What is a Sonata?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Sonata, from the Italian word meaning “to sound,” is the name for an instrumental genre that usually has several movements and is either performed by a soloist or by a chamber ensemble. If multiple instruments are used, one is often a keyboard instrument. The term is also a common name for the form that became the underpinning of that genre’s first movement’s organization, sometimes referred to as “sonata form” or “first-movement form.”

Some famous sonatas were written by Beethoven.
Some famous sonatas were written by Beethoven.

The genre is noted from the 1200s, and its early uses include mystery plays and Elizabethan plays, as well as in fanfares. The sonata, for instruments, was contrasted to the cantata, for voices.

A sonata might be played by a piano soloist.
A sonata might be played by a piano soloist.

During the Baroque period, two common types gained prominence. The sonata da camera, a “chamber sonata,” usually a work of three to four movements, was scored for one or several melodic instruments and continuo. Many of these compositions were designed as dance music, and they were popular in Austria and Germany, as well as in Italy, where Arcangelo Corelli’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord were noted.

The other Baroque era type, the sonata da chiesa, or “church sonata," popularly in four movements, became common during Mass and Vespers. Corelli also wrote sonatas of this type. In the 18th century, both types were generally replaced as movements in larger works and acquired other names when applied to dance music.

In the 18th and early 19th century, the form of the first movement became important. The tendency became for sonatas to be written as a three-movement work for piano or piano and violin, with a first movement in sonata form. Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven are all known for their sonatas.

The form, which was being used by the Classical age, had many variations, but can generally be characterized as having three sections. Beginning with an exposition, in which two contrasting themes are introduced, it moves on to a development section aimed at extending that material, and closes with a recapitulation, in which the expositional material is heard again.

Famous pieces include:

  • Kreutzer Sonata — Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major by Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Moonlight Sonata — Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Sonata facile — Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Other well-known pieces include Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas, Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin and for flute and continuo, and works by Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@softener - Unless I'm feeling particularly low, I prefer the lightness and gentle melodiousness of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. I like the fact that I can play it myself, also! Neither Moonlight Sonata or Pathetique Sonata are particularly complicated piano solos but they're so well written that they're just a joy to play.


People who don't even listen to classical music would probably still recognize Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven; it's been used in countless films and has an easily recognizable downbeat mood. It's probably one of the saddest and most beautiful solo piano pieces ever. Another one of my favorites is Prelude in D Flat Major Op.28 by Frederic Chopin. Anyone else care to share some of their own favorites?

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