/Classical-Style-Haydn-Beethoven-Mozart/dp/…. But be warned that the book doesn't contain a nice simple set of "rules for writing a sonata". – user19146 Apr 30 '16 at 22:57
  • @alephzero, that is what makes Rosen's book so good. He has also written amazon.com/Sonata-Forms-Revised-Charles-Rosen/dp/0393302199 specifically on the one topic. I haven't read it yet, but I have read enough of his other books to recommend it without reservation - Rosen is a marvellous writer on the topic. – user16935 Apr 30 '16 at 23:37

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