- Title Page
- A Composer’s Manifesto
- Introduction: Composing as a Set of Options
- Melody and the Basic Idea
- The Main Theme Types
- Thematic Hybrids
- Loosening Techniques
- Overview of Sonata Form
- Composing Your Basic Idea
- Fleshing Out Your Theme
- The Transition
- The Development
- The Recapitulation
- The Coda
- The Slow Introduction
- Appendix 1: The Worksheets
- Appendix 2: Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 1, Mvt. 1
- Appendix 3: Brantingham, Piano Sonata No. 1, Mvt. 1
- Afterword: The Mystery
- Recommended Products
A Composer’s Manifesto
I will finish every composition that I start (except the 9th Symphony. In fact, just stop at the 8th).
I will not bask in the glory of my finished composition – that is what amateurs do. I am a professional.
I will find something good in every composition I listen to. All composers have something to teach us.
I will be compassionate with other composer’s compositions, and uncompromising with my own.
I understand that I must deliberately practice my composing. I do not choose if anything I write will be a masterpiece. I just compose what I need to compose, and leave it at that.
I will give myself over to a higher power when I compose.
Introduction: Composing as a Set of Options
Thank you for purchasing this book. Whether you’ve been composing for a while and you want to expand your horizon, or you’ve just gone through my beginner’s course, I think you’ll find this book helpful in many respects.
This book has an accompanying website, with musical examples, and links to various other resources. Please check it out at:
If you are reading this on your computer, you should be able to click on any of the example titles, and they will take you to the musical examples online.
The Genesis of this Book
When I finally sat down to write this book, I had been thinking about writing a book for a long time. I wanted to create something that my audience from artofcomposing.com would find useful. My original idea was to create a book on chromatic harmony. The problem with that book, was the lack of practicality. The problem in dealing with harmony is that it requires lots and lots of theoretical assignments that are separate from composing, because you need to get down the skills of voice leading, as well as knowing progressions. Going in depth about chromatic harmony would have created a monster volume, and more than likely, it wouldn’t have been what people were looking for, so I abandoned that idea.
Next came a follow up to my beginner’s course, in which I went into more depth on each topic covered. That was 8 lessons; each about the basic idea, harmony, sentence, period, and small ternary form, as well as additional details like dynamics, articulation, and gestalt, or the feeling of wholeness to a piece. But as I was creating that book, I realized that most of the information needed was already in the free course.
When I sat down and thought about it, the original idea for the course came from what I had learned, and I thought others might want to learn this too. I spend a lot of time reading music theory books, combing the local college libraries for gems. Most of the time, this search is tedious, and not very fruitful. Music theoreticians, while often brilliant thinkers, tend to speak in a language foreign to most. So my goal was to take the golden nuggets I found, and translate them into useful – and more importantly – actionable and practical information. Something you could immediately use in your own composing… right now.
The thing that really interested me recently was composing in sonata form. I had read descriptions of sonata form, and had made attempts at composing a sonata. I thought I knew what went on: an exposition, with a main theme in tonic and a subordinate theme in dominant. This is followed by the development, where you basically are free to go wherever you want, but which then leads back to the recapitulation, staying in the tonic key throughout. But, as you may have guessed, this leaves a lot of questions.
What keys should I explore in the development? Is dominant the subordinate key? Can I use other subordinate keys? How long should each section be? Is the subordinate theme built the same way as the main theme?
So I decided that I would put together a sort of road map for myself to compose in sonata form.
So ultimately, this book became a mix of the second idea (an expansion on the basic course) plus the main focus, which is composing in sonata form. The goal is to cement the ideas from the basic course, expand a few more ideas, tackle a larger work, and to give a clear guide to writing in sonata form.
The Path of the Composer
I want to make my belief clear right from the beginning. Becoming a great composer is a life-long process. If you have read the Composer’s Manifesto, then you realize I am from the “school” or belief that being able to compose is a direct reflection of the amount of work put in.
Ten thousand hours is what it is estimated that needs to be put in to become an expert in anything. That means 10,000 hours of composing. That is a lot of hours. But not just any hours; these are dedicated, deliberate practice hours.
Deliberate practice is all about improving specific aspects of any set of skills you want to learn. You have to be able to identify your weaknesses, and then target those weaknesses.
Deliberate practice is specific. When you know you have a weakness, you must practice the tasks that improve those weaknesses. It doesn’t help to attempt to write a symphony if you have trouble creating good chord progressions. You’ll just end up being overwhelmed and not improving either.
Deliberate practice tends to be short tasks that are repeatable. This repeatability is helpful, because it allows you to ingrain the correct way of doing a task. If it is not repeatable, then you cannot legitimately practice it. Short in this case is also relative concept. If you are a beginner, short may be a single phrase. If you are Mahler, short is a ten minute symphony movement.
