A Reason for Repeats

To repeat or not repeat: that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to hear again that which once already sounded, or to continue onward into unknown territory with scant a sense of direction.

Many essays, chapters in books, and other various writings have been dedicated to the subject of repeating the exposition of sonata form movements. But most of these tend to use harmonic implications, the evolution and history of sonata form, or other types of musical analysis to justify why you should or should not take the repeat. Instead of following the same path, I would like to explore another reason why today, right now, you should be taking the repeat.

Sonata Form

Before we begin, we must lay out the basic idea of sonata form since not everyone studied music theory in college. For this description, I will use vast generalizations and oversimplification.

Sonata form is essentially the division of a single movement of music into three sections.


Note: Yellow and Blue make Green.

The first part, called the exposition, introduces the main musical ideas. In classical music the typical number of ideas in the exposition is two: the primary or A theme, and secondary or B theme. You could imagine these two themes as characters in a story. They could look similar in some ways, or look completely different. But in either case, their personalities would be complimentary to each other, even if they had disagreements. Each theme is distinguishable from one another, as if one character in the story has blonde hair and the other brown. This entire first section is sometimes marked with a notation indicating that it should be repeated.

The second part of sonata form is the development section. Here, the composer takes the two themes previously introduced and “plays” around with them. The themes are often broken into smaller bits, transposed to different keys, and pushed to the limit of being recognized. Imagine our two characters from the exposition running away from you into a thickly wooded area, playing and dancing as they go. As they get further from your sight, they become partially obscured by more and more trees, only allowing you brief glimpses here and there.

The final part of sonata form is the recapitulation. The A and B  themes reappear very similarly to the first time they were heard. There are typically differences in some sections of the harmony, but generally this reoccurrence is more similar than not to the exposition. This return to previously heard material is likened to seeing our characters emerge from the woods to return home. They are a little bit different as their frolicking in the forest has changed their appearance some (a bit of dirt on their shoes, a twig caught in the brunette’s hair, one of them lost their jacket, etc…) but you can easily recognize them.

A Story in Music

I was once at a conducting masterclass when the leader was asked about his opinion of repeating the exposition in sonata form. His response was that he never did. His reasoning for this was (paraphrased):

“If the music is telling a story, then each theme is a part of the story. So for the first part, theme A, a man walks out and says ’Hi, I’m the King.’ Then the second part, theme B could be “I cheated on my wife, the Queen.’ So now we’ve discovered this guy is the King, and he cheated on the Queen. If you take the repeat, then what happens in the music? You hear the A theme again, followed by the B theme. So the man then walks out again and says ‘Hi, I’m the King.’ So we’ve heard it before, and there is nothing new to discover in the story.”

When I first heard this reasoning, it made sense. But after some time, I felt that much like my description of sonata form, it was grossly over simplified in illustrating the musical depth found in an exposition, and how deeply detailed the story can and should be for a listener. Additionally it assumes that all listeners possess a high level of uniform ability to understand all of the music which was heard. This would mean mean that they all retain the complex musical information after only one hearing before continuing on to the development, which presents them with unheard music to reference what they had heard against.

The Importance of Understanding the Listener/Observer

As someone who has spent more than half my life studying and performing music, I have an understanding of it much different than its intended target: the average audience member. Research has indicated that humans have been getting smarter over the past few hundred years. But the knowledge of classical music today by the average concert goer is much less than one hundred years ago, let alone two hundred when Beethoven was still alive. As musicians, we sometimes forget that most people in the audience can’t identify a retranslation in Tchaikovksy, or that Mozart truncated a recapitulation to further develop a transitional idea he created in the middle of the development section.

Many music historians hold the belief that audiences from the 1700’s through the early 1900’s were more versed in the lingo and understanding of classical music. Many would have lesser problems understanding the gibberish at the end of the previous paragraph. But this loss of understanding and knowledge further distances audiences from the music, and does allow them to capture the full possibility of experiencing a live performance. And that peak can only be reached through a better understanding of the music.

Greater Familiarity Equals Better Understanding

If a musically untrained audience member is listening to a piece of music for the first time, and does not gain a full understanding of the characters introduced in the exposition, how are they going to be able to follow them into the woods of the development section? How will they be able to recognize them from the trees if they do not know what they look like?

The clip below demonstrates what occurs when a listener is not familiar with the sounds that are being presented to them. The first clip is of distorted spoken text which is unintelligible.

Listen to it a few times and see if you can understand what is being said. When you’ve given up, listen to the next clip. It is the first half of the the clip above, but without distortion.

Listen to the distorted clip again. You should be able to recognize half of what is said. It is still distorted, but understandable. The other half remains a unintelligible. It can only be understood by hearing the complete undistorted clip.

Now listen to the distorted clip again. It is completely comprehensible even though just seconds ago you could not decipher any information from it. 

This demonstration by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is part of an unveiling an exhibit about the brain. The complete audio is below and further explains how this works.

