Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is one of the most iconic pieces of Western classical music. The arpeggiated, fantasy-like beginning of the first movement in particular has made its way into the collective cultural musical knowledge. But what should you know about the Moonlight Sonata? Read on to find out!
feature image: Under the Moonlight/used under CC BY-SA 2.0
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata: The Basic Facts
First, just take a listen. You can start this video and keep scrolling down to read as you hear the music.
Formal Titles: Sonata quasi una Fantasia, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2
Nickname: the "Moonlight" Sonata
Composer: Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Date composed: 1800-1801; published in 1802, dedicated to his pupil Countess Giulietta Guicciardi
Original instrumentation: solo piano
Full piece length: 14-15' long (depending on the tempi the performer takes), 3 movements (I. Adagio sostenuto II. Allegretto III. Presto agitato)
First movement (the recognizable one) length: about 5'20"-6' long
Moonlight Sonata Sheet Music
Because the Moonlight Sonata piano sheet music was first published in 1802 (and internationally published, at that), the piano score is in the public domain. This means that it's possible to get free and legal versions of the piece online and print it out for yourself.
The cleanest (free, public domain) version of the Moonlight Sonata piano score is this 4 MB, high quality scanned version of the Peters score; it has high resolution images that can be printed onto different sized paper without issue and includes piano fingering suggestions. If file size is an issue for you (for instance, if you have slow download speeds or a computer/device that can't handle high resolution PDFs), however, I'd recommend the smaller (1.69 MB) Breitkopf & Härtel score.
If you're curious, you can also take a look at the original handwritten manuscript sketches for the piece, which start at measure 14, or about 50-55 seconds in (depending on how fast you play it). You can also always browse IMSLP.org for other free scores if none of these versions takes your fancy.
There are several videos out there that sync the score with a recording of the piece, so that you can follow along without having a separate copy of the score yourself. The best one I've seen (in terms of good recording + good syncing of the score) is this video, which features pianist Artur Schnabel's seminal recording of the Moonlight Sonata:
A Brief History of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
The Moonlight Sonata was written in 1800-1801, while Beethoven was living in Vienna. At this point in his life, Beethoven had not yet gone completely deaf, but his hearing had begun seriously deteriorating. In fact, the Heiligenstadt Testament (where Beethoven wrote of his realization and grappling with his hearing loss and its permanence) was written the following year in 1802.
That Beethoven's hearing loss had already become apparent makes the apocryphal story about how the Moonlight Sonata got its name all the more poignant. An apocryphal tale sprung up in the mid-19th century (after Beethoven's death) about how Beethoven met a blind girl playing the piano and was so moved by her and the moonlight streaming in the room that he was inspired to rush home and write down the piece. There's also a similarly romantic story about how Beethoven was having an affair with the student to whom the piece was dedicated.
Alas, neither of these colorful tales appear to have any factual basis. The nickname "Moonlight Sonata" was not actually given to the piece by the composer; instead, Russian music writer Wilhelm von Lenz reported that an 1830s German music critic and romantic poet named (Heinrich Friedrich) Ludwig Rellstab was the first to describe the piece as relating to moonlight. Rellstab is reported to have referred to the sonata as "a boat visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Vierwaldstättersee in Switzerland." And Giulietta Guicciardi, the dedicatee of the piece, herself debunked the rumor that she'd had an affair with Beethoven and the piece reminded him of her.
Beethoven himself was surprised and not altogether pleased by the piece's popularity. The story goes that Beethoven once complained to his fellow musician friend Carl Czerny that everyone loved the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (the Moonlight Sonata), even though Beethoven himself felt he'd written better (or at least more interesting) pieces:
"Everybody is always talking about the C-sharp minor Sonata! Surely I have written better things. There is the Sonata in F-sharp major—that is something very different."
Why Is the Moonlight Sonata So Popular?
So what is it that has made the Moonlight Sonata so popular, from the time of its first performance up through the present day?
Some people attribute the popularity of the Moonlight Sonata (and the first movement in particular) to the specific mood it creates.