When you are working on something that you are not very good at, having to repeat it over and over, this can be very mentally tiring. There is a limit to what most people can do, when deliberately practicing. This is usually around two hours.
Inherently, Not Very Fun
With things like “mentally tiring,” and “repeatable,” deliberate practice tends to not be as fun as unfocused work. This doesn’t mean it won’t be any fun, but at a certain point, you’ll probably have the desire to move on to something else. This is where you must have the drive to continue learning and pushing yourself. Work hard now and enjoy the benefits later.
Not all of Your Composing Is Deliberate Practice
But some of it definitely should be. Noodling every once in a while is okay, but if at least some of your composing is geared towards learning specific tasks or skills, then you will see improvements. Your enjoyment of composing will improve with more effort put towards learning the craft. What should you be improving though?
The Skills of a Composer
As a composer, there are certain things that you can improve directly, and certain things that you cannot.
The things you cannot directly improve: the mystery (see afterword).
Thats it. Everything else is up to you.
Your ability to focus is probably the most important factor. It has repercussions through all of your composing related activities. This includes actual composing, working out exercises, analyzing music, listening to music, meditation; they are all affected directly by your ability to focus.
How do you improve your focus? Sounds a little like circular reasoning but you improve focus by practicing focus. The best thing to do is be 100% committed to anything you are doing, while you are doing it.
There are some other things you can do as well.
- Make sure you complete one thing before you start the next. Not just composing itself. Make sure, when you are doing your taxes, or cleaning the dishes or whatever, that you complete the task. If not, it will be gnawing on your mind when you are doing something else; and you will not be able to focus.
- Set up a reward system for yourself. If you do a good job focusing, treat yourself to some regeneration time (watching TV or additional sleep).
One of the easiest ways to lose focus is not writing down your music while you compose. Most people noodle. On whatever instrument they use, they noodle around too much. You may write a bar, then play for about 10 minutes, saying “oooo, that’s good,” but then you look back at the page, and you still only have 1 bar. Make sure you write. Write, write, write! If it’s not good, you can scratch it out, or erase it.
Forcing yourself to write is a skill in itself.
Your ability to listen will improve with your growing understanding of the music. After a while, you will start to notice things in the music that you didn’t hear before.
While this book goes over a good bit of music theory, it is not in itself specifically a music theory book. Theory is difficult to teach yourself. I recommend taking some college courses or finding a private teacher to teach you harmony, voice leading, counterpoint and orchestration. These four are really tricky to learn on your own.
I plan on putting together a full course online covering those topics. As of writing this book, all of these topics are not yet completed, but continue to check out www.artofcomposing.com as they may be put up online while you are reading this.
Checking Your Ego at the Door
This is a tough one. I have always been sensitive to criticism, and most people with an artistic side are the same. Let me be frank – not everyone is going to like your music. Some people may hate it. Some will let you know, and they won’t be nice about it either.
Remember in the manifesto:
I will be compassionate with other composer’s compositions, and uncompromising with my own. Go into the ring with the expectation of being hit. The thing about it is, you have to put your music out there… You have to be willing to back up what you write.
Many composers of the past were treated like garbage because of what they wrote.
Mahler’s first Symphony was a resounding flop at its premiere.
A reviewer of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue wrote it is “as incomprehensible as Chinese.”1
Don’t be dissuaded from following your dream. Everyone gets bad reviews. You just need to “get back up on your feet,” and continue composing!
Composing Is All About Options
The process of creation is a mix of intellect, sweat, and luck. But what it really comes down to is options. When you sit down and stare at a blank piece of staff paper or a blank screen on your favorite notation software or sequencer, you have many, many options. With every constraint you put on yourself, either through decisions made away from the paper like, “I am going to compose in Sonata Form, in A minor, 4/4 time signature or,I would like the piece to last at least 3 minutes, and have a tempo of 100 beats per minute (bpm),” or, if end a phrase deceptive cadence, these are the myriad options and choices that face you.. the key is knowing the options in the first place. Knowing what is stylistically normal, what is adventurous, and what is completely out of the norm, you can decide how you want your music to develop, and ultimately be perceived.
If you know all of your options, you are in a much better position to make a better choice; the right choice. That may sound very absolute, but when you really get down to it, and you listen to the music that you love, you cannot imagine it written any other way. It would just be… wrong.
I am going to take a guess and say that you’ve also listened to music, and heard things that you weren’t anticipating, and thought had it been your composition, you would have written it differently. That composer probably knew the options, and decided to write something different, or possibly stayed “within bounds,” where you would have gone “out of bounds”.
Know your options.
