Thursday, November 11, 2010

How is a Novel Like a Sonata?


The other evening my husband and I were listening to the classical station when a piano concerto by Cezar Franck came on -- one I remembered from years ago. All through it, I kept whispering, "Wait, it's coming." I was referring to a favorite passage that seemed a culmination of everything that came before it, each note leading up to that musical moment. Then I thought, This is what we look for in a good novel, isn't it: The moment, when, as a reader, you realize, "Yes, this is how it had to be, this is what had to happen." That feeling of inevitability.

So I started wondering about other parallels between writing and music. (I'm comparing western classical music and the traditional novel. There are many other forms of either.)

For one thing, there are different types of sonatas, much like novel "genres". The overall sonata form follows a basic structure. In What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland explains that ever since the eighteenth century, "the basic form of almost every extended piece of music has been related in some way to the sonata." He goes on to say that a symphony is a sonata for orchestra; a string quartet is a sonata for four strings; a concerto is a sonata for a solo instrument and orchestra; and most overtures are in the form of a sonata's first movement. (Similar to mystery novels, sci fi novels, literary novels, etc.)

As for the basic form or structure of a sonata, it's usually comprised of three or four separate movements. The first starts briskly and is the "exposition", the "set-up". The second is usually a little slower; the third is moderately fast, and then the fourth fastest of all. In the case of three movements, the third would be the fastest. In either case, the last movement contains the climax of the piece and its resolution. This is similar to the "three act" structure of a novel (beautifully explained by Lydia Kang in her post of November 3rd: http://lydiakang.blogspot.com/2010/11/three-act-plot-structure.html ), where the first "act" sets up the situation, the second confronts or opposes or slows down endeavors, and the last "act" is where the climax and resolution occur.

In a sonata, you have themes and variations on the theme, and they are all related to the piece as a whole -- similar to the main plot with its subplots, or the main character and supporting cast. All have to work together so that the work doesn't seem disjointed. Each musical theme has to follow the "logic" of each movement. In other words, it has to make musical sense. Likewise, in a novel, all the subplots have to tie into the main plot, and the characters can't seem superfluous.

The themes rise and fall and repeat within their own movement, balancing each other, and supporting the sonata's (or novel's) development. Throughout the structure, there is a play of point/counterpoint, (think protagonist/antagonist). And, of course, there must be movement throughout, a musical equivalent of drama to keep a listener engaged. (We all know what happens to a book when a reader finds it boring.)

So, the next time you hear a sonata, think of it as a type of musical novel with a plot and subplots pulling you in, rising to a final revelating, and leaving you to mull over the story long afterward.

12 comments:

Kenda said...

Wow, I have absolutely no background in music (hate to admit it, but it's true)--yet in one post you've given a fantastic introduction and overview! And the analogy to writing is such a plus. Thanks--great post. And very glad to meet, and follow, you :-)

Rachna Chhabria said...

Wonderful post, Elizabeth. Loved the way you have compared music and a novel. I have absolutely no clue about music, so your post was very informative. :)

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Thanks, Kenda and Rachna,
I love music, but never really saw the analogy until I looked up a sonata for a story I was writing awhile back. Writing really makes you go learn things! I'm glad you both liked the post. I've enjoyed reading both of yours.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Additional note to Rachna,
Are there parallels you can think of to ragas? I don't know the formality of how they flow, only that they are wonderful to listen to when we go home to India.

Lydia Kang said...

Why thank you for the linky to my blog! I love the comparison you made between music and writing. They are remarkably similar, aren't they? What a lovely and brilliant post.
:)

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Thanks, Lydia,
As was yours. I was glad to link to it, since it explained things so well!

alexia said...

What a great analogy! I have to echo Kenda, I have no real knowledge of music, though I love to listen to it. Really neat parallels you've drawn between writing and music.

Fickle Cattle said...

Great points. I've always thought of all art as organic, one that has meanings as diverse as the audiences it caters to. :-)

ficklecattle.blogspot.com

Carole Anne Carr said...

Hmmm.. I have the same response to a the ballet piece in Romeo and Juliet, the Dance of the Montagues and Capulets is the popular title, and I've put the Youtube version on my blog.. maybe it will now leave me alone...

Debbie Maxwell Allen said...

Such an interesting way of looking at things!

~Debbie

Paul C said...

I, too, like this analogy. There is a lot of complexity in a sonata. The more you know, the more you can appreciate.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Debbie and Paul, I agree. I think it was the discovery that there were such complex traditions to what I was listening to that made me appreciate the music even more.

Reading what you wrote, Carole, I realize there are many pieces of music that move me so, I just hadn't thought about the structural aspect.

Fickle Cattle, I've been thinking since then how visual art probably also contains elements that pertain to writing.