Musicologist Joseph Kerman suggests that part of its appeal (particularly for the first movement) comes from the "half-improvisatory texture, the unity of mood, and especially the mood itself – that romantic mestizia which will have overwhelmed all but the stoniest of listeners by the end of the melody's first phrase."
While this is a reasonable stance to take, it's also difficult to know if the mood listeners sense from the piece comes from the music itself or from the cultural discourse surrounding the Moonlight Sonata.
Of course, part of the appeal of the piece may come from the fact that it has contrasting textures and harmonies that lend themselves easily to interpretation. As Beethoven himself said, the piece is quasi una fantasia—like a fantasy.
The nickname "moonlight" and the imagery that evokes has also assisted in maintaining the piece's popularity throughout the years. While there is no narrative associated with the Moonlight Sonata, the association of the piece with moonlight on a lake gives many listeners a firm starting point.
Especially when contrasted to the more abstract pieces of the 20th century (and beyond), the Moonlight Sonata manages to hold the line between avoiding being too explicit (this is what the piece is about, you must hear this in the piece) and too vague (you're on your own).
Part of the Moonlight Sonata's popularity also no doubt stems from the association it has with Beethoven's deafness.
Beethoven has become a legendary figure, the epitome of the tortured artist who is losing the sense most important to his art, and the fact that the Moonlight Sonata was written during Beethoven's hearing loss speaks to many listeners.
The unending triplet arpeggios in the bass, paired with the unadorned melody in the middle register of the piano, gives the listener almost the sense that the right hand of the pianist is crying out against the whims of fate.
For a deeper dive into the enduring popularity of the Moonlight Sonata, listen to this NPR podcast.
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata: Quick and Dirty Analysis
First off, what makes the Moonlight Sonata a sonata? In the Classical music era (normally 1750-1825 or so), a "sonata" meant a multi-movement piece for piano solo (like the Moonlight Sonata) or for piano and other instruments.
The first movement, or section, of these pieces would usually be in sonata form: an opening, expository section (the exposition), a second section where the themes from the first are developed (the development), and a final section where there is a return to the themes of the first section, inflected by some of the harmonic journeying that took place during the development (the recapitulation).
In the Moonlight Sonata, the first movement starts in C-sharp minor, journeys to the dominant (G-sharp major), and returns to the tonic (C-sharp minor), as is typical of the sonata form.
The Moonlight Sonata is also notable for the way the characters of the different movements stray from standard late 18th century/early 19th century classical sonatas.
Rather than having the movements go fast-slow-fast, the Moonlight Sonata instead ramps up over time, starting with a contemplative opening movement, moving on to the lighter but quicker feel of the second movement, and ending with the turbulent third movement.
The Moonlight Sonata in Pop Culture
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata has made an appearance in a variety of non-classical pieces over the years. Here is just a sampling of the times the Moonlight Sonata has been sampled in pop music:
- The Beatles, "Because" (1969)—features a backwards version of the Moonlight Sonata
- Alicia Keys, "The Piano and I" (2001)
- Cake, "Teenage Pregnancy" (2011)
The Moonlight Sonata also became part of cartoon history when it was used as the accompaniment for a song in the animated special "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" (later turned into the song "Schroeder" in the Broadway musical adaptation).
For a complete list of the Moonlight Sonata's appearances in non-classical settings, visit this site.
Moonlight Sonata Arrangements
In addition to being sampled by other artists, the Moonlight Sonata has also been arranged for a variety of other different instruments.
Versions of Moonlight Sonata for piano and orchestra are more of an augmentation of the original piece, whereas some of the other instrumentations are a little more adventurous (and involve more finagling on the part of the arranger).
Guitar (Classical/Acoustic and Electric)
Of all the different orchestrations, Moonlight Sonata guitar arrangements tend to be particularly successful because the guitar allows for easy arpeggiation and melody/accompaniment combinations.
Because the piano is technically a percussion instrument, it's no surprise that marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, or other percussion arrangements of the originally-for-piano Moonlight Sonata work well.