Free Beginner’s Composing Course
One last note. If you have not been through my free beginner’s course, and this book looks a little daunting, I recommend you check it out. Go to: http://www.artofcomposing.com/academy/how-to-compose-music-101 and sign up for the course. Once again, it’s absolutely free, and will give you a great foundation for tackling a larger work like sonata form.
I would like to thank my Dad for teaching me about real music and taking the time to proof this book. I know I would not be the composer I am today without his influence.
I would like to thank my Mom for not letting me quit trumpet when I was 12, and having the idea to bribe me with a skateboard. Fortunately I stuck with the music, and not the skateboarding.
I would like to thank William Caplin for writing his inspiring book on classical form, it has truly changed the way I look at, and think about form when composing. Most of the ideas in this book stem directly from his work, and I do not want to take credit for them. I cannot stress how important it is, if you want to learn to compose in the classical style, to buy and read his book.
I would like to thank Carolina Gale, my high school music teacher, for supporting my composing.
Most of all, I would like to thank my wife and my son, for giving me the drive… and time to write this.
To everyone else not listed… you know if you deserve an acknowledgement. So if you do, give yourself a pat on the back. If not… well, sorry.
1: Melody and the Basic Idea
The Basic Idea The basic idea is the foundation of your melody. The term “basic idea” was coined by William Caplin in his book Classical Form, in which he states, “The basic idea is small enough to group with other ideas into phrases and themes, but large enough to be broken down (fragmented) in order to develop its constituent motives.”2
Sometimes creating the basic idea can be the hardest part, because it is usually characteristic of your piece, and not conventional. Something that is characteristic, by definition, defines the character of your piece.
For example, this basic idea from Mozart is very characteristic.
I have no doubt that you could instantly identify it when heard.
Conventional melody is something that is usually more “cookie cutter,” like a descending melodic line at a cadence, trills or what is termed passage work, with arpeggiation and dramatic virtuosic writing.
This example is more along the lines of conventional melody.
Keep in mind that conventional is not necessarily bad, but you need a good mix of characteristic and conventional melody to create interest.
Basic Idea vs Contrasting Idea vs Random Music
When I say basic idea, I am specifically talking about writing the two bar segment of music, that has an initiating or beginning function, and is found in the antecedent phrase or presentation phrase. But the things that go into a basic idea, harmonic clarity, shape, characteristic ideas – they all transfer to other parts of your composing. If you can write a good basic idea, you can write a good contrasting idea. If you can write a good basic idea, you can handle writing a good continuation phrase or consequent. The process is the same. The labels are specific.
Sometimes, when I say basic idea, I probably mean “idea” which is a general two-bar phrase, not specifically the opening phrase that prolongs tonic. Just look at the context, and I apologize up front, if I misuse the term.
The most important result from practicing basic ideas is improving your sense of balance, clarity and conciseness. You have to be clear about what you want to convey to your listener, because you only have two bars to do it. This also helps to get yourself out of, what someone called in an online forum that I like to visit, “The Ostinato Habit.” The ostinato habit is really noodling at the keyboard, with a pattern, and then playing random stuff on top. Sometimes, if you are really going for that minimalist sound, this can be good, but done too much it ends up being a copout. So practice developing good basic ideas, and all of your composing will improve.
Melodic Shape of the Basic Idea
The basic idea is what opens up your piece, so it is very common to have a rising melody, also called a melodic opening up, but this by no means is absolutely necessary. In fact, you can create any kind of melodic shape.
A good exercise is to trace out the melodic shape of basic ideas written by composers that you admire, and then work within that shape, creating your own new basic ideas.
Here are a few examples. These examples are all from public domain scores on http://imslp.org/wiki/. IMSLP is a public domain musical score library online. It is one of the greatest resources ever created for composers. What gives it that power, is your ability to look up a score, even multiple versions of the same score, and then jump over to youtube, to listen to ten different versions of that score. Invaluable.
Don’t just stick to block chords. Look through some scores on http://imslp.org/wiki/ and find some interesting accompanimental patterns. The key is balancing variety with continuity. Use different accompanimental patterns for different sections of your sonata form movement. For instance, in my piece (later on in the book), I use a “stabbing” staccato rhythm for the main theme, and then an “alberti” bass for the subordinate theme.
If it helps, you can initially write using block chords for ease of understanding and playing, but go back afterwards and play around with different accompaniment patterns.
One of the easiest things you can do, is reduce the number of accompanimental voices, to just one or two. This works especially well, if you stick to the 3rds and 7ths of chords, because those notes tend to outline the harmony better than any others, sometimes even better than roots.
