This content originally appeared in Resonate by Nancy Duarte.

Classical music includes a structure called the sonata form, which is similar to the presentation form.

A sonata has standard “rules” to follow, yet each sonata sounds unique. Sonatas don’t come across as contrived or formulaic, and we can draw inspiration for our presentations from that.

Structure in the Three-Part Sonata Form

Structure enables listeners to anticipate what comes next. The sonata form has three parts:

Beginning (exposition): Musical themes are introduced and usually repeated so the listener can identify the central musical idea. It’s important that the listeners thoroughly understand the initial theme, so they can recognize it when it’s modified (creating an identifiable gap between what is and what could be).

Middle (development): The musical theme is altered and riffed off of. This is the most exciting part of the piece, because the listeners are intrigued by how the composer modifies the central idea. The listeners can hear the tension between what the theme was in the beginning and what it has become during the development. There is an element of surprise.

End (recapitulation): After the ideas are modified in the development section, the piece transitions back to the original theme. There is a special feeling when that theme is restated after its modification during the development section.

Contrast Keeps Things Interesting

Contrast keeps a presentation interesting. The same is true with music.

Tonal contrast: Put simply, tonal contrast is key changes. Music has a “home” and that home is the tonic key. The beauty of harmony is that the human ear recognizes when we are away from home and when we are home.

Dynamic contrast: Dynamic contrast is created when the music alternates between loud and soft. Sometimes the transition is sudden, while other times it is gradual.

Textural contrast: 


a. Polyphony / Monophony — Throughout the piece there is always a clear melodic line. Sometimes all the instruments play the same melody in unison (monophony), and other times one instrument plays the melody while the others complement and accompany the melody (polyphony).

b. Density — The number of notes played per measure determines the density. Sometimes there are only a few notes per measure, while at other times there are many, often being played at the same time.

The foundation for an interesting sonata is that it has contrast in varying layers, similar to a presentation. Just like a great sonata, a great presentation should follow the structure of the presentation form yet be flexible within its constraint. As the composer of your presentation, you need to create dramatic contrast to keep the audience’s interest piqued.

Sonata Form

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