Today I hope to uncover one of the great mysteries of classical music for those unfamiliar with it. Why do they call a bunch of music piano sonatas and not others? Why don’t they come up with a clever name for them? Because piano sonatas follow a certain form of writing and composers are nerds that like to work within that form to create something better than the next guy. Therefore piano sonatas are nerdy, since nerds write them.
But just because piano sonatas are nerdy does not make them boring. The thing is, composers can follow all these rules about how sonatas should go, and you would think it would be really boring, but it isn’t. That is the beauty of classical music, following rules and patterns and coming up with a gorgeous piece of music.
First, we will look at a sonata that you might find predictable, but this is only to show how the sonata is made up. In my favorite sonatas, you don’t really notice the divisions of the themes and stuff, you just notice how epic the music is.
Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C is from the Classical Era. One characteristic I find of music from this era is that it’s logical. You can usually tell what’s coming next (some composers like to throw in surprises), or where it’s ending, as it follows a certain form.
This piano sonata has three separate movements. It’s kind of like albums having multiple songs, they are all different songs but they are part of the same album. So the three (or sometimes four) movements make up a piano sonata. For this sonata, the first movement is fast, the second slower, and the third faster. We will focus on the first movement, which follows something called sonata form. This movement has three parts: exposition, development, and recapitulation. So follow along in this video as I explain these three parts:
Exposition- (00:00-00:54) (repeats during 00:54-1:41) This is when you will hear the main theme, this section will repeat in the recapitulation, with a few changes. The exposition in sonata form will have one theme, a transition to a second theme, then after the second theme a fancy coda to end the section. Mozart transitions to the second theme in 00:15 with some scales. The second theme occurs at 00:27-00:36, then the fancy codetta to end the exposition.
Development- (1:42-2:02)- Here the composer experiments with various themes that have been presented in the exposition, here arpeggios and scales like the transitional part and the codetta.
Recapitulation- (2:03-2:57) So now he repeats the part we heard at the beginning, but this time it’s played higher, and he changes it up a little with the scale transition part and codetta.
For further listening, here’s where to find the 2nd and 3rd movements:
Second Movement- 3:02
Third Movement- 6:44
So basically in sonata form (which usually occurs in the first movement of a piano sonata), the composer is working with a couple themes, and presents and develops them as the piece progresses.
Next time, I’ll give you a playlist of some of my favorite piano sonatas so you can hear more complex versions of this sonata form.