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Sonata Form: Bridging the Eras

Baroque music is based on compositional devices that propel the music forward, such as imitation and development of a motivic idea. It is largely contrapuntal, relying on sequences and repeated patterns of notes. The bass line often moves together with the top line as a partner. Baroque theory also encouraged the continuation of speed and style in a piece of music from its onset to its end. But towards the end of the Baroque period itself there were signs that changes were happening. From about 1740 the traditional Baroque style was being displaced in favour of a melody line supported by accompaniments based on chords, making the music easier to listen to.

Keyboard music became more homophonic (one line) instead of imitative (hearing the same idea repeated) or polyphonic (multiple lines). It also introduced deliberate contrast - scalic passages alternate with chords; loud and soft passages alternate. The texture of the piece (its density) changed throughout the music.

One of the formal structures that composers of keyboard music developed to incorporate these changes was the sonata form, which they applied to movements of music.

Sonata form consists of three broad sections - exposition, development and recapitulation. The exposition had a main melody called the first subject, and this was usually more rhythmic in nature, with more drive to engage the listener from the beginning. As a balance to this, there was also a second subject, which tended to be a more lyrical melody, in a different key. The end of the exposition would be signalled by a codetta, a short little ending section, and there were usually transitional passages in between the three sections (1st subject - transition - 2nd subject - transition - codetta). In the development sections, earlier material would be presented in different guises - either by using specific rhythms, or the same themes in different keys - while the recapitulation was largely similar to the exposition.

Sonata form allowed the bridging of the contrapuntal and imitative Baroque styles to exist with what would be recognised as the classical style. The expositions and recapitulations were homophonic in nature, while the imitative style of the Baroque were used in the development sections. In keyboard music, the structure would continue to dominate the piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven, before Beethoven himself, in his late piano sonatas, would experiment with formal structures in a bid to reduce them of the predictability and limitations of expression brought about by familiarity with sonata form, and in order to achieve heightened expressive emotion.

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