Different Types of Repetition
One of the strengths of the basic idea is its ability to be repeated, broken down, expanded, extended, and just generally modified for different purposes. Particularly, repetition is useful and easy to do. Especially in the sentence, but also in other theme types, repetition and fragmentation of the basic idea is the defining feature. When I talk about repetition, I am primarily referring to harmonic repetition. This is because the harmony, more than anything else, is what defines the form.
Exact repetition means to repeat the same harmony. That means if your basic idea has the harmony of I to V, then your repetition of the basic idea should also have I to V. But it can be a little bit more complicated than that. For instance, you can change the melody by jumping up a chord tone, and repeating the melody there. Listen to this example.
Statement response repetition involves the quintessential question and answer. The most common pattern to use is tonic for the first basic idea and then dominant for the repetition, but there are a few other schemes. Arnold Schoenberg in his book, The Fundamentals of Musical Composition, calls this kind of repetition, “Complementary Repetition,” which, I think sums it up pretty nicely. The first basic idea or “question” is complemented by the change or “answer” in the second.
Table 1.1 Statement-Response Chord Schemes
|I – V||V – I|
|I – V – I||V – I – V|
|I – IV||V – I|
|I – ii||V – I|
Model sequence repetition can be a little more complicated. The initial idea creates the model, or the thing that will be sequenced (a series of similar ideas derived from the model). From there, you can use any number of sequences. These are classified and based on root movement. The key to sequences is that they are voice-leading based, and not necessarily connected directly to chord function. This gives them substantial power to modulate.
Sequences are grouped by root movement, either ascending or descending.
There are basically six sequences:
- Ascending 4ths/Descending 5ths
- Ascending 5ths
- Descending 3rds
- Ascending 3rds
- Descending 2nds
- Ascending 2nds
Basic Idea Practice
So let’s get some helpful practice at writing “basic ideas”. Sometimes it helps to be nudged in a certain direction to open up the possibilities in your imagination. To do this, I am going to suggest some harmonic progressions that you can use to create interesting basic ideas. These are going to be written in Roman numeral form so they can be printed out and practiced in all keys. Writing in as many keys as possible is always a good thing because it allows you to modulate and get your ideas down “on paper” much easier. It also helps with analysis.
Basic idea progressions are located in Appendix 1, table 1.
2: The Main Theme Types
Learning to compose using the main theme types is absolutely essential. The sentence, period, small ternary and small binary forms all create the building blocks for the sonata form. Learning where these blocks stay the same and where they differ is essentially what you need to know. It is a little more complicated than that but, the essence is in knowing when to make your themes tight-knit or loose.
The sentence is an eight measure theme that consists of two different phrases. Each phrase accomplishes different formal functions. The overall purpose of a sentence is to help establish the tonality and to present the basic material that a composition is made of. The music sentence is a vehicle for presenting your ideas. It accomplishes the formal functions of presentation (beginning), continuation (middle) and the cadential (end).
The archetypal sentence consists of two four-bar phrases. These are the presentation phrase and continuation phrase. Encompassed within the continuation phrase is the cadence.
The Presentation Phrase
The presentation phrase normally establishes the tonic, or the home key. It states a basic idea. After the basic idea is stated, it is normally repeated using any of the different types of repetition discussed in chapter 1.
After the presentation phrase, we follow up the sentence with a continuation phrase. The continuation phrase can have the same types of repetition as the presentation phrase, but it also has some other unique characteristics. These are: Harmonic Acceleration, Fragmentation, Liquidation and a Cadential Idea.
Harmonic acceleration is shortening the time between changes in harmony. If the presentation phrase has one chord per bar, then the continuation phrase probably will have two chords per bar.
Fragmentation is breaking up the basic idea into smaller fragments, usually one of the unique motives. It’s also very common to use this as the model for “model-sequence” repetition.
Liquidation is “stripping away” the uniqueness of the melody and simplifying it.
This is fundamentally how you end your theme with a cadence (or resolution). I will not go into cadences, because they are covered in the beginner’s course. If you haven’t signed up for the beginner’s course I recommend you do so now. Much of these early chapters will become easier to understand, and it will be vital for comprehending later chapters.
The period is similar to the sentence, but is more balanced. Like the sentence, the period is eight bars, divided into two four-bar phrases.
The antecedent consists of a basic idea, followed by a contrasting idea. The contrasting idea is constructed just like any other basic idea. The bottom line criteria for a contrasting idea is that it must not be the same as the initial basic idea.
The antecedent phrase ends with a weak cadence. This tends to normally be a half-cadence, but could also be an imperfect authentic cadence, as long as the final cadence is a perfect authentic cadence.
The consequent offers a rounded, symmetrical ending to the period. This symmetry is found through an exact repetition of the basic idea. The first two bars repeat exactly (usually there is no change, or just ornamental change in the melody as well). The next two bars move into a cadential idea. This final cadence must be stronger than the previous cadence, at the end of the antecedent.