This example clearly shows how “your brain is always using prior information to make sense of new information coming in… once you know what the sentence is, you can go back and hear the distorted information, (and) you can apply that information, and it makes sense.”

If you were to modify the last section of the quote to its musical parallel, it could be “… once you know what the themes are, when you hear the development section, (you can) apply the themes you previously heard and it (the development section) makes sense.”

If a listener is better able to follow through the development section, then the entire movement becomes unified. And another side effect of this unification is the strengthening of the recapitulation.

Coming Home and the Importance of Understanding the Journey

Often the recapitulation is viewed as returning home, arriving back in familiar musical territory where the journey began. This arrival, while usually recognizable, can be further enhanced if a listener has a better understanding of the development section preceding it. For example, consider the following two stories and decide which one imparts the greater importance of arriving home.

Story 1:

John goes to the grocery store to get milk. He picks up Amelia on the way. At the store, there was a child dressed as a kangaroo, or something similar. While there, John wanted to rent the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but Amelia wanted to see the last Hobbit film. Amelia got her wish. They stopped off at another store because they could not find what they were looking in the store they were in. A short time later,  they arrived back home with their milk.

Story 2:

John goes to the grocery store to get some milk, popcorn, and some Pringles. On the way, he picks up his sister Amelia from a friend’s house.  She was wearing a yellow sun dress he had bought for her a few months ago. He liked this dress because he thought the color reflected her sunny personality. Although he felt she was annoying when they were younger, John appreciated the time he now spent with her.

While in the checkout line at the grocery store, they are taken hostage by a gang of inner city kangaroos. Unbeknownst to John, yellow was the color of a rival kangaroo gang in town. So it was a natural misunderstanding, but one that that fell on large furry deaf ears. As the ‘roo gang forced them outside and loaded John and Amelia into their faded blue van, three police cruisers came screeching onto the scene. A high speed chase ensued through the town ending at an abandoned amusement park. The ‘roos unceremoniously pushed John and Amelia out the side of the van door, apologizing for the mix up and sped off. The police continued in pursuit of the blue van.

John and Amelia began to look around for a phone to call a taxi. As they approached one abandoned building, they noticed there was a folded piece of paper laying on the ground. It was an old map of the amusement park. The pay phones, indicated on the map with a red x, were located on the other side of the amusement park. After walking for several minutes, they attempted to take a shortcut through one of the buildings. The squeaky door opened revealing a hall of mirrors. They attempted to navigate their way through dusty reflections but ended up stuck in the middle. Looking around for a means of escape, John noticed the floor had a funny seam. He pried it open and found a hidden passage which took them to a deep dark cavern. As they attempted to climb down the old wet wall, Amelia slipped on a rock. John reached out to grab her, but it was too late. They both tumbled down.

After a few minutes, they heard a noise rusting in the darkness. A small, dim light grew larger and larger until it illuminated the stone prison in which they were now trapped. They could see an old man in a grey robe carrying a large stick which was the source of the light. Amelia gazed upon the white bearded man in disbelief. He raised his hands upward. John felt a tingle on the back of his neck. As the old man dropped his hands down, a loud and thunderous sound reverberated through the cavern. The light flashed and in an instant, John and Amelia appeared at their doorsteps, somehow transported away from the chaos of their unintended journey and arrived back home.

In the first story, the are only a few details available. Something happened, but we’re not sure what exactly. The characters went somewhere, and then came back. This is often the feeling that is left with audiences in development sections of sonata form movements. There were things happening, but they were not easy to follow, so they became lost. 

The second story tells of a journey of fantastic proportions. This journey takes our two characters about as far away from home as one can imagine. Just when their fortunes couldn’t take them further from where they began, they suddenly arrive back home. 

For an audience member, understanding the journey (development) of the characters (themes) enhances and magnifies the event of arrival back home (recapitulation.) This can elevate the overall enjoyment and engagement in the musical experience itself, better connecting the listener with the music. But to better understand the journey, one must better understand the characters.  And the easiest way to better know the characters is by giving the audience another hearing of the exposition. 

Into the Woods, Not Left at the EdgeForest

As previously demonstrated, a more thorough understanding of an original idea allows a listener greater understanding of an intentionally distorted version. This understanding when applied to sonata form has tremendous implications. A listener who is more familiar with musical themes from an exposition will have a greater ability to recognize them and follow them through the intentionally distorted development section. And the ability to recognize and be engaged during this journey(development) creates an even more powerful recapitulation.

The simplest way to increase the knowledge of these themes is by doubling the time a listener is exposed to them. This can be achieved by taking the repeat of the exposition which reinforces the aural imagery they have previously experienced, and allows them to notice new information they may have not received the first time through. This allows a listener to be better prepared for the disruptive turmoil of a development section. 

Instead of being left behind at the edge of the woods early on in the development, the listener can venture further with the characters, see all of their play amongst the trees, and even take part in their experience through their return back “home.” With a greater understanding, a listener will no longer will become lost among the trees of the development, but to be better able to embark on the intended journey created by the composer, one that is a complete story of two characters from the beginning through the end. 

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