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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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1. Introduction to the Trio Sonata

Grade 8 Music Theory - Introduction to the Trio Sonata

The Trio Sonata genre dates back to the Baroque period – it was very popular between about 1600-1750. Despite its name, the Trio Sonata is a composition written for four instruments. It’s called a trio, because there are three written parts, and the fourth instrument provided the “continuo”, or accompaniment. A typical set up would have been two violins, a cello and harpsichord. The format of the written parts is always two high pitched instruments and one bass instrument. The bass part contained a bass part, and also a figured bass line, which would have been “realized” by the harpsichord player, so in effect, the bass line is doubled up too.

Any of the typical instruments at the time could feature in a trio sonata. These include the violin, viola, cello, flute, oboe, bassoon and recorder. Here’s a period painting showing what the ensemble would have looked like:

18thc trio sonata


The texture of music in a Trio Sonata is usually contrapuntal. This means that each instrument is equally important, and the music is created by an intertwining of rhythmically independent parts. You can also find homophonic movements in Trio Sonatas, where the instruments work together, playing the same rhythms, creating chords. You won’t normally get this type of texture in the Grade 8 exam question, however.

In the exam, you’ll be given about a page’s worth of score, with several empty bars in the upper two parts. The bass line and figured bass line are provided, along with some material at the start, and occasional bars throughout the piece. Your job is to the fill in the blanks!


Putting the Puzzle Together

To put together the puzzle of a Trio Sonata, you need to bear in mind several things:

  1. You have to respect the given harmony shown in the figured bass
  2. You have to respect the style of the period, which includes obeying the rules of Baroque harmony
  3. You have to recognise patterns and sequences which are already on the page and know when and how to reuse them
  4. In places where sequences don’t fit, you have to invent your own material which should sound convincingly Baroque

If you’ve already taken or studied grades 6 and 7 ABRSM music theory, you will be well-prepared for understanding the figured bass aspect. The figures will normally contain some 7th chords and some suspensions, as well as various modulations.

You’ve also covered most of what you need to know about Baroque harmony, when you learned the rules of harmony for Bach Chorales. There are a few more details we will look at here, but if you know about consecutives, doubling, omissions and voice-leading, you are more than half way there already.

Recognising patterns and sequences may be new for you. However, once you know what you are looking for, you will find out that using sequences in the right places means that a lot of the Trio Sonata will “write itself”.

Inventing your own material which “sounds Baroque” might seem like a challenge. However, I will break the style down into some instructions and guidelines which you can follow, in order to produce something which sounds good enough!


Listening Matters

You will, of course, want to do plenty of practice before taking the exam. While doing practice questions and past exam papers is essential, one of the most useful things you can do is listen. You can only expect to write something which sounds like a Trio Sonata, if you have plenty of experience of listening to the genre. Educate your ear through listening – even better, following the score at the same time – and your brain will subconsciously begin to sort out what is right/wrong according to the style.

If you have any music notation software, try transcribing a Trio Sonata with it – you will pick up lots of tips that way! You will notice the frequency of sequences, typical melodic patterns, key changes and much more.

Use Youtube for recordings and for scores. Some of the typical composers of this genre are Corelli, Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi, Tartini, Quantz, Gluck, Albinoni and Buxtehude. By the way, in performance, the soloists would have used a considerable amount of ornamentation (trills, turns and so on) of their parts, particularly in slow movements, so don’t be surprised if what you hear doesn’t match exactly what’s written in the score! Ornamentation wasn’t really included on the score itself at this time – the performers were supposed to show their skill by improvising ornaments as they played.

Here's a video to get you started. This is Corelli's Op.3 Sonata no.5 in D minor. The score is available for free on, or you can download it here.



What's in this Course

In this course, you’ll learn about tackling the Trio Sonata question one step at a time.

  • We’ll begin by looking “under the hood” at a Trio Sonata – identifying its most important characteristics.
  • We’ll then create a simple Trio Sonata in the Baroque style, part by part. It will be “easy” in the sense that we won’t delve into complicated chords, suspensions or sequences, and it will be in a major key.
  • We’ll then move on to decorating a main melody line and examine the special considerations that come up in minor keys – awkward melodic intervals and how to handle them, and how to know whether melody notes should be raised by a semitone, as per the melodic minor scale.
  • Then we’ll go through the task of treating dissonances – added 7th chords (dominant and supertonic 7ths), 9ths and suspensions, and we’ll look at how sequences are typically used.
  • Finally we’ll go through a method you can use in the exam, plus the steps you need to take to make sure you submit your very best work.


How to Complete a Trio Sonata for Grade 8 ABRSM Music Theory

In this video, you can watch me complete a real exam question. After going through the course provided for you on the website, you should be able to do the same with great success! Let me know if you have any problems, and I will be happy to help.


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