The small ternary form is a three part theme. It is commonly written as A-B-A’, and has three formal functions.
- Exposition (A)
- Contrasting Middle (B)
- Recapitulation (A’)
This mirrors sonata form, but has some significant differences.
The exposition in small ternary form is normally made up of a sentence or period. Typically, these two theme types appear in their basic form, or a hybrid form (next chapter). When they are eight bars, and contain all of their basic formal functions they are known as tight-knit themes (See chapter 4).
The Contrasting Middle
The contrasting middle section in small ternary form gets its contrast mostly by harmonic means. The harmonic goal for the contrasting middle section is almost always dominant harmony (V). This could be through a half-cadence in the home key, or an authentic cadence in dominant. The contrasting middle has a few different characteristics from the exposition as well:
Tends to be much looser in organization Creates instability (mostly harmonic instability) Frequently changes texture
The recapitulation is the final part of the small ternary form. It is called the recapitulation because it brings back the material from the exposition. It also commonly gets rid of redundant material, like repetitions of basic ideas, or contrasting ideas.
You can just as easily expand it with the devices mentioned earlier, as well as adding a codetta, which is like adding multiple cadences after each other, helping to dissipate the tension built up during the phrase.
Before I get into the specifics of the small binary, I want to take a moment and talk about some confusing terminology. You may have heard the term rounded binary form and thought that it sounds a lot like the small ternary. That’s because technically… it pretty much is. But the reason I like the term small ternary, is because you can easily see the recapitulation as a third part, instead of a continuation of the second part that is being repeated.
Rounded Binary Form vs Small Ternary Form
A small ternary form can be called rounded binary form. Because the exposition repeats itself, and then the contrasting middle and recapitulation repeat together.
Small binary has one small difference. Sometimes, the original theme is not brought back directly in the recapitulation section. This would mean that it is not accomplishing the formal function of recapitulation which requires a restatement of the basic idea in tonic. If you don’t bring back the basic idea, you cannot definitively say there are three parts (or that there is a ternary form). Because of this, we really can’t call it recapitulation at all. So this creates the need for the distinction between small ternary and small binary.
The small binary form can be split up into two parts. Hence – the name binary. It is most frequently found as 16 measures, with both parts being made up of 8 bar themes. Because its functions are not quite as distinct as the small ternary form, we just label the two parts, first part and second part.
The First Part
The first part is normally a typical 8 bar theme, like the sentence or period. It can also end in any cadence, although half-cadences and perfect authentic cadences are the most common.
The Second Part
The second part of the small binary form is also usually a typical 8 bar theme. It can present a new musical idea, just as in the contrasting middle section of ternary form. Frequently, it keeps the melodic-motivic characteristics of the first part. To truly distinguish itself as a binary form, it must not have the formal function of recapitulation. The small binary satisfies this because it does not restate the basic idea in tonic. Note that this is different from just keeping melodic-motivic characteristics.
You can see why there are debates about the terminology here. It can get confusing and ultimately is not that important. What you need to take away from this is how to use it for yourself.
3: Thematic Hybrids
I am going to go over a few other things before we get onto the main section of the book. One important concept is the idea of theme hybrids. You see (similar to so much else in the real world and life) not all themes that have been composed fit nicely or easily into “a category”. The sentence and period, while they explain a lot, don’t explain everything. Themes fall into three main categories.
Main Theme Types
The main theme types are the sentence, period, small ternary and small binary. These four theme types, in their normal form are what we call “tight-knit”. This just means they give a beginning, middle, and end, in a succinct, relatively straightforward fashion.
Each one of these themes can be used as the “main theme” in a sonata form movement, and have special but obvious characteristics that make them useful for other parts of a sonata as well.
The great thing about the main theme types is they are so common you can develop a lot of your initial composition skills by just learning to use and perfect these themes.
Hybrid and Compound Theme Types
Hybrid themes are a mixture of the main theme types. There are four hybrids, and two compound theme types. We’ll get into those in just a little bit. Like the main theme types, these are frequently found as the main theme to sonata form movements, but they give you other options for composing. And as I stated earlier, composing is all about knowing your options. If you know your main theme types, particularly the sentence and period, you may pick these up quickly. Just remember, the point of the themes is to put across the formal functions of beginning, middle and end. Not all mixtures can do this, and that is why there are only four hybrids.
Example 3.1 – Hybrid Theme 1: Antecedent + Continuation
In hybrid theme 1, the antecedent is like any other normal antecedent. It starts with a basic idea, and is followed by a contrasting idea. But instead of leading to a consequent, it is followed directly with a continuation phrase. The key here, is that you do not need to repeat the basic idea again, like in a consequent. The continuation phrase has enough forward movement to push through and give the medial and ending functions.
