Is writing in sonata form like playing chess?

For students of music theory, the topic of “sonata form” is both central and daunting. The phrase “sonata form” is used to describe a kind of musical form that arose in the eighteenth century and is still in evidence today. Sonata form is arguably the most flexible, creative and widely-used form in the canon of Western art music of the last three hundred years.

Beginning students of composition naturally want to know what the rules of sonata form are: what is it that defines the form? How does a composer set about writing a piece in sonata form? The answers are nearly always frustrating. Sonata form, they are told, is less a form than a principle … or a style … or a theory; it doesn’t have hard-and-fast rules. And yet it must have rules: otherwise, it couldn’t be thought of as a form at all.

The most recent musicological book to attempt to define sonata form is Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy (Oxford University Press 2006). It is huge, compendious and brilliant. And, in answer to the frustrated student wanting to know what the “rules” of sonata form are, the authors wisely turn to the game of chess:

[…] the basic concerns of Sonata Theory are learned relatively quickly—like the moves of chess. These concerns may seem simple precisely because they are simple. […] Beyond the elementary principles of Sonata Theory, though, lies an elaborate network of possibility, nuance, flexibility, sophistication, and detail that takes patience to master. As with chess, again, one may learn the moves rapidly, but to play the game at a fully proficient level is more difficult.

(Hepokoski and Darcy 2006, p. 12)

I do not know whether either Robert Hepokoski or Warren Darcy is a keen chess player; neither of them appears in the current FIDE database of active players. But I strongly suspect at least one of them is, because the comparison is so apt. At every moment of writing a piece in sonata form, the composer is faced with a set of possible continuations; all of them adhere to the general conventions of the form, but some sound banal while others sound brilliant. And the grandmaster, contemplating which of the many legal moves on the chessboard he or she will select, is offered the same potential, the same oscillation between banality and brilliance.

Playing through a sonata form movement by Mozart is indeed much like playing through a game by Capablanca; we all know the rules, but  we can only wonder at how the results are brought about.

Why make this comparison with sonata form in particular, though? Surely any musical form: fugue, variation form, operatic aria, or whatever, has this same balance of rule-based convention and individual brilliance? Well, yes; but perhaps the connections between sonata form as a practice and chess playing go deeper. I suspect they do; but that is a topic for future posts.


Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

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