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1690s, from Italian sonata "piece of instrumental music," literally "sounded" (i.e. "played on an instrument," as opposed to cantata "sung"), fem. past participle of sonare "to sound," from Latin sonare "to sound," from PIE *swene-, from root *swen- "to sound" (see sound (n.1)). Meaning narrowed by mid-18c. toward application to large-scale works in three or four movements.
A musical composition for one or two instruments, usually in three or four movements. The sonata of the classic era in music had a definite arrangement for its movements: the first and fourth had a fast tempo, the second had a slow tempo, and the third was in either playful style (a “scherzo”) or in dance form (a “minuet”).