(Basic Idea + Contrasting Idea + Weak Cadence) + (Continuation + Cadence)
Example 3.2 – Hybrid Theme 2: Antecedent + Cadential
This differs from Hybrid Theme 1, because instead of leading to a continuation phrase, which has fragmentation, and an increase in harmonic rhythm, it instead has an extended cadential progression.
(Basic Idea + Contrasting Idea + Weak Cadence) + (Expanded Cadential Progression)
Example 3.3 – Hybrid Theme 3: Compound Basic Idea + Continuation
The only difference between this theme and hybrid theme 1 is the lack of a weak cadence at the end of the first phrase. If it had a weak cadence, it would be considered an antecedent, but without it, it’s as if you are just putting together two different basic ideas. This has sufficient weight to have a “beginning” function, and so works as a theme.
(Basic Idea + Contrasting Idea (no weak cadence)) + (Continuation + Cadential)
Example 3.4 – Hybrid Theme 4: Compound Basic Idea + Consequent
This is almost exactly like a period, minus the weak cadence in the antecedent phrase. That is why, once again, we call it a compound basic idea instead of an antecedent.
(Basic Idea + Contrasting Idea (no weak cadence)) + (Consequent)
Compound themes are basically long versions of the regular period and sentence. There is a 16 measure period, which consists of an 8 measure antecedent and an 8 measure consequent. There is also a 16 measure sentence that consists of an 8 measure presentation and an 8 measure continuation. But they have differing versions within those 8 measure phrases.
16 Measure Period
The antecedent of the 16 measure period is usually built like a sentence or hybrids 3 and 1. Normally there is a presentation phrase + continuation phrase, or compound basic idea + continuation phrase, or antecedent + continuation phrase. The thing that makes this an antecedent is that it has the first eight bars end in a weak cadence. This means normally it would end in a half cadence although, it could also end in a imperfect authentic cadence.
The consequent phrase is built the same way as the antecedent phrase, except with a stronger cadence at the end, normally a perfect authentic cadence.
Using standard 8 measure periods to build a 16 measure period is usually avoided. You could try it out if you want… just remember… you’ve been warned.
16 Measure Sentence
The sixteen measure sentence, isn’t quite built the same way as the 16 measure period, with smaller phrases as building blocks. Instead, it has a more expanded feel, like you are just taking a normal sentence, and adding extra bars in between the original basic idea, repetition, and so on.
You start with a compound basic idea, immediately repeat it (this could be exact, statement-response, or sequential) and then follow it up with an 8 measure continuation phrase, usually with extensive fragmentation and an expanded cadence.
You can play around with it a little by compressing the continuation using fewer bars, but for the most part that’s all there is to the 16 measure sentence.
Using the Hybrid and Compound Themes
These themes are used in exactly the same way as the simpler main theme types, the sentence and the period.
What they offer, once again, are choices and a little more ambiguity in your composition. Is it a sentence? Is it a period? This is the kind of ambiguity you may be looking for. The important thing is that you internalize the forms and make them a part of your kit bag to use when the moment strikes.
4: Loosening Techniques
Before we get into the sonata form, I have to talk about loosening your themes. The tight-knit themes, period, sentence, small ternary, small binary, hybrids, and compound themes, all share something in common. They use economy of means to convey the formal functions of beginning, middle and end. They do this very well. But sometimes, you as the composer may creatively want to make things a little less clear and concise. You want to extend the tension, or add more material to help build up energy. Or maybe you want to shorten a phrase, “get to the point”, and even obscure the actual function of a phrase so it may convey beginning and middle at the same time.
This, as you hopefully have guessed by now, is also something that can be practiced using specific techniques. These techniques are:
- Asymmetrical grouping
- Functional redundancy
- Harmonic Instability
If you think of your experiences with anything that is an extension, it is a supplementary addition to something that is complete within itself. Adding an extension to a house, is adding a new room, not making a current room wider.
The same goes for extension in music. If you have a contrasting idea that moves to a half cadence in the second measure, you could continue the dominant harmony for another bar, possibly repeating the entire bar. That function of the contrasting idea is complete, but you just extend it a little by adding on some more material at the end.
Example 4.1 – Extension ￼
Another common way to extend is through sequencing. This will become important for our transition and development stages of the sonata.
Example 4.2 – Sequencing (Extension) ￼
Expansion on the other hand happens prior to the function being fulfilled. For instance, one of the most common is: the expanded cadential progression. Here, you could have a cadence complete within two measures: in the first measure, ii6 to V7, and the second measure, back to I. But instead, to expand the cadence, you make ii6 last for a measure, V7 last for a measure, and I last for a measure. This helps to build more energy and tension. This works on any of the functional units.
