WISE – Sonata Form

A very important concept in music composition is structure and form: an extremely catchy melody or a groovy bass line can’t become a hit song without becoming a part of some larger structure. The form of a piece of music is what leads the listener through a journey.

One of the most famous and classical structure that everyone learns in music school is the Sonata form. This is because it was a form used so prominently by the masters such as Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Weber, and many others.

Just because they teach it in music school doesn’t mean it’s complicated; in fact, it’s quite simple. The sonata form consists of three parts: the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation.

The exposition is the first part of the music where thematic ideas and motifs are introduced. This is where you first heard the melodies that you leave concerts humming.

The development is just like what it sounds: it develops the melodic and rhythmic elements established in the exposition into many different variations. This is the part of the piece where composers can explore the many different possibilities presented by their thematic motifs. They can change keys, use chromaticism, flip the timbre upside down, etc. Sometimes the development doesn’t even sound related to the exposition at all, if the composer introduces entirely new ideas to the section!

The recapitulation is exactly what you’d expect after the development to finish off the piece. It’s where the piece returns to its original melodic material as heard in the exposition. The recapitulation also brings the piece back to its original key.

And that’s mostly it. Countless pieces that you’ve most likely heard, including famous symphonies by Mozart, are in sonata form, but you probably just didn’t notice.


  • Hill, Andrew W. Music Theory for Dummies. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2006. Print.
  • “Sonata Form.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 03 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.
  • Bernstein, Leonard. “What Is Sonata Form?” Leonard Bernstein: Young People’s Concerts. Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, New York. 6 Nov. 1964. Lecture.
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