Symphony vs. Concerto vs. Sonata (What’s the Difference?)

Pro Music Vault Home Comparisons Symphony vs. Concerto vs. Sonata (What’s the Difference?)

In the classical music world, we have symphonies, concertos, and sonatas.

Each contains a series of movements or sections in the piece.

All three are musical compositions first developed during the Baroque Period in Western Europe, from roughly 1600 to 1750.

In defining the three, symphony, concerto and sonata, we will also find that there are very different types of musical compositions written for different numbers and arrangements of instruments that dictate how different pieces sound in each.

Table of Contents

The Differences Between a Symphony, Concerto, Sonata

First of all, we define the symphony. A symphony is a musical composition originating in Western classical music. It is a lengthy musical piece usually written for an orchestra.

Secondly, a sonata is a musical composition written for an instrumental soloist or a small group of instruments, and typically accompanied by a pianist.

Lastly, we have the concerto. A concerto is a musical composition written for a solo instrument or instruments, and is accompanied by a large-scale orchestra.

When exploring the origins of the symphony, concerto, and sonata, we find that the root of the word “symphony” is from the Greek word “symphonia,” meaning “agreement or concord of sound” or “harmonious.”

The Italian word “concerto” means “accord or gathering,” and is derived from the Latin word “concertare” which translates to “competition or battle.”

Sonata in Italian simply means “sound,” as compared to a cantata which means “to sing.” A sonata is one or more solo instrumentals.

When we consider these, we must remember that all have a differing amount of movements or sections controlling the musical piece.


In a symphony, for example, the basic movements have 4 key elements. They are Fast (allegro), Slow (usually an oboe solo), Minuet (Dance/Waltz), and Fast (the big finish).


In a concerto, the characteristics of the piece are arranged as follows: sonata-allegro (moderately quick opening), slow movement (ternary form), and faster rondo (ending).

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This is all complicated by the fact that by the 18th century, standards in movements for the concerto were agreed upon as fast (presto allegro), slow (lento or adagio), and fast.

As a rule of thumb, a solo concerto is structured much like a sonata. In a concerto symphony, a musical piece is performed with one or two solo instruments and an orchestra.


In a sonata, the movements are not as straightforward. They consist mainly of slow movements, with 3+ movements for one or two solo instruments.

The structure of a sonata is as follows: exposition (or introduction), development, and recap.

Sonatas are characterized into two types: sonata de camera and sonata de Chiesa. The meaning of these terms is “music for the court” (sonata de camera) and “music for church” (sonata de Chiesa).

Sonatas and symphonies are both musical compositions written for large-scale venues.

Symphonies are known for containing stringed instruments, as well as containing at least one sonata form.

So, in other words, a symphony could use the sonata form as a type of movement, or a first movement form.

A sonata is also a noun meaning composition of music for one or more solo instruments for large-scale halls, much like a symphony.

A concerto, by comparison, also originated in the Baroque Period, and consists of a single soloist accompanied by an orchestra.

Formerly, concertos were performed as traditional concertinos consisting of a solo group of instruments in a concerto grosso.

While the sonata is also a solo, it is an instrumental solo accompanied not by an orchestra, but by a pianist or other woodwind instrument.

Some of the well-known composers of symphonic music were Mozart and Haydn, who by 1756 had composed 141 symphonies between them. Most symphonies were composed in the European Classical Era, from roughly 1740 to 1820. Some of the more famous sonatas were written by J.S. Bach, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, George Frideric Handel, and Guiseppe Tortini.

Early composers of concertos in the Baroque Period were Antonio Vivaldi (violin concertos), Handel (organ concertos), and Bach (harpsichord concertos).

By the last half of the 18th century, the piano had become the prevalent medium for concertos, many of which were written by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

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One of the most well-known symphonies is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in C Minor.

Other famous symphonies are:

  • Beethoven: Symphony No 3 Eroica
  • Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 Choral
  • Mozart: Symphony No 41, Jupiter

Famous concertos include:

  • Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto
  • Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto
  • Brahms’ Violin Concerto

Some of the top piano sonatas are:

  • Debussy, Clair de Lune
  • Liszt, La Campanella
  • Erik Satie, Gymnopedie No. 1
  • Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata
  • Chopin, Nocturnes No. 2 in E-Flat Major

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Number Of Instruments

Another difference when comparing the symphony, concerto, and sonata is the number and types of instruments played in each musical composition.

Symphony Instruments

A symphony has woodwinds, percussion, brass, and strings. These include flutes, clarinets, kettle drums, tambourines, piano, snare drums, saxophone, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, oboe, bassoon, and more.

There can be upwards of 100 instruments in a symphony.

Sonata Instruments

In a sonata, the instruments usually used are a solo piano, a duet between a piano and a solo instrument, a violin, or a cello.

Concerto Instruments

In a concerto, the instruments are mainly string instruments, violin, viola, cello, viola d’amore, harp, or a wind instrument such as a flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon, horn, or trumpet.


The length of the musical piece is also different. Beethoven, the creator of the sonata, wrote pieces that usually lasted 20-25 minutes.

Some symphony orchestras play compositions that go on for 30-60 minutes. Concertos usually last on the average 30 minutes, but some compositions can go on for over an hour.

There are many aspects of the symphony, concerto, and sonata that are varied and unique.


Overall, the solo instrument in the sonata captivates and draws us in. The concertos with their string instruments and the orchestra make for beautiful listening.

And who could forget the overwhelming sounds of a symphony orchestra playing a musical masterpiece? The effect is both breathtaking and unforgettable.

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What is a Symphony in music?

A Symphony is a large-scale musical composition for full orchestra typically containing several movements or sections. It is characterized by its grand and complex structure and orchestration.

What is a Concerto in music?

A Concerto is a musical composition in which one or more solo instruments are accompanied by an orchestra. It typically features a solo instrument playing a virtuosic or display piece against the backdrop of the full orchestra.

What is a Sonata in music?

A Sonata is a piece of music composed for a solo instrument, usually a piano or violin, but can also be written for other instruments such as a guitar or harp. It typically consists of several movements and is considered one of the most important forms of classical music.

What is the difference between a Symphony and a Concerto?

A Symphony is typically written for the full orchestra and is larger in scale and structure, while a Concerto is written for one or more solo instruments with an accompanying orchestra.

What is the difference between a Concerto and a Sonata?

A Concerto is a musical composition for one or more solo instruments with an orchestra, while a Sonata is a piece of music composed for a solo instrument without an accompanying orchestra.

Can a Symphony have a solo instrument?

Yes, a Symphony can have solo instruments, but it typically features the full orchestra rather than a solo instrument.

Can a Concerto have multiple solo instruments?

Yes, a Concerto can feature multiple solo instruments playing together or alternating with each other.

What are the typical number of movements in a Symphony, Concerto and Sonata?

A Symphony typically has four movements, a Concerto has three movements, and a Sonata can have anywhere from two to four movements.

Who are some famous composers of Symphonies?

Some famous composers of Symphonies include Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler.

Who are some famous composers of Concertos and Sonatas?

Some famous composers of Concertos include Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. Some famous composers of Sonatas include Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin.

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