Thursday, February 21, 2013

Welcome to the Sonata Form (or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Music")

The other day, there was a study reported at NPR’s blogsite, ominously called “The Deceptive Cadence,” about learning to like music you… well, they used the term “hate” (you can read it here) but it’s more like “learn to appreciate music that’s unfamiliar to you.”

Here’s the original article:I like that they title it “hearing music as beautiful is a learned trait.”

But yes, basically it says that the human ear (or that part of the brain that processes musical sounds) does not always process sounds the same way for everybody and that, for someone who hears something and doesn’t like it at first, it’s probably because they lack some intuitive understanding.

And familiarity.

Western music – as we know it – began as a series of mathematical ratios from the days of Pythagoras which would mean his ideas about how music – individual tones, their overtones and what leads to the organization of scales and chords (which eventually led to the concept of “tonality”) – goes back to about 500 BC. In other words, we’ve had some 2500 years of conditioning to these sounds.

When something doesn’t “jibe” with that conditioned response, it sounds like so much “jive” – which may explain why an intelligent young woman from Nepal (the daughter of this Himalayan country’s prime minister) sat in a Harrisburg concert hall listening to the orchestra play Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony (a long, luxurious, highly romantic-sounding war-horse of the Western concert repertoire) and couldn’t figure out why we would all sit there silently in the dark, listening to such noise (she quickly got out her knitting and started click-clacking away because, essentially, this is what women did when they had nothing to do but listen to Nepalese musicians perform).

Of course, if I transported that Harrisburg audience to Katmandu to listen to some popular Nepali music – like this classic old Nepali love-song which still sounds like it’s based on something similar to a Western scale though it lacks what we call “harmony” – they would probably all cover their ears and run for the nearest radio to listen to their favorite pop singers or some Beethoven and Mozart for relief.

So, researchers in Australia did a study and found that “the more participants understood about the music's structure — even down to individual chords — the more they enjoyed what they were hearing. To prove that point, the Australians took on a second experiment. They selected 19 participants without musical training and gave them some music theory instruction, particularly in identifying the pitches of certain chords. After 10 such experiences, those participants were not just better at pitch identification but also found those chords to be less dissonant, even when they were technically ‘dissonant’ according to traditional music theory. That is: The more you hear, the more you'll love.”

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When I talk to students about the different aspects of music, I often use the analogy of the human body.

Like other people, usually the first thing we react to is what we see – the surface of the visible person: depending on the order you might see them in, a person’s skin or hair or eye color, what a person’s wearing – and how many times do “first impressions” lead to judging a book by its cover?

So, since the first thing most people respond to in a piece of music is probably the melody, this could be the equivalent of a person’s outward physical appearance: the skin, the hair and eye-color, different aspects of the face that we might respond to, what (essentially) makes one person look different from someone else.

But underneath this surface, there is more to that body or that person: and this is where some other aspects of music come into play: after talking about harmony, rhythm and form, it’s not difficult to realize that rhythm is like the blood flowing through a person’s body; or that harmony – which moves the music forward by creating elements of tension and release, by creating variety, by the way chords work together to support the melody – is like the muscles in the body; or that form – the general organization of short phrases into longer and longer units – becomes the framework over which a composer stretches the melody and helps define by its harmonies (or their tonality) and is therefore like the skeleton that supports the muscles and the skin.

The way painters in the late-Renaissance learned about human anatomy and the sense of perspective, composers in the baroque, essentially, began learning how harmony and form created similar kinds of artistic details in their art, bringing new or at least a different sense of life and awareness to what music can be.

In summary:
Melody = skin (surface)
Rhythm = blood (flowing life force)
Harmony = muscles (what allows the body to move)
Form (or, according to SHMRG, Growth) = skeleton (what supports the body so it’s not a shapeless mass of skin and muscle lying on your floor)

Looking beneath the skin – the surface sound of the music – we might discover, listening to any kind of Western music since 1600, roughly, that what lies beneath the surface is not very different from one generation to the next: though a composer from 1720 will sound very different from a composer in 1876 or one in 1924, but underneath these same principles somehow are (probably) still operating: it’s the “surface language” that’s different.

(I equivocate (probably) because there are always exceptions. But... more on that, later.)

