There is certainly a lot going on in New York City in terms of music and culture; avant-garde compositions, inspiring art parties, all night raves, fashion shows on the L train, “hot” bands, multi-media collaborations and what have you.
I’m aware of the energy constantly pulsing throughout the city, and have been known to partake in the activities listed above. More often however, I find myself at home, curled up with a copy of James Hepokoski (Yale University) and Warren Darcy’s (Oberlin College Conservatory) Elements of Sonata Theory, The Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata: Norms, Types and Deformations.
I was studying piano performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music on 9/11 and on the morning of September 12, 2001, when we were all still in shock over the devastating events of the day before, I went to my class with Professor Warren Darcy. The faculty was unsure how to proceed on that day, and I’m sure Prof. Darcy put a great deal of thought into what course he would take. He stood at the front of the room and asked rhetorically, “What else should we do but study the Two-Part Exposition?”
It was a great relief to open our scores and still find the primary theme zone, the transition zone, the secondary theme zone and the closing zone all there, just as they were two days before. The rest of the world was collapsing (or so it felt), but the pillars of Common-Practice-Period harmony stood straight and tall. It was a highly therapeutic intellectual activity, and although I was just an average student in his class, Prof. Darcy gave me something that has stayed for years.
Which is why I want to tell you: the analysis of Sonata form is a wonderfully satisfying venture! Listening to the Haydn Piano Sonatas or Mozart String Quartets is pleasant enough, even without theoretical knowledge. I imagine it must be similar to eating at Nobu having never had high-end Japanese food: wouldn’t you still think, “that’s some good sushi!”? There is another level of appreciation, however, when you know the forms and can see the innovation, complexity, derivations and even witticisms that lay out before you.
These formulaic compositions are strict to conventions while also leaving plenty of room for the composer’s flair. It’s hard to say what’s more exhilarating: knowing how Mozart will most likely set up the medial caesura and end his primary theme zone, or, the thrill when he blocks the medial caesura with a de-energizing transition, like in the first movement of his Symphony No. 36 K.425 (“Linz”).
The Primary Theme Zone is a particularly favorite area of mine: the seed, the germ, the Hauptgedanke, the origin of all ideas for the entire work. Although the Sonata itself will take us on a wild adventure, it all starts with the character of those first few notes, and how they are carefully crafted into a phrase.
Did you know that according to classical music theorists there are several types of musical phrases? There is a sentence, a macro and micro and compound sentence, a parallel period and a sequential period!
Let me tell you about the sentence because there is a very good and famous example that doesn’t require recollection of themes from the Classical Era:
Happy Birthday is the textbook 8-bar example of the sentence. It begins with a presentation (which includes two statements of the bi – basic idea), and it is here that we experience the tonic prolongational progression (- in Happy Birthday the chord progression is I-V-V-I). The second half of the sentence is called the continuation, which includes fragmentation and finally the cadence. Below is a schematic from Darcy and Hepokoski with my added Happy Birthday analysis.
Happy Birthday to You, Happy Birthday to You / Happy Birthday Dear Somebody, Happy Birthday to You.
4 bars 4 bars
Presentation + Continuation
2 bars 2bars 2bars 2bars
bi + bi frag + cad
(no cadence) Perfect Authentic Cadence
The Christy and Emily song “Nightingale”, from our record Superstition is also sentence phrase.
A period is a binary phrase structure as well. It differs from the sentence because it has the feeling in the middle of starting over, either on the same notes (as in a parallel period) or transposed by step or leap (as in a sequential period). The theme from Beethoven’s Fur Elise is a good example of a parallel period, because it goes back up to those nah-naw-nah-naw-nah-naw-nah-nah-nawwwwh notes again the middle. You know what I’m talking about.
The choruses of the Christy and Emily songs “Superstition”, “Gueen’s Head”, “Lover’s Talk”, and “Tigers” (the “look away darling” section), all from our record Supersition, are all parallel periods. How symmetrical of us.