The carillon is similar to other keyboard instruments like the piano and the organ in that it employs both keys and foot pedals, but it is unique in that it is normally found up a bell tower and involves ringing large bells. The performers cannot see the audience, and vice versa, which can make the music seem as if it's coming from the atmosphere (or the moonlight) itself—an effect particularly strong when the piece is something as affecting as the Moonlight Sonata.
Classical Moonlight Sonata Mash-Ups
Finally, there are some performers who have used the Moonlight Sonata as a vehicle to bridge the classical and pop worlds. The melding of the two is particularly evident in "Moonlight," which involves an electric cello and samples of other classical pieces interspersed throughout.
How to Play Moonlight Sonata: Performance Tips
These tips are particularly geared towards playing the first movement (I. Adagio sostenuto), but are equally applicable to the rest of the piece.
#1: Hold Back the Tempo
Do not rush through the notes—if there's any piece that isn't a race to get to the finish, it's the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Here's a beautiful recording of Annie Fischer's slower, more sustained (sostenuto!) interpretation of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata:
Keeping it slow is also key to mastering the next tip.
#2: Keep the Rhythm Steady
Just because the tempo is slow doesn't mean that you can meander all over the place with the notes and disregard the written rhythm. Part of the hypnotic lulling effect of the first movement is the steady triplets in the bass (for the most part) against a dotted eighth note-sixteenth note (or dotted quaver-semiquaver) rhythm in the right hand—the farther you stray away from this relationship, the less impact the piece will have on the listener.
#3: A Piece Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Notes
Getting the correct notes and rhythms are an important part of learning any piece, but you shouldn't consider yourself "finished learning" the piece just because you've gotten the fundamentals down. Notes are important, but things like dynamics (how loud or soft you play) and articulation are the icing on the Moonlight Sonata cake.
Because it's written for the piano, Moonlight Sonata has a restricted range of expressiveness (simply because of the limitations of the instrument), but that doesn't meant that the expressiveness shouldn't be there. Subtle differences in how hard you press the keys and how much you let the sound decay can have a huge impact on the impact the piece has on the audience (or the listener, if you're not performing formally).
Musical cake, for Lois/Flickr
The Best Way to Learn the Moonlight Sonata
It's possible to learn the Moonlight Sonata by ear, from the sheet music, or using a combination of the two. If you already know how to read music, then that's probably the best option—learning the Moonlight Sonata from the score will get you closest to Beethoven's intent (since playing it by ear necessitates having a middle man).
As with most pieces, the best way to learn the Moonlight Sonata is to learn it section by section and eventually put it together, rather than trying to play it through every time you practice.
If you're learning the Moonlight Sonata by ear, learning it a little bit at a time is also a good idea. Yes, it will involve listening to the same 10 seconds of the piece over and over again, but once you get that pattern of arpeggiating triplets in the left hand against non-triplets in the right hand down, the rest of the movement will be easier. If you know how to play the guitar or some other chordal instrument, you might find knowing the Moonlight Sonata tabs help you learn the specific note patterns better as well.
It's possible to augment your learning of the Moonlight Sonata from the score with recordings of the piece (and get the best of both learning by ear and learning by reading music worlds), but that method has its own issues.Some performers don't like to listen to versions of a piece while they're working on it because they're afraid it'll affect their interpretation, but the ubiquity of the Moonlight Sonata in culture makes it difficult to avoid.
Personally, I try to avoid listening to other interpretations of pieces when I'm learning it, but it can be helpful (if you're struggling with what the notes sound like) to listen to a MIDI version, like this one:
Tricky Parts of the Moonlight Sonata
What each performer finds tricky will change to some extent from person to person. For instance, the large distances between notes in the left-hand chords of the first movement will be harder for people with smaller hands, while the arpeggios may be more difficult for people with stiffness or arthritis in their fingers.
As far as the Moonlight Sonata notes themselves go, I think the most difficult part (of the first movement) occurs during the development section (mm. 31-39), with the onslaught of out-of-key accidentals (naturals, sharps, and even some double sharps).
What shenanigans are these, Beethoven?
Pedaling, or controlling the sustain and decay of the notes, is also tricky for this piece. Beethoven notes at the beginning of the Moonlight Sonata,
"Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini"
