Relative newbie here. I'm sure this discussion has taken place here before, and I've read many of the discussions that cover this more broadly (i.e. "How do you come up with your ideas?" etc.) but I'm interested specifically in various themes within a musical form.

My specific example. I decided recently that I'd like to write a cello sonata. I began mapping the piece out: the form (sonata for the first movement), rough length, what I'd like to convey, and some of the organizing and unifying structural principles. However, now it's time to construct the themes which will fit into that structure and I am absolutely stuck. There's something I'm looking for and I can sort of see it, but can't quite reach it.

So I'm curious how other composers create their thematic material. Do you mostly improvise? Do you draw out the shape of the theme first and then decide on the notes? Do you just write *something* and then revise and change it until you have a theme you want to use? 

I look forward to your responses.

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  • Inspiration first, everything else second. I have to have at least a germ of a musical idea that excites me, or I can't compose.

  • No planniing things out for me I am afraid. More the other option.

  • With me, other than the instrumentation and the approximate length, everything else gradually comes into focus as the composition process progresses.

  • You might be a bit too strict with your (planned) piece. Take it the other way around, develop a theme in a form, not extract a theme from a form. A theme can be adapted in various ways and it is the basic (one of those at least) musical ideas, a form cannot produce a theme by itself. 

    I'm not saying form is not important, I believe it is vital, but going the other way around is more natural. 

  • Thanks for your replies. I should clarify that traditionally I have written more from the inspirational approach, but time and again I've gotten bogged down in those details and come up with a disorganized mess. Even then, however, I had a terrible time coming up with my thematic material. This has been a consistent weak point!

  • Tom,

    I am with you, I like to have a clear plan when I am trying to write something a little longer. I have gotten bogged down and ended up feeling like my longer pieces were not reaching their potential. I've done a lot of research on sonata form recently so here is a cliff notes version. There is a lot more I could say than this, but hopefully this gets you started. I have a website you can check out here, where I talk a lot about composing in the classical style.

    If it helps, here is a piece I wrote using this plan (minus the coda, which I did not do). Hopefully you can generally hear the theme areas as you go.
    Piano Sonata No 1, 1st Movement by Jon Brantingham

    Sonata Form Themes

    Most themes in sonata form are built generally the same, but some are "looser" than others.

    The slow introduction tends to be more harmonically based, less melodically thematic.

    The main theme is usually a tight-knit theme, either written as a sentence, period, small-ternary (rounded binary) or small binary form. This is in tonic.

    This follows with a transition. The transition brings you to the subordinate theme (in dominant). You can either modulate, ending with an authentic cadence in dominant, leading to the subordinate theme or a half-cadence in tonic (which incidentally also ends on a dominant, but it is not tonicized).

    The subordinate theme is looser, but still usually follows the general path of the tight knit themes mentioned earlier. It just tends to have more extensions and expansions, especially in the cadential area. The theme is almost always in dominant.

    Sometimes you can have a subordinate theme group, meaning two or more subordinate themes. This gives you a lot of room for playing around with different styles and textures within the subordinate theme area.

    The development can get a little crazy, but tends to be what is called core/pre-core technique. The pre-core area tends to be "the calm before the storm," type section. This can be a new theme, or use material from a previous theme like the main theme. It is in a new development key, usually vi or iii in major or VI, III or v in minor.

    The core starts off with theme like material, usually about 8 bars long, but it can be longer, that has a lot of potential for fragmentation. It is then systematically cut down, into smaller and smaller fragments, and usually consists of a lot of sequence repetition. It normally ends with a significant standing on the dominant. This is in the dominant of the home key, so you can go back to tonic for the recapitulation.

    The recapitulation brings back the main theme, and the subordinate theme (which stays in tonic, instead of dominant). But you can have considerable differences in material, particularly because you can remove redundant material (things like repetitions of ideas). You can also add more material.

    The coda is an after-the-end type of area, where you can develop some other material from the piece that you couldn't specifically develop in the recapitulation. For instance, this could be some material from the development, which you want to further develop, or resolve. You probably want to avoid new thematic material, as this will probably make the overall feel be "unresolved."

  • Really I think a form should grow from the expression of the musical idea, not vice versa (eg: trying to shoehorn musical ideas into a pre-set form).

    While Sonata Form can still be made functional in the modern free tonal/atonal world it grew from the expression of tonality  (tonic/dominant polarity). If you are working (and there is nothing wrong with it) in a defined tonal format then yes, sonata form could be appropriate.  If not, then why choose it?

    I think form should follow function --  if you are working in atonal or free-tonal sounds, there is nothing inherent that makes sonata form grow naturally from the material. There is no dominant or tonic.   

    If you see the evolution of sonata form becoming more about structuring/managing two distinct and contrasting areas where there is tension and resolution (not necessarily traditional harmonic or melodic tonality) than sonata form -- modified to the contemporary context -- might work for you.  But there could be three "themes" or three elements.  There could be only one that gradually is modified/evolved.  Sonata form doesn't serve these so well.

    Therefore I would go with those who have said here that you should work to find the musical material first, then choose a form that feels appropriate to what you want to express -- how you want to "grow" that material.

  • Personally, I find using models from other composers to be helpful. While it doesn't seem to gel with the idea that music should be spontaneous or flow naturally, the fact is, it can be difficult to organize a work that is 5-7 minutes long, without having a pre-established plan. Whether that plan is sonata form or something else, doesn't really matter.

    Sonata form, while being rooted in the classical tradition, and traditionally focusing on the tonic/dominant polarity, still offers a great way to organize your music, just based on the way themes are built either tight-knit or loose.

    Still, I enjoy composing in the classical style, with traditional tonality. So that is where I am coming from. Even if the great majority of people think there isn't anything more to be "said" in that genre, because Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, or (name your composer) already said it, it is still enjoyable.

    The ultimate thing I get out of following forms is control. I think it is actually a valuable skill to be able to force your music into a predefined form. None the less, I do not mean to say anyone else's style is less or more than the classical style. You write what you feel you need to write. I feel I am here to write tonal music.

    Just think, someday, people may be looking at your music and saying it is some yet to be named form that it turns out everyone was subconsciously using at the beginning of the 21st century...

  • Yes -- that was what I was also trying to say "inventing the form to fit the music." 

  • I didn't mean to start a debate over whether to start with form or thematic material. I think if either approach works for someone, then that's the correct approach for that composer. What I was really hoping to hear about was how others stimulate their inspiration. Once in a while I'm fortunate enough to have something just pop in there spontaneously, but most of the time, in music, work, and in life, there are things I have to do to spark creative inspiration, particularly when it comes to the themes, which, as many of you have pointed out, is really such a prerequisite to other ingredients.

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