A musicologist is a man who can read music but can’t hear it.

– Thomas Beecham

CHAPTER AIM: To describe the Sonata Form in action



Mozart Jupiter Symphony 4th movement   


The Sonata Form is a way of composing and structuring music that really dominated from the time of Mozart (1756-1791) right through the nineteenth century. Before we get into specifics, there’s something important to stress. What we are actually doing is giving context to things Mozart’s contemporary audience would assume naturally, and understand intuitively.


Development section ahead!

Think of the Sonata Form as a genre: we generally encounter a generic work already equipped with a broad-based set of rules and assumptions. In other words, Mozart’s audience would have been as instinctively aware of the workings of the Sonata Form as a watcher or a Western knows those smoke puffs on the horizon mean Indians are coming.


So if the Sonata form is merely some old generic form of music from way back whenever, why should we care about it now?

The Sonata Form is actually a really useful bit of kit. You can use it, like a compass, to navigate a vast amount of music from the second half of the 18th century to the end of the 19th century, and even beyond. With an appreciation and sensitivity to the form, you – like Mozart’s own audience – can hear context and shape for the music, even on a first listening.

Being able to recognise the Sonata Form in action makes it a lot easier, and a lot more rewarding, to chart your way through the work of so many composers, like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Dvorak to name a few.


In this chapter, we’ll give a bare bones description of the Sonata Form (which isn’t complicated) and then use it to tackle – for the first time – this whole movement. It should help us finally appreciate the architecture of this entire movement.

I’ve also included three different pieces – one in the quiz, and two in the recommendations section – to see if you can use your knowledge of the Sonata Form to find your way through an entirely new piece of music.




There’s no avoiding the significance The Sonata Form has on Classical Music. It’s probably the most important single conceptual development from Mozart to Wagner (1813-1883).

One form of the Sonata: the Pyramid

One form of the Sonata: the Pyramid

So let’s take a look at the bare-bones. The Sonata Form is a structure of composition that consists of three sections.

Those are:

  1. Exposition. In the classical sonata form, this normally consist of two themes, but the number can vary.
  2. Development
  3. Recapitulation (and end, or ‘Coda’)


Beginning, middle, end: it’s really that simple.

This is a structure for music, a blue-print, a clothes horse that composers can use to drape with musical ideas.



Taxing Taxonomy

All the same – warning – we’re entering a musicologist’s minefield. The Sonata Form can take a number of forms in a bewildering variety of permutations. Which means it’s the kind of subject people love sounding clever about.

The physicist Richard Feynman recounts a story from his dad’s childhood, about a fellow pupil on a school trip who showing off to the other boys about how he knew the name of a bird. And not only in English, but also in half a dozen other languages as well.

All the other boys were really impressed.

But the kid wasn’t telling them anything about birds, Feynman’s father explained. All he was doing was telling them about languages. And he wasn’t even explaining anything about language itself, but really just giving the other boys a tiny list of words.


This chapter is going to explain the essentials of The Sonata Form, without getting into details about the variations, fascinating as that subject can be. It’s just sometimes possible to lose the woods from the trees, and lose sight of what the Sonata Form can actually do.

You don’t relate the wonder of flight by cataloging the parts of a jet engine, however necessary those parts are to build the plane.



Second that Emotion 

There is an aesthetic aspect to this. The previous generic vehicle for varying music was known as ‘Theme and Variations‘. That is you play a theme, and you then take it through a number of different variations. Variation 1, Variation 2…

A voyage, outwards and within

A voyage, outwards and within

With the Sonata Form, you get less variation, but you get much more development. You begin somewhere (Exposition), you then go through a process of exploration (Development) before returning home (Recapitulation). This is no longer a set of distinct variations, but a continual stretch of music. That sets up much more dramatic narrative for the music to take.


Plus, the Sonata Form also offers far more choice to the composer: choice over which themes to vary with which (as opposed to the strictly linear progression of Theme & Variation). More choice and opportunity for the composer means more opportunity for the composer’s will and personality to stamp itself in the music. Which means, with the Sonata Form, there is often a journey inward, through the composer’s feelings, as much as an exploration of a musical idea.

