Sonata Form and Sanctification

I've been thinking a lot about the past and present state of classical music--what kind of music was composed in the past, and how does it compare to music being composed right now? Generally, I have noticed a trend away from organization toward the chaotic. If you compare modern-day compositions with those from the 17th-19th centuries, the two most striking differences are harmonic and organizational. Compositions of the past are built on harmonies and melodies that the ear can relatively easily distinguish and understand: if you listen to a Mozart piano sonata, you can hear a clearly defined melody; you can follow that melody through its development; and you can tell when it comes back throughout the piece.

In general, the music composed today is very free. Composers choose whatever structural or harmonic language appeals to them. In one sense, this has led to a greater degree of freedom and exploration in music. Anything goes. Composers feel free to create the music they want to create without constriction. Many people in the music world today feel as if traditional musical boundaries are negative, restricting creative flow and the composer's individual voice. One thing is for certain: the style and nature of music has drastically changed, and most of what is being created today sounds nothing like what was created 200-300 years ago.

The main structural musical principal of Classical period music (which started in a simpler form in the Baroque period and still served as a defining principle of Romantic era compositions as well) is sonata form. If you have taken a music history class or read anything about music history, you know how important this term is to classical music. I have heard sonata form explained very badly, as if it were something very complicated--it's really not. Explaining a little bit about it will allow me to show you later in this post how sonata form mirrors a Judeo-Christian worldview.

So, what is sonata form? Let's start with an example of a character in a story. In the first chapter of the book, you meet the main character and become acquainted with his personality. You have a strong idea of who he is and what he is about. You also meet a secondary character, who helps clarify the main character's personality by contrasting with him/her. The next part of the book transitions into the action. Conflict arises in the main character's life, and the secondary character is part of this conflict. Both characters go through conflict, and therefore character development (a great literary term). The conflict takes up the largest section of the book, as it should in any good story. In the last chapters of the book, things begin to come to a close. The book concludes with a strong sense that the main character has been through something and learned from that experience--he is still the same person, but something about him has changed.

This model for any good story is sonata form. In Section 1, called the exposition, the composer presents a musical theme (a melody or gesture that forms the basis of the piece). (There is very often an introduction that prepares you to hear the rest of the piece.) The main theme leads to the secondary theme, which is another important statement that either contrasts with or adds to the main theme. After the exposition, a transition to the development occurs. The exposition always ends in a transitional key, like V or III. You don't hear a strong sense of closure, because the piece is just beginning to tell a story. The development (Section 2) is the longest part of the sonata, because it is here that the composer can play around with his two themes, changing the key, the rhythm, the harmony, etc. Developments end with a transition back to the material of the exposition (Section 3, the recapitulation)--but now that material is very strongly stated in the tonic key. Both themes are restated and a strong closure occurs.

In sonata form, you know exactly when the piece begins, when it develops, and when it ends. There may be moments of chaos and uncertainty in the development, but the return to the recapitulation gives a strong sense of certainty and closure--now you know where the composer has been leading you all along.

To me, this is a metaphor for how a Christian views life. Each person is a unique, individual being made in the image of God with a life to live and a story to go through. This story isn't random--God had the whole story planned out before time began; He is the Composer of your life. Your unique self is the exposition, a description of who you are as a person. The secondary theme is someone close to you, another side of your personality, or some opposite or different facet of who you are. None of this material is accidental--the Composer wrote exactly what He wanted to write. Your life goes through a constant series of transitions and developments. You can look at your life story, from birth to death, as a constant development, or at certain defining moments as the development. Either way, you are brought through conflict, what may seem to be chaos; sometimes you don't have a strong sense of where you are and why things are happening. The harmony is discordant and you almost forget that you once started out in the tonic key, with a strong sense of purpose and knowing who you are. Your development may be short or long. Only the Composer knows. We don't get to decide how long we develop. But one thing we can count on: we will return to the recapitulation. There is a constant plan to bring us back to tonic and give us a strong sense of closure.

As surely as we will go through the development stage, we will arrive at the recapitulation. We will find that we have been through challenges, but we will come back home and know for certain who we are. However, we are not the same. We have somehow been changed. "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed" (1 Cor 15:51 NIV).

Sonata form mirrors the process of sanctification in the Christian life. Sanctification is the process of being made holy. It is something that God does in you, from the moment of salvation until you see him face-to-face. It is not something that we are responsible to do in ourselves. Like everything in the Christian life, it is a work from God, begun by God, carried out by God, and finished by God. You are just the main theme in the sonata--you are not the composer.

God is the Composer. The sonata of your life is carefully planned out, even the moments in the development that are chaotic and difficult to understand. In sonata developments, composers often put the themes through so many changes that they don't sound like the themes anymore. There are many moments where you have strayed into dissonant keys that seem like they have nothing to do with the tonic key. And this developmental section is the majority of music in any sonata. Doesn't it sometimes seem like our lives are going through long developmental stages? We don't know where we are and we don't know how things will end.

Except that in sonata form, you do know how things will end. The recapitulation will occur--it always does. No matter how long the chaos lasts, there is a firm closure in the home key. Sanctification uses the development sections of our lives to make us holy. The composer intends all along to use the development section to bring the main theme back at the end, just as God uses the trials and challenges of our lives to make us holy and bring us closer to Himself. The difficulty is that when we are in the dissonant sections of life, we are broken apart, taken to strange places, humiliated, crushed, and we don't know what the plan is to bring us back. "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Cor 4:8-9). We don't have to know the exact plan, because we can count on the fact that God composed the whole piece and didn't forget the ending. Closure is on the way, a time of rejoicing and peace where we realize we have been changed and made like Christ.

Sonata form gives a clear message of purpose and destiny. Life is not a random accident, but a purposeful journey to take you from one place to a better place. As the organizational nature of music changed, this message disappeared from music. Indeterminacy, minimalism, and free-composing are some examples of modern compositional techniques that blatantly reject the idea of purpose and meaning. If art is a reflection of the culture's view of life, we should pay attention to the forms and techniques composers are using today and what they say (or don't say) about the purpose of life and the beliefs of the culture.

Next time you listen to a classical sonata, pay attention to the development, and remember that, no matter how long it lasts, it will finally transition to the recapitulation and bring you back home.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33 NIV).

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