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

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

If we define each, we will find that 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 the piece sounds.  

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 that 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 again, a musical composition but it is 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 for the symphony is from the Greek word meaning “agreement or concord of sound” or “harmonious”,

The origin of the word for concerto is the Italian word concerto meaning “accord or gathering ” which is derived from the Latin word concert which translates to “competition or battle”. 

Sonata in Italian simply means “sound” as compared to a cantata which means “to sing”. Thus 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.

Symphony 

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). 

Concerto

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).

It’s complicated by the fact that by the 18th century, standards in movements set 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. 

Sonata

In a sonata, the movements are not as straightforward. They consist mainly of slow movements, with 3+ movements for 1 or 2 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). 

In comparing a sonata and a symphony we find they are both musical compositions written for large-scale venues. 

Symphonies are known for containing stringed instruments and containing at least one sonata form.

So, in other words, a symphony could use the sonata form as a type of movement, or a 1st 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 which consisted of a single soloist accompanied by an orchestra.

Formerly, it was performed as a traditional concertino 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. M

ost of these symphonies was 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) and Handel (organ concertos) and Bach (harpsichord concertos).

By the last half of the 18th century, the piano had become how musicians performed concertos many of which were written by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

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; and Mozart: Symphony No 41, Jupiter. Famous concertos include Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto; Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Brahms Violin Concerto.

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. 

Number Of Instruments

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

Symphony Instruments

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

There are 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 seldom viola d’amore or harp, or a wind instrument such as a flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon, horn, or trumpet. 

Length

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 the sonata that is varied and unique.

Conclusion

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.

Finally, 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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