Which is the reason the Sonata Form – essentially a Classical-era genre – remained so popular throughout the Romantic age. It allowed 19th century composers like Beethoven Schubert or Brahms a structure for their music that allowed them also to express themselves fully.



We can see all of this in action by applying the Sonata Form to our Mozart piece…



Applying The Sonata Form to our Finale 

Whole Piece  


First of all, we should understand that this music contains two large repeats. So more than 5 of the 11 minutes is repeated material:

  • 00.00 – 02.14       OPENING SECTION (‘Exposition’)
  • 02.14 – 04.28       EXACT REPEAT OF ABOVE
  • 04.28 – 07.20       DEVELOPMENT SECTION
  • 07.20 – 10.17       EXACT REPEAT OF ABOVE
  • 10.17 – end          CONCLUDING SECTION (‘Recapitulation’)



Opening Section (‘Exposition’)

First comes the first subject (‘A’)That word subject indicates we’re dealing with larger musical material than melodies or even themes:

0.00-1.02   Subject A   

Hopefully, we should know this material fairly well by now, as we’ve been over it before ( HERE in Mozart 1 for example).


Next comes the second subject, B. Now you usually get two big clues you’re coming to a new subject: a pause in the music (known as a ‘cadence‘), and also a change of key. And that’s exactly what you get here:

1.00-1.06   Cadence & Key Change  

The usual form of key change with the Sonata Form is to the dominant. We started in C major, so now our rather more relaxed second subject B comes in G major.


1.00-1.32   Subject B   

Often the second subject provides some kind of contrast with the first subject. Whereas our first was vibrant and energetic, subject B begins in a more controlled and fashion.

But Mozart begins winding up the springs (from 0.10 above) before bounding away energetically once again (0.16 above).


As we continue, we head towards the completion of the Exposition:

1.32-2.12   Exposition End   


Next in those first couple of minutes of Exposition are repeated. Exactly the same.

So next we move 4 ½  minutes into the track. Where things start developing…




At the end of our Exposition – second around – we come to a new section of music:

4.28-4.41  Bridge    

This is the bridge to the development section. Our original theme is probed, as forming a series of musical question marks.

This is transitional material. It feels like a gateway swinging open…a pause before we enter into the full furnace of the development:


4.38-5.26  Development   

We’ve encountered this section in some detail ( HERE in Mozart 3) so you should hopefully have a fairly clear idea of the music already.


Think about the original themes, and how they are being worked here. There are two main ones. The first is this tumbling theme that first appeared near the start of the movement.

Here it is as a reminder:

0.15-0.18   Original tumbling theme  

And then of course we have our very first opening melody:

0.00-0.03 Original opening theme  


Recognising these themes, listen again to how the original material is being developed:

4.41-5.21   Development   

  • 0.00-0.01    Our tumbling theme played a final time from the bridging section
  • 0.01-0.16     The tumbling theme played no less than 20 times in the strings!
  • 0.16-0.18     The woodwind play our opening theme
  • 0.18-0.20     Tumbling theme played as a canon in the strings
  • 0.20-0.22     Woodwind with opening theme

And so on…


The musical key to the development – and this is usually the case with the Sonata Form, is Harmonic exploration (ie changes of key as encountered in Bach 6). And sure enough there is plenty of exploration of key taking place here.


But there is more than harmonic development going on here. Notice how the themes themselves are being worked against each other, almost abrasively. The section has flavour and bite. It’s as if the music is being thrust into some kind of musical furnace. This process of development gives the music a momentum forwards, but at the same time inwards, as if travelling deeper into the composer’s own psyche.

Music like this feels personal, almost rude, and that sense of personal exploration foreshadows the music of the Romantic Age to come, and explains why the form remained so popular for those nineteenth century composers that followed Mozart.