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Talking about “form” usually implies the way a piece of music is organized over a longer span. Going back to our ‘note - melody’ or ‘note - chord’ analogy (like letters, words and sentences in language) we might group these phrases, these cadences and their melodies and come up with a bit of added contrast.

One of the first basic forms – aside from just the primitive one-part form which might be a self-contained melody without contrast – would be a simple two-part form, which we can label

A | B

“A” reaches a cadence, then there’s some contrast which we’ll label “B.” This is usually called “binary form,” the prefix bi- referring to two.

Now, because composers in the early-1700s like to round things off with something that sounded familiar, they decided to go back to remind you of “A” but not completely re-stating it…

So now our “B”-section became a little two-part section itself which we might label with lower case letters as “b-a” – the diagram now looking like

A | b-a

The eventual idea was that that “A” section would move from the initial tonic key area to a different key area (C Major could go to G Major; A Minor could go to C Major). The “B” section – which is not necessarily a contrasting melody, now – would usually start in this “new” key but almost immediately start moving around uncertainly from one key to another, creating a kind of “tonal tension.” It also might sound like fragments of the opening theme and maybe the secondary theme rather than a whole new theme.

We’ve moved away from our Home Key and the goal is now to get back to that Home Key by the time it’s over – to resolve that tension, to fulfill our expectations.

During the classical period, this simple form was expanded. The “A”-section now had two tonal areas – the Home Key Tonic and the New Key. This new key might be given a contrasting melody which would become a second theme, but the defining point is not the melody but its tonality. (You can read the post about Tonality, here.)

The opening of the second section would now be harmonically “active” to continue the digression from this new key to – eventually – get back to our original key. This could be a simple process or a more complicated one.

The contrast is now in the harmonic activity of moving from one tonal area to another, usually in quick succession. This creates a sense of uncertainty – “where are we,” a listener might feel: “it doesn’t feel settled,” and they would expect eventually to make it back to the initial key.

And that is more importantly reinforced with the re-appearance of the opening melody or theme. Then, we feel the tension is released and expectations have been met.

Now, we still have to get in both themes from the opening “A”-section, but this time, they’re all in the same key – our initial Home Tonic.

So it looks more complicated when we add the key-scheme to the diagram:


This is the foundation of the major FORM that was introduced in the Classical Era (c.1750-c.1800) but became one of the principal forms of the Romantic Era which followed (c.1800-c.1900).

It’s called the “Sonata Form” and the typical 1st movement form for works called “sonatas” or “symphonies” (but also usable at other times, too). Because these movements are usually in a lively tempo - allegro - it’s also referred to as the “Sonata-Allegro form.”

And each part of this now gets a new term: this opening “A-Section” is called the
EXPOSITION which introduces the thematic material
The “B-Section” – broken down to a (b)+(a) substructure – is now a “two-part” sub-form of its own: the initial (b)-part is called the
DEVELOPMENT which is melodically and harmonically unstable, creating (or building) tension
And the secondary (a)-part is now called the
RECAPITULATION which is the restatement of the thematic material from the Exposition, the harmonic tension leading back to the initial Home Key Tonic, resolving the tension of the Development.

Here is a complete piano sonata by Franz Josef Haydn written in 1783. The first movement is in Sonata Form from the beginning to 5:53.
= = = = =

= = = = =

With the first theme (in A-flat, the Home Tonic), the second theme (not that different) comes in in E-flat (the dominant, technically) at 0:53 or so (my computer is giving me fits, stopping and starting and needing constant rebooting today so I'm hoping these are accurate timings.... talk about increased tension...). The Development Section begins at 2:00 and becomes increasingly unstable until we return to the Home Tonic of A-flat around 4:00.

Now, there are (of course) several variations on this idea: composers can begin a Sonata-form movement with a SLOW INTRODUCTION. Haydn did this a lot (Mozart, less often; Beethoven, not so much) and it was mostly to… well, let the audience know it was getting ready to start (even though the music was already playing). Audiences in the 1780s might be less formal than they are now, but it was a way of letting the audience know it was time to get ready to listen – actively.

