Organizing Sounds: Sonata Form

When working with Csound, or in the computer music genre in general, organizing the sounds and grooves we create into finished compositions can sometimes be a bit tricky, or perhaps more difficult than when working with more traditional musical material. We don’ t always, if at all, deal with melodic, harmonic or rhythmic material in the classic, Western, sense of these terms. Therefore we sometimes lack a framework, or context within which to develop our material from ideas to complete pieces. In this series of articles we will discuss various approaches to composition and form specific to the context of electronic and computer music and explore various approaches to the organization of musical data.

Whether we think or ourselves as artists, composers, sound designers or researchers, we all at some point are confronted with this issue. But working with new media, and cutting edge techniques does not mean we should forget our legacy, and the issue of form is certainly not a new one. A tried and true classic is the Sonata form, which as we shall see, can be of tremendous help.

“I alter some things, eliminate and try again until I am satisfied. Then begins the mental working out of this material in its breadth, height and depth.” — Ludwig van Beethoven

I. The Sonata Form

The word Sonata comes from the Italian suonare, ‘ to sound’ , which implied music to be ‘ sounded’ through instruments, distinct from cantata, a piece to be sung. While it is difficult to establish with certainty when the Sonata form was invented, it became very popular in the 18th century as the predominant form used in instrumental music.

A sonata consists of three sections:

1. Exposition
2. Development
3. Recapitulation

Traditionally, composers will introduce two opposing or complimentary themes in the exposition, the first theme establishes the home key and a transitional bridge leads us to the second theme, often in the dominant key.

The development tends to vary in format and length, but is used to build tension, or interest by developing the themes in the exposition along with new material. Traditionally the development begins the key the exposition ended, only to go through a number of modulations while building up melodic complexity before going onto the last part of the development: the retransition, a section often in the dominant key intended to prepare us for the next section and the return to the tonic.

The recapitulation is a modified version of the exposition, which follows a similar structure, theme 1, bridge, theme 2 and coda, but some variations are introduced to differentiate it from the exposition. The main purpose of the recapitulation is to release the tension from the development and bring a sense of closure and continuity.

Or in condensed form:

AB – C – AB’

As it turns out, the sonata form is still very much alive today, even and perhaps especially in electronic music, which tends to put less of a focus on vocals and is therefore ideally suited to the form.

II. Case Study: Digitalism

Let’ s take a listen to the track ‘ Idealistic’ by the band Digitalism released on their album Idealism on May 9th 2007. The German duo has enjoyed worldwide success and this track is fairly representative of their work.

‘Idealistic’ by Digitalism:


It is also, a perfect example of the sonata form being used in electronic music.

1. Exposition

The track opens with a strong beat, supported by a steady guitar riff and soon after an abrasive bass line is introduced (bar 9 or 0:21 into the track) which goes on until 0:59, when a keyboard riff is introduced underneath the beat at first but alone soon thereafter during the breakdown at 1:06. After being stated a few times, vocals are then brought in at 1:25 at which point the main elements of the piece have been all introduced. By the time the next section begins, at 1:50, the band starts developing them.

2. Development

The development begins with a paired down version of the first riff, adding rhythmic complexity to the drum beat and bass line riff, until after being hinted at a few times before that point, the keyboard riff comes back in full at 2:22. The two themes are played together until 2:52, when a new variation is introduced, this time it is a play between the vocals and a simplified version of the keyboard riff, which goes on until 3:05 when they stop and only the beat and the bass holding a single note come in. This is the retransition, tension is built up also by introducing shortly after a busy hi-hat pattern in the main beat until 3:20 which marks the beginning of the recapitulation.

3. Recapitulation

The recapitulation begins with much like the exposition only this time the bass line comes in before the guitars, introduced at 3:35, supported by additional sound design elements. The keyboard riff is hinted at many times as a motif that comes in at the end of the four bar phrases until the end of the track, at 4:04 where everything drops out except for the guitar riff before stopping altogether at 4:13.

III. In Closing

There is a lot of information to be found on line on the Sonata form in great detail, and while I encourage you to look it up and find out as much as you can, we’ re not too concerned with the details here, as a lot of it simply wouldn’ t apply to what we’ re doing. The basic ideas behind the Sonata form and how themes are introduced and developed however is still as relevant today than it was 300 years ago, and provides us with a solid frame of reference to structure and organize our ideas. Keep in mind that you can apply this form not only to musical themes and ideas, but also to elements of a composition such as dynamics, timbral development, rhythmic elements etc… The possibilities are literally endless.

Synthesis Fall 2010

2 thoughts on “Organizing Sounds: Sonata Form

  1. The prototype of sonata form, psychologically speaking, is Orpheus’s journey to the underworld. We start in one place, we go to a different place in which unexpected (and perhaps nightmarish) things happen, and we return at last to the point from which we began.

    My main issue with minimalism (and there’s a lot of it in the computer music community) is precisely that it fails to take the listener on a journey. Not that composers need to use sonata form in any strict sense, but we need to have the sense that we’re being taken somewhere, that we’re being told a story, that new vistas will unfold and discoveries become available to us. Or that there is a tension at some point that is later resolved, which is another way of saying the same thing.

    But then, I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy. I like Beethoven and Brahms.