The word "sonata" comes from the Latin verb, sonare, "to sound." Originally, the word "sonata" was used as a general term for instrumental works, as opposed to a "contata", which was for voices. This has long since evolved and become something much more complex and interesting, which we will be exploring in this month's blog post.
A sonata is simply a piece, with 2-4 movements in related keys, each with their own unique style or characteristics. When that form is used for a solo instrument, like a piano, a cello, or a clarinet (or a solo instrument with piano accompaniment), the piece is called a sonata. When that same form is used for three instruments (i.e., a violin, a viola, and cello), it is now a trio. If you have four instruments playing together, you have a quartet, and so on. If you have a full orchestra playing in that form, you have a symphony.
Sonatas can have 2-4 movements. You may have noticed in music programs that movements are indicated with numbers and tempo markings instead of titles. You may have also noticed in performances that audiences do not clap between movements. This is because the piece is not over! The most common layout for a 3-movement sonata is:
A 4-movement sonata might have this layout (symphonies and string quartets most often use this):
When talking about the musical form, we are referring to the structure, or shape, within a piece or single movement. Sonata form is a three-part design of a movement, much like how a bridge has a strong, secure structure to hold it down on one side, a big sweeping bridge over a body of water, and another strong structure securing it to the other side. This is like Sonata Form: A-B-A, also known as the exposition, development, and recapitulation. it creates balance, stability, and contrast.
A Section. This takes place at the beginning of a piece, where the composer first states the themes of the movement. This is where the theme is exposed for the first time: the Exposition.
B Section. The development is where some of the themes from the A section are developed and explored. The development will usually move to a related key signature, and may feel unconventional or unstable in many respects.
A Section. Finally, we come back to a restatement of the A section. It might be presented slightly differently, or a little shorter. Overall, you'll recognize the same familiar themes from the beginning of the piece and might not notice any changes at all at first listen!
You can find sonata form in all sorts of music, not just a traditional sonata or Symphony. Many other forms exist in music, as well! Rondo, theme and variations, binary, and ternary, to name a few. Feel free to read about these on your own, or look for the topic in future blog posts.
“I’d like you to perform your music from memory.” Oftentimes, these words tend to trigger anxiety and weeks of stress to music students of all ages and abilities. In this post, we'll dig into a brief history of memorization, and ways to make this challenge easier and more fun.
What is memorization in music?
Memorization in music simply means being able to play a piece without looking at the music.
Who needs to memorize music?
Generally, all musicians playing as a soloist will perform from memory. If a musician is playing with an accompanist (i.e. vocalist, violinist, clarinetist, etc.), the soloist will typically have their music memorized, but the accompanist will not. If an individual is playing in front of an orchestra - like in the case of a concerto, the featured performer should have their music memorized, as well. Not everyone needs to memorize music for performance, however. Ensembles like duets, quartets, or symphony orchestras, traditionally do not memorize their music.
Why do we do this in the first place?
We didn’t always memorize music. Beginning in the Romantic Era, composers began writing “art for art’s sake”, and took more time to produce and finesse their work. This gave touring performers like Nicolo Paganini, Franz Liszt, and Clara Schumann more time with their repertoire, and established memorizing music as a customary practice. These artists changed the way music was performed.
What are the benefits of memorizing music?
I've never memorized anything. How do I do it?
There is not one fail-proof method that works for everyone. The best way to memorize your music is to spend time with it. Here are some ways to make memorizing more of a game and less of a chore:
What superstitions do you believe in? You may say you don't buy into that, but do you "casually" walk around an open ladder instead of walking underneath? If so, you're not alone. Musicians can be very superstitious, too! The Rolling Stones cannot begin a show until they've shared a shepherd’s pie. The 27 Club is a well-known curse claiming the lives of a wealth of musical giants at their prime -- like Hendrix, Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. John Lennon was followed by the number 9 from his birth to his death.
Which brings me to my next point: The Curse of the Ninth.
Compose a 9th symphony if you dare, and you will die before ever composing a 10th. This superstition dates back to the 19th Century, claiming composers like Beethoven, Mahler, Schubert, Dvorak, Bruckner, and many more to follow.
In 1827, three years after finishing his Symphony No. 9, Ludwig von Beethoven passed away one thunderous night at 56 years old. He left behind an unfinished Symphony No. 10. Franz Schubert, an Austrian composer in his late-20s, was greatly influenced by Beethoven's work and deeply affected by the composer’s death. Schubert struggled with his deteriorating health for a few years, while also flourishing with creativity. In the last weeks of his life, he began to sketch three movements for a new Symphony in D major (Symphony No. 10), better known as Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. When he died, he was only 31 years old. In 1896, Anton Bruckner was the next to follow before he was able to finish composing his 9th symphony. Antonin Dvorak died in 1904 after completing his 9th symphony.
Concerned that this was much more than coincidence, Gustav Mahler decided he wasn't about to suffer the same fate as his predecessors. After completing his 8th symphony, he wrote a piece of music, Das Lied von der Erde, that was, in essence, a symphony – but he refused to call it one. He then finished his 9th symphony, contracted pneumonia, and died in 1911 at age 51. So close!
Is The Curse of the Ninth real, or merely coincidence? You be the judge.
Why do we memorize music? Why was Mozart so important? How does a piano work? Look for answers to these questions and more in my monthly blog. Interested in learning more about something you don't see here? Let me know: Contact