A composer could also tag on a little ending after all the material has been re-stated in the Recapitulation (usually abbreviated as RECAP) for whatever reason – this would be called a CODA which means literally, in Italian, a “tail.” Later on (especially in Beethoven), these codas started to expand into pretty long tails, actually…

Beethoven in 1801
Here is the Sonata Form movement that opens Beethoven's 1st Symphony (completed in 1800). He uses a slow introduction that plays on one's expectations: the whole set-up actually does the opposite of what a listener in 1800 would've expected - rather than establish the tonic key at the start, he pulls you away from it and you never really feel where it's going to be until the Exposition officially begins. Technically, he reaches an actual C Major tonic chord at 0:45 into the clip, but it's not very forcefully set up, so... are you sure? No, not until the actual exposition begins where the tempo picks up and is now marked allegro.

The first movement is only the first 8:20 of the clip: the whole symphony is about 28 minutes long in this performance.

The graphics, here, will help you follow where in the scheme of things you are:

= = = = =

= = = = =

Note the additions to Haydn's use of the form in the piano sonata (above): in addition to the introduction, there's also a "coda" which starts off seeming like it's going to be another development section but instead it quickly becomes just a reinforcement of the tonic key at the end ("and those sound like final chord... yes, I believe we've reached... the end!") And then there are three more movements for the whole symphony.

By the way, the identification of "closing theme group" refers to a musical idea (or ideas) that may not be complete melodies or themes - but have the function of giving the second theme and the exposition a sense of "closing," firming up the key we've ended up in.

Later, as symphonies became longer - and not much later: Beethoven's 3rd Symphony a few years later has a first movement that's about 18 minutes long by itself, compared to 8 minutes, here - composers would expand the material around these first and second themes (maybe even add a third theme) and start a "development-like" process as they expand each theme; the closing theme group might also be expanded with additional developmental ideas. And the development section might become much more involved.

With the 19th-Century Symphony, many composers began breaking down the clarity of the classical form: rather than allowing the listener to know exactly where in the scheme of things he is, the composer now wants to increase this tension of uncertainty, especially regarding the sense of tonality. The classical form is clear and discernible; the romantic form is less clear (maybe even unclear) and tonally more ambiguous. But more of that, later...

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The initial idea behind such a structure and the use of often contrasting themes was to reinforce the idea of the REAL drama in the music: it’s tonal conflict – the idea of

STATEMENT of a key
DIGRESSION from that key and eventually
RESTATEMENT of that key

Whether people sensed “Ah, we’ve modulated to the dominant” or not is not important: they would have sensed “Ah, we’re not in our original key.”

To reinforce this, composers directed performers to REPEAT the exposition (in the early classical era symphony, the whole development/recapitulation might be repeated as well).

This was marked with “repeat signs” that look like this

||: Repeat This:||

They did this so the listener had a chance to hear how the drama is being set up – what the themes are and what the keys are.

Why do you think they did this?

Because in those days, the only way you’d hear a symphony would be by going to a concert. You didn’t have recordings you could buy and listen to any time you wanted. You didn’t have YouTube to download a performance to watch. You wouldn’t have had a radio station that might play classical music where you might hear it perhaps quite often.

It was their way of getting to know the “characters” in this drama.

Today, with the question of familiarity less of an issue, performers often skip the repeat.

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So there’s one of the basic FORMS of classical music – the Sonata Form.

It can be found in a Sonata which is an instrumental work in three or four movements usually for a piano or another instrument along with a piano.

It’s also the standard first movement form for a Symphony which is essentially a “sonata for orchestra,” also most likely in three or four movements.

After things became standardized, symphonies traditionally had four movements and these would be
1st Movement: Sonata Form
2nd Movement: usually a slow movement most likely in a different form (variations were popular)
3rd Movement: usually a dance like a Minuet, usually a stately aristocratic kind of dance which Beethoven later replaced with a more down-to-earth dance-like movement called a Scherzo ("scare'-tzoh," literally in Italian, a “joke”) since after the French Revolution and audiences were now more likely middle-class folks, courtly dances like the minuet were kind of pointless.
And then comes the
4th Movement: was a finale which could be a sonata form or variations or a dance but was often like a happy-ending to the whole piece, often a lively or very fast tempo.

Mozart wrote several symphonies with only three movements, ending with a minuet. Sometimes he skipped the minuet and wrote a fast finale (that wouldn’t be mistaken for a minuet).

In most cases, the first movement was the most significant part of a sonata or symphony. The other movements were for contrast and generally less taxing to listen to.

Beethoven would later turn the finale into another significant movement. In the late-19th Century, the finale is often the goal of the entire symphony. But…

More on that, later…

- Dick Strawser

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