But that’s all to come. For now, it’s back to the original theme, downhill on our journey home…




As the development draws to a close, the return to our opening theme is known as ‘recapitulation‘:

5.19-5.39  Recapitulation  


As we listen, it become clear (from 0.16 above) that something’s not right. If we’re going back to the beginning, isn’t it supposed to go like this:

0.06-0.12   Original theme  


Instead we have:

5.32-6.08   Recapitulation Subject A  

Recapitulation does not usually mean a straight reiteration of the original material (the Exposition).

Often the key is different, perhaps the melody is tweaked, all sorts of things can be different. The Sonata Form is a journey, and it is a journey that changes us. The end cannot simply be a repeat of the beginning.

Here we are dealing with a rather transformed recapitulation. Indeed, development is clearly still taking place, as the music majestically struts upwards, building through an almost impossible number of vertices…


Next up comes our recapitulation of subject B:

6.07-7.19   Recapitulation Subject B   

Can you again hear how the material is not just repeated, but is still being transformed?

Again, let’s go back earlier in the piece to listen to how the fairly straightforward key change was handled in the exposition (principally with a minor to major key change):

1.47- 1.55  Original key change   


…now hear how that is transformed during this recapitulation into something altogether more revelatory, with two additional changes of key:

6.53-7.02   Recapitulation key change   

An extraordinary moment, deft and brilliant. Again, we can’t just restate the opening material. It has been transformed through the process.



Again, all of this development section is repeated, from 07.20 – 10.14. Only now comes a new linking moment:

10.14-10.25   New Link   

By rights, at least according to the map of the Sonata Form, we should be coming to an end. We’ve had our Exposition, with A & B subjects. then we have been through the Development, and just now the Recapitulation.


So we await our conclusion, our ‘Coda‘. There’s a number of formulas Mozart can use to brings things to an end, but what he instead is entirely unexpected…

10.25-11.13   Finale’s final minute  


What we have in this final minute is a concentrated five-voice fugue to complete everything. And this doesn’t feel like an afterthought, but rather where the entire movement has been heading the whole time.

There’s no Sonata road map that help us here. Putting a fugue at the end of a symphony was utterly unique in musical history.


And for a signature ending, how bold a stroke is a fugue?! An old and crusty genre from the Baroque Age…for Mozart’s generation, this was the kind of music your granddad played. Fugues had been assigned to the attic by the Classical Age’s spring-clean, and were now ignored by Mozart’s contemporaries.


It is to this final rather incredible minute of fugue that we will turn our happy attention in the final Mozart chapter.




Here’s a beautiful and simple Mozart Piano Sonata, using the Sonata Form. Can you hear when the development and the recapitulation occur?

Piano Sonata  

Click For Answer
Development at 0.52 and Recapitulation at 1.16. If you’re really alert, you should be able to spot a number of differences in the Recapitulation material beyond the change of key.

Details of the track itself in the Recommendations section below



RECOMMENDATIONS – Testing out the Sonata Form...

We’re going to look at a demonstration of the Sonata Form in action with a short but pretty much perfect piece by Mendelssohn:

  •  This second movement of Mendelssohn’s 3rd symphony is supposedly a Scherzo, but really it operates in our Sonata Form, and that’s a far more useful way to understand the piece.
  • First Subject A from 0.04, or click here
  • Second Subject B from 1.14 or click here
  • The section from 1.46-2.57 is development. Click here. Both subjects are subjected to scrumptious musical inquiry.
  • Finally from 3.04, with some variation, here comes the recapitulation to bring us to a wonderfully circumspect stop. Wow.

We should only need to listen through the piece a couple of time, applying our knowledge of the Sonata Form, to make the construction of these four minutes of music stand out a lot more clearly. Rather than obfuscating the issue, some knowledge of the Sonata Form actually makes the process of engaging with music like this a more straight-forward process, as I hope you are discovering.


  • The first movement of this Jupiter Symphony is a good example of the Sonata From in action. Here is a performance of the movement: can you hear the Sonata Form in action? If you need help, Subject B comes in at 1.33, the Development at 3.11, Recpitulation A at 4.54 and Recapitulation B at 7.27