Example 4.3 – Expansion ￼
Compression is the opposition of expansion. Where something might take two bars to write, try writing it in one. This has a great destabilizing effect, which becomes important in subordinate themes.
Example 4.4 – Compression
Interpolation is inserting unrelated material between two functional units. A good example of this is the literary use of a non-sequitur, or musically such as adding in a new or different “basic idea” unrelated to the previous or following music it is inserted between.
Example 4.5 – Interpolation
Fusion is most commonly seen in the continuation→cadential function, found in sentences. This is basically where you have fragmentation within a cadential progression that lasts for four measures.
Example 4.6 – Fusion
Once again, as a matter of practice, you should experiment with fusion of different formal functions. Anything that has a formal function of a “beginning”, try fusing with the middle function. And the same goes for “middle” and “end”.
When you master the first five loosening techniques, you will have asymmetrical grouping in the bag. All this means is that you may have in a period, a three measure basic idea, followed by a two measure contrasting idea. This would then carry over into the consequent, once again having a three measure basic idea.
This is a relatively easy loosening technique. You basically just repeat an idea, or phrase. For instance, you may have a basic idea, then a repetition of that basic idea in ii6, and then another repetition of that basic idea in V7. The presentation phrase would be complete with the repetition in ii6, but the added V7 repetition just adds a little redundancy and lengthens the presentation phrase.
Adding chromaticism always increases tension, and can be used to loosen simpler themes.
Take an old sentence or period that you have composed and use some of the loosening devices listed above. Write a sentence with an extended cadential section.
5: Overview of Sonata Form
Finally, we have arrived! Sonata form! What is it? What is this mysterious thing we’ve heard so much about?
The sonata form, or the sonata-allegro form as it is commonly called, is a single movement form, normally found at the beginning of instrumental works from about 1750 through to today.
You may hear in certain circles, that the form is outdated, and that we shouldn’t try to compose like Mozart, or Beethoven… or Mahler, Strauss, Prokofiev, Haydn, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms…. well, I think you get the point. There is nothing wrong or bad with composing in a classical style or using classical or even earlier forms. But there is currently the idea with some that “you have to be innovative or else you’re just copying.” This was the same attitude and belief that J.S. Bach had to go against to continue composing as he did in his lifetime. Most people during Bach’s own time period seemed to suggest (some stated outright) J.S. Bach’s music was outdated and old fashioned. He didn’t care. It is what he thought he needed to compose, so he did… and well, what more need be said?…
“I want nothing better, more flexible or more complete than the sonata form, which contains everything necessary for my structural purposes.”
But, I digress. Let’s get on with it.
Sonata form, much like many of the other things we’ve talked about follows a scheme of beginning, middle, and end. There are also two additions to this, before-the-beginning, and after-the end. So let’s look at the scheme.
Table 5.1 Sonata Form Formal Functions
Ah, if only it were that simple. The point of sonata form, if form can have a point, is it gives you a sort of musical narrative. You take a journey. This journey starts at home (slow introduction and main theme) goes through foreign lands (subordinate theme) encounters weird and interesting people (development) but ultimately, you end up back home, changed by your journey (recapitulation).
One of the primary features of sonata form is its treatment of tonality. On a primary level, it is a juxtaposition of two competing key areas, a primary key and a subordinate key.
The primary key is confirmed in the main theme through a cadence, but not necessarily a perfect authentic cadence. It can be confirmed by a imperfect authentic cadence, or even a half-cadence.
The subordinate key is confirmed in the subordinate theme or theme-group, always through a perfect authentic cadence, to give it the weight necessary to vie for supremacy over the primary key.
After this, you have several development keys that can be explored in the development section, with one being the main development key.
Depending on whether you are in major or minor, you have the choice of several different main development keys (this is the “norm”, in reality, you can move to whatever development key you want).
Most Common Development Keys
- vi (Submediant minor)
- iii (Mediant minor)
- ii (Super-tonic minor)
- ♭VI (Submediant major)*
- ♭III (Mediant major)*
- v (Dominant minor)*
- ♭VI (Submediant major)
- ♭III (Mediant major)
- v (Dominant minor)
Ultimately, you end up back at the original primary key in the recapitulation, and instead of modulating to the subordinate key in the subordinate theme, the subordinate theme stays in the primary key.
You end with a coda, which allows you to add some more material after the subordinate theme.
Each section can be further sub-divided into smaller and smaller sections all the way down to ideas.
The slow introduction is placed just before the main theme, and is normally harmonically based, meaning it does not have characteristic melodies. The point of the slow introduction is to prepare for the main theme, possibly by building tension, or ambiguity. The introduction is also a great place to hint at some of the unusual things that may be coming down the road in your movement, so I like to compose the introduction last. That is why it is the last chapter of this book.
