Don’t Scoff at Sonata Form: the Human Structure of Song and Narrative

By Julie Wu

Ever been to a live performance of a Beethoven symphony?  What happened when it ended?  Did the audience A) Look around at each other, scratching their heads and wondering whether the piece was over, B) Fling their programs at the stage, demanding their money back and yelling, “I can’t believe I listened to that whole thing and it just petered out at the end and made no sense at all”, or C) Burst immediately into applause, even if they hate classical music and can’t wait to get to the rest room.

I’m going to guess you answered C.

Why is that?  Why is it that when you listen to a piece by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Haydn, even if you know little or nothing about music or music theory, you can tell when the ending is coming, and you feel, when the piece is over, that it is complete?

I’ll tell you why—these composers used predetermined structures.  They used structures a bit more complicated than the structures used by popular songwriters, but based on the same principles.  For those of you who have ever read a novel only to find yourself examining the binding to see whether the final pages are missing, as well as those of you who have ever struggled with writing an ending yourself, revising it endlessly, why not see what musical form has to teach us?

In the simplest song (folk, pop), there’s a verse (A) and a refrain, or chorus (B).  In pop music, there’s often a bridge of new music (C) preceding the final chorus to give it an air of finality.  This video explains principles of simple song structure and gives a few popular examples:



Some popular songs are slightly more complicated, but still adhere to the basic structure, as in Fun.’s We Are Young.  In the written comments accompanying the following YouTube video, Fabio Owada analyzes its structure as AABCCACCDECCB, where A and D are verses, C is the chorus (“Tonight, we are young/So let’s set the world on fire . . . “) and B (“So if by the time the bar closes. . .”) and E are bridges.  I include his performance because he’s just so adorable and we’re using his analysis (for those of you in a hurry, his singing starts around 0:48.  His structural analysis is visible if you hit the link to the YouTube site):




In classical music, many different forms have been used, but a very common form, used in nearly every symphony in the Classical and Romantic periods, was the sonata form, in which there’s an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation—AABA, the same structure as that of many simple songs.  Even the basic relationship between the keys of the different sections is predetermined.  The form plays on the ear’s natural settling on the key established in the exposition (the home key), on the excitement of exploring different keys (the dominant and other keys) in the development, and the anticipation of returning to the home key, which is paid off also in the reiteration of the initial melodies.  If you are like most people, you probably don’t know this intellectually; you simply feel it.  At the recapitulation you feel a sense of arrival and relief, which is often extended into a coda.  Here’s a video in which the sections of Beethoven’s fifth symphony are color-coded:



At the end of a movement in sonata form, no musician turns the pages looking for more, and no audience member wonders if that’s the end.  Yes, it’s a formula.  And it works.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the sonata form resembles what writers, especially screenwriters, call the hero’s journey, described by Joseph Campbell and interpreted by Christopher Vogel (A Writer’s Journey) for those of us who are too fidgety to page through Hero with a Thousand Faces. The hero’s journey in general starts with the hero at home, develops with a journey into another world, comes to a confrontational climax, and ends with a homecoming.  The farther afield the journey, the more dramatic the homecoming, or the more dramatic the decision is not to return home.  And by “home” I don’t mean literally a character’s home, but his place of departure.  Essential to the cohesion of both story and song is the reminder of one’s origins in the form of repetition, through the development and especially at the end.  Basic story structure is also basic human nature, which is reflected in our expectations of both narrative and music.  I would argue that this overall structure is actually more “organic” than letting your melodies, or your characters, wander all over the place until you run out of ideas.

To conclude, I give you the Teresa Carena Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and the Youth Orchestra of Espana playing one of my all time favorites—Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, written in sonatina form.  All of the melodies are magnificent, and wonderfully developed throughout; the heartstopping opening becomes the glue that holds the whole piece together.  Enjoy.




  1. Kathy Crowley says:

    Julie —
    How interesting. I know nothing of music theory or structure but being human (last I checked) have experienced just what you describe. Great piece! (On my feet clapping, even though I have to get to the rest room.)

  2. Julie Wu says:

    Thanks, Kathy! Glad this rings true to you! (Hope you make it to the rest room.)

  3. Wow, Julie. This is such an eye opener. I never thought about this connection. Thank you so much. I do think that in this one respect fiction is actually more constraining than nonfiction.