Sonata Form Diagram (The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
Sonata Form Diagram (The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

As I was writing the description for this week’s movement, I found a need to explain the idea of sonata form (at least in a very, very, simple way). So I hope you’ll forgive me for covering some technical stuff, which I’ll get out of the way up front, but which will hopefully be helpful as the tour progresses.

Letting The Music Speak For Itself

I’ve found in listening to classical music over the years, that the really, really great pieces of classical music, are so all-round awesome to listen to, you don’t need to know anything about how the music works or what the composer is trying to do. These tend to be the big pieces that make their way onto the many “Top 20 Great Classical Favourites” CDs that are out there. (Did I just say CDs? I’m showing my age …)

However, I’ve also found a large number of classical music works in the middle which make a whole lot more sense when you know something about the structure of the piece and of the movements. It gives you an idea what the composer was trying to with the music. So let me introduce you to the well-kept secret of the classical music world – sonata form.

Why Has This Movement Been Going For 10 Minutes?

For years, coming to the music, as a relative amateur, I had often wondered why some classical music would go on for ages with no real logic as to where the music was going. Was it just 10 minutes of random music slotted together until the composer was sick of the tunes and moved on to the next one? Apparently, not quite.

One day, I discovered that a lot of music in the 19th century used fairly distinct structures. So in a sense, classical music is a bit like architecture. In the same way, that most buildings share the common elements of having a floor, walls, windows and a roof, classical music also has different forms that composers would use as a basic template. Every composer would do something different with the template, but it meant that the audience of the day (who knew a lot more about musical structure than the average person does nowadays) would have an idea what to expect. The modern equivalent would be that we know most songs have a verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure, and so when we listen to new songs, we’re listening out for that repeated section which we know is the “chorus”. It’s subconscious, but the reason that your mind latches on to some music and not others has a lot to do with how quickly your brain can work out the music’s “pattern” and match it against other patterns.

Sonata Form

When I first heard about sonata form, my first thought was, “No wonder I could never understand what was going on in classical music! Who would ever guess this structure if nobody ever told you about it?” And so, because I’m a nice guy, just so you don’t have to pore over some obscure textbook (or, worse yet, give up listening to the music), here is sonata form, in the simplest possible way that I’ve been able to get my head around it. Sonata form is a way of structuring a piece of music to turn it from a random bunch of tunes into something a bit longer – a sort of musical adventure, if you like.

It’s in three broad parts:

1) The Exposition is the opening section and here the composer sets up his main themes that he will use in the symphony.

2) The Development section is where the composer breaks those themes down and uses little bits of them and combines them in interesting ways. In many respects, this is the journey part of the adventure because you never know how far the composer is going to take his themes and how many things he can do with them in this middle section.

3) The Recapitulation is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a big moment, where we come full circle back to the main themes of the Exposition. This is usually easy to pick if you’re paying attention because it just sounds like the music has started again.

There are a couple of optional extras that a composer can throw in at the beginning and end as well if they want to make things go for a bit longer:

a) An Introduction – some extra stuff at the beginning of the movement before the exposition begins properly

b) A Coda, which is where the composer wraps things up. Sometimes Codas just take the themes you know and finish them off neatly, but every now and again, composers with a sense of adventure (Beethoven, for example) like to take you on a whole new adventure at the end just when you thought everything was finishing.

And that’s it. Sonata form. You’ll see it in action in the next movement of the Mahler 5, when we get back to the tour in a couple of days.

12 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – An Interlude About Sonata Form

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