The exposition is the structural beginning of your movement. This is where you introduce your main theme, transition through to the subordinate theme, and then prepare for the development.
The main theme is the first theme in your piece. It is normally a tight-knit theme, and most importantly, establishes tonic.
The transition is there to destabilize the tonic harmony that is established in the main theme. It effectively leads us to the subordinate theme, and sets us up for the subordinate key.
The subordinate theme normally contrasts with the main theme. It is a looser theme, meaning that it not built in a tight-knit fashion. The primary purpose of the subordinate theme is to confirm the subordinate key with a perfect authentic cadence.
The exposition is normally ended with several codettas, which normally circle around the harmony that was confirmed in the cadence. The final codetta frequently is considered a retransition because it leads back to the tonic key, usually to the dominant chord. The entire exposition is then repeated.
The development is the middle section of the sonata form. This section tends to be much looser than the exposition. The development, instead of focusing on one subordinate key, moves into several development keys. There is normally one primary development key, and several secondary development keys. Beyond this, there are usually many different tonicizations of different tonal regions that are not confirmed by cadence.
The development moves through something called the pre-core and core areas, having significant fragmentation and changes of key, ultimately leading to the dominant of the primary key, in preparation for the recapitulation.
The pre-core is sort of an introduction to the core. It sets up the heightened emotional material and fragmentation of the core. The pre-core can take many shapes, but we are going to focus on the pre-core as a transition to the core. It can start in the subordinate key, and modulate to the development key, or it can start off directly in the next development key.
The core is where most of the modulation and tonal upset occurs. It is set up with a large model, usually a theme-like unit (which does not require a cadence), and then subsequently is fragmented to smaller and smaller units as you modulate, normally ending up on the dominant harmony of the primary key. It is normally followed with extensive standing on the dominant, where you write material that focuses on the dominant harmony.
While the pre-core/core technique is not the only way to write a development section, it is a very common way, and very useful for bringing in a lot of tension and drama into your music. Just remember that you have a lot of freedom when you compose, and most of the time the plan that you start with ends up getting changed along the way, sometimes significantly. The key is start with a plan and don’t get wrapped around the “axel” if you change it.
The recapitulation is the formal end to your sonata form movement. It brings back the material from the exposition, but normally with modification, particularly in dynamics, and feel. Just as in small ternary form, the recapitulation tends to eliminate redundant material. It also allows you to develop earlier material that may not have been developed.
Most changes are ornamental, but you can also have major structural changes, by changing tonal organization and melodic material.
The main theme is brought back, but this time to show that we have returned. Its main goal is to resolve the dominant that we ended the development with.
Because of this, the main theme may see deletion of thematic material, like repetitions of basic ideas or cadences. There may also be model-sequence technique used to prepare for the transition to the subordinate theme.
The transition is there to destabilize the main theme again, but this time to make the subordinate theme sound new in the primary key. Remember in the exposition, the transition moves us towards the subordinate key. This time, the transition has to keep us in the primary key.
The main change to the subordinate theme is being in the primary key, rather than the subordinate key. It’s also common to expand the cadential section giving it more energy.
The coda is an after-the-end functional unit that a composer places where needed to deal with compositional issues that were not fully developed or dealt with, like undeveloped themes in the exposition or development. The coda is optional, but found in many sonatas.
Using a Model
This may all seem a bit theoretical right now, which it is. But we are going to do something very helpful. We are going to use a model to compose. We are going to use Beethoven’s first piano sonata, Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Opus 2. This is probably one of the most frequently cited pieces of music, because of its easy to understand main theme. But we are going to take it a step further, using it as a model to compose our entire sonata form movement.
If it helps, look at this bit of music that you are about to write as a “student piece”. You are learning the aspects of sonata form and compositional technique. Don’t be afraid to learn from the masters. Trust me, they have done the same things you are doing right now.
It also helps to not get tied up with the theoretical side of things too much. Sometimes, you may disagree with a statement, because it doesn’t match up with recent changes in the world of music theory. We are not concerned about that right now. What we are concerned with is using theory to help us accomplish compositional goals. As long as the end product is satisfactory, then the theory is good enough.
Go to the website to listen to Sonata No. 1 by Beethoven. Become familiar with it. Learn how the different sections sound. It will help your composing. Appendix 2 has an annotated version of the score.
Finally, remember this is just one model. There are many variations on sonata form, and you can look at Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Mahler or anyone else you admire for other ways of cracking this nut. If anything, sonata form is about exploring your capabilities as a composer, and nothing more.
Now is a good time to print off Appendix 1, which are the worksheets you will need and use to compose.