Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Apply the principles of Sonata Form to your problems

Sonata Form is perhaps the single most influential musical form in the history of classical music. It provided composers with a structural format for the extended development and exploration of musical ideas. The following will outline the principles of Sonata Form and then show how they can be applied to problem solving in general.

Sonata form has 4 sections:

1. Introduction or exposition

The form starts with the introduction of an attention grabbing musical idea, known as the 1st Subject. The opening theme of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (da da da dar) is perhaps the most well known example. After this dramatic opening, a more subtle and lyrical theme (the 2nd Subject) is introduced. (A good example is 'Alma’s Theme' from the first movement of Mahler’s 6th "Tragic" Symphony.) As it is less dramatic, the 2nd Subject is usually less immediately memorable than the 1st. It serves, however, to provide an effective contrast with (and in some ways a commentary upon) the attention grabbing opening. The initial statement of these two themes or subjects, technically called the exposition, constitutes the opening section of Sonata Form.

2. Development

Next, the above two themes (or subjects) are developed. They are explored in many different ways. They are fragmented, twisted, reversed, combined, played higher, played lower, and placed within contrasting musical contexts and tone worlds (known as keys).

3. Recapitulation

After the development phase, the two opening themes return more or less as originally heard but with subtle alterations. These alterations, together with their positioning after the development, encourages the listener to hear the themes in different ways: ways which offer additional insights and feelings. It is like meeting an old friend after many years apart; you are the same individuals but aged and matured, with additional experience and depth of character. As a result, you can begin to perceive and respond to each other in new and sometimes surprising ways.

4. End piece or coda

More often than not, the Coda simply signals that a piece is coming to an end. In some works, however, it adds a significant last moment insight or comment (rather like the postscript at the end of a letter). The end of ‘Metamorphosen’ (one of Richard Strauss's last works) provides such a moment with its statement of the theme from the slow, funereal movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. Strauss was coming to the end of what had been a long, eventful and influential life. By including this short quotation from "a funeral march for a hero", he seems to acknowledge the closeness of his own final ‘metamorphosis’.

Applying the principles of Sonata Form to problem solving in general

The balance between logic and creativity inherent within Sonata Form can be readily applied to problem solving in general:

Firstly, what are the dramatic and attention grabbing da da da dars of the issue? What is important about them? Why have they been noticed? What are their consequences? What is the precise nature of the threat they pose? (Exposition of 1st Subject)

Next, what are the less obvious but more subtle and perhaps more insightful issues underpinning the attention grabbing ones? When people talk about the problem what other aspects become apparent? How and why does the problem usually arise? Where is it found most often? Where is it found least often? Who has experienced it the most, with whom and when? Who thinks it is a problem? Who thinks it is not a problem? Why do people think it is or is not a problem? Who or what is contributing to the problem? (Exposition of 2nd Subject)

Having identified the dramatic and attention grabbing aspects of the problem and the subtle issues that may underpin them, the next step is to examine all these things in detail: (Development) 

Why are the consequences and threats associated with the da da da dars of the problem considered significant? What fundamental assumptions are we making about the problem? Are these assumptions accurate or do we need to test them? Are our assumptions giving undue significance to the problem and/or are they causing us to perceive it in unhelpful ways?

What happens when we give additional focus to the less obvious (2nd Subject) issues underpinning or accompanying the headline problem? What previously unappreciated aspects come to light and how do they change the way we perceive the problem? Do they begin to help us challenge some of our pre-conceptions about the problem?

What happens when we get creative with the issues involved?  What happens when we turn them inside out or upside down, place them within varying contexts or express them differently?

After developing our thinking about the problem we need to recapitulate it: to look at it again. How does the problem look now? What additional insights have we gained? How has the problem changed? Have any new, previously unappreciated problems become prominent?(Recapitulation)

Lastly, what conclusions have been reached? Do we need to start thinking about, talking about and approaching the problem differently? What loose ends need to be gathered up and dealt with? Are there any additional small details or passing postscripts springing to mind that might help us enhance our approach to the problem? (Coda)

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