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How Sonata Form Works: a Guided Tour Part One

Converse College

On this two-part series on tonality and sonata form, David Kiser gives the microphone over to Professor of Piano at Converse College, Douglas Weeks who guides us through the sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven.  In the course of this series you’ll learn about tonality and the importance of key structure. Douglas Weeks likens it to moving to different rooms of the house, where “Tonic” is the hearth, home base, the center of the house.

The podcast will be posted after the show airs on Thursday, September 22, 8 pm, Classical Stations. Below are the time stamps to key terms as they occur during the program. Can’t remember a term? Just find the exact time in the audio player below. Terms are listed in alphabetical order. Scroll down the page to find the written definitions and further explanations.


Find Part Two here

Authentic Cadence: 21:55

Cadence: 16:25, 20:10

Chord: 6:18

Chromatic: 3:58, 11:29

Diatonic: 11:15

Deceptive Cadence: 32:37

Half and whole steps: 5:14

Half Cadence: 26:50

Imperfect Cadence: 24:19

Key: 3:27, 6:14

Major scale: 4:56, 5:32

Plagal Cadence: 22:17

Perfect Cadence: 23:11

Relative major: 20:04

Scale: 4:46

Scale note position names: 8:38

Scale note position Roman numerals: 7:55

Triad: 6:43

Tonic: 7:37

Credit IMSLP
Manuscript of Waldstein Sonata by Beethoven

What is a musical scale? 

A collection of pitches arranged in order from lowest to highest or from highest to lowest.*  (4:46)

How many pitches are in our Western traditional system?  


What does diatonic mean?

Using only the seven pitches of a given major or minor scale, thus, a “diatonic scale.” (11:15)

What does chromatic mean?

Any or all of the five pitches not in a given major or minor scale; also, using all twelve pitches, as in a “chromatic scale.” (3:58, 11:29)

What is a half-step. or semi-tone?

The distance between two neighboring pitches. (5:14)

What is a whole-step, or whole-tone?

Two half-steps. (5:14)

What is the intervalic ordering of steps in an ascending major scale?

Whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. (4:56, 5:32)

What is an interval?

The distance between any two pitches in a chromatic scale.

What are the successive intervals from the first pitch of a major scale to the higher pitches in ascending order?  

Perfect unison, major second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth, major seventh, perfect octave.

Why are some intervals called major and others perfect?  

Don’t ask.

What is the difference between a major interval and a minor interval?

A minor interval contracts a major interval by one half-step.  With the lower note being C   for example, a major third, or M3, would be four half-steps, or C to E.  A minor third, or m3, would be three half-steps, or C to E-flat.    

What is a chord?

Any simultaneous combination of notes, but usually of not fewer than 3.** (6:18)

What is a triad?

A chord of three notes where in root position each note is separated from the others by the interval of a major or minor third, i.e., C-E-G: c-major triad, C-Eflat-G, root position c-minor triad.  (6:43)

What does root position mean?  

Any chord where the lowest note is the first degree of the scale the chord is based on.

What is a chord inversion?

Any chord where the first scale degree is not the lowest note.

What are the pitches of a root position C Major chord?

From lowest to highest -- C-E-G.

What are the pitches of a first inversion C Major chord?

From lowest to highest -- E-G-C.

What are the pitches of a second inversion C Major chord?

From lowest to highest -- G-C-E.

What does the term tonic mean?

In a given key, both the pitch of, and the triad built on, the 1st scale degree. (7:37)

Does the term tonic imply anything other than a given scale degree?  

Yes, it also implies the chord built on that note in a given scale.

What are the names of all seven notes in a scale?

Tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, leading tone or subtonic. (8:38)

What are the names of the chords built on the seven scale degrees in a given key?  

The same as those for the notes.

What are the Roman Numeral symbols for the seven scale degrees/chords?

I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viio. (7:55)

Why are some upper case and some lower case?

Upper case indicates a major chord, lower case indicates a minor chord, and lower case with a circle indicates a fully diminished chord comprised of two minor thirds.   

What is key?

A system of tones and harmonies generated from a hierarchical scale of seven tones based on a tonic, e.g., “the key of G major.”  (3:27, 6:14)

What is tonality?

The organized relationships of tones with reference to a definite center, the tonic, and generally to a community of pitch classes, called a scale, of which the tonic is the principal tone; sometimes synonymous with key.* (3:20, 6:01)

What is the most closely related chord to the tonic?

The dominant.

What is the second most closely related chord to the tonic?

The subdominant.

What are secondary dominants?

The dominants of degrees other than the tonic.* (16:33)

What is a modulation?

In tonal music, the process of changing from one key to another.* (18:55)

What is a cadence?

A progression of two closely related chords that provides a moment of closure to a greater or lesser degree.   In general, a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of repose or resolution.**  (16:25, 20:10)

What is an Authentic Cadence?

A progression from the dominant chord to the tonic chord. (21:55)

What is a Plagal Cadence?

A progression from the subdominant chord to the tonic chord. (22:17)

What is a Half Cadence?

A progression from the tonic chord to the dominant chord, or a cadence which comes to rest on the dominant. (26:50)

What is a Perfect cadence?

Any cadence where both chords are in root position and the highest note of the tonic chord is also the tonic pitch. (23:11)

What is an Imperfect Cadence?

Any cadence where the lowest note of the tonic chord is a pitch other than tonic. (24:19)

What is a Deceptive Cadence?

One in which the dominant is followed by a harmony other than the tonic, most often VI, but but sometimes IV or some other harmony instead.* (32:37)

What do you call a popular alcoholic drink in the home key?

Gin and tonic.

*The New Harvard Dictionary of Music.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard,             1986.

** Oxford Dictionary of Music.

Sonata Form:  A Quick Structural Guide

Sonata form is the most commonly heard form in the first movements of 18th, 19th, and, to some degree, 20th Century sonatas, symphonies, and instrumental chamber music.

Sonata form can be used in other movements of the sonata and symphony as well, but is less common.

“Textbook” Sonata Form


entirely optional

usually slow

Exposition (first show)

First subject area (33:28) in tonic                                    “A” theme

Bridge (40:10)                                                            modulation or half cadence

Second subject area in a new key            (42:20)            “B” theme(s)

Closing section in new key            (46:03)                        closing theme

Development (second show -- 14:22)

multiple keys and modulations

may contain old themes, fragments of old themes, and/or new themes

at the end, a retransition section, often including a dominant preparation (16:46),

leading directly into the . . .

Recapitulation (second show -- 19:55)

First subject area in tonic                                                “A” theme

Bridge                                                                                    modulation or half cadence

Second subject area in tonic                                    “B” theme(s)

Closing section in tonic                                                closing theme


an optional area containing hybrid and/or new material that often functions as                         a second development section

For further reading:

Rosen, Charles. Sonata Forms. rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1988.

Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. New York: Norton,             1997


First show at 17:45: I should have said that the old vi is the new I -- the old submediant is the new tonic, not “the old V is the new I -- the old dominant is the new tonic.”

First show at 26:33: the cadence here is actually a hybrid.  The chord progression in the right hand is F Major to C Major, which is a plagal cadence, but the bass line moves from G to C, strongly implying an authentic cadence.  Regardless, whether heard as plagal or authentic, it remains a perfect cadence.

Second show at 14:50: his or her

Second show at 43:00: This excerpt is from Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3, and not from his Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No 3.

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