The word sonata comes from the Italian sonare, an old form of suonare, which means “to sound,” or “to play,” as in “to play an instrument.” And indeed, a sonata is always an instrumental piece. During the Baroque period, the term was applied to pieces for one, or sometimes two solo instruments, with or without keyboard accompaniment, but since about 1750 the term has most often referred to pieces either for solo piano or for piano and one other instrument.
And often, a sonata will be known by the name of that “other” instrument – so that a sonata for flute and piano, for example, will simply be called a flute sonata. The defining feature of a sonata is that it’s composed of distinct sections called “movements,” each movement different from the others in tempo and character. You might describe a symphony, concerto, or string quartet the same way, and in fact these forms could be considered sonatas for larger groups of instruments. They’re just not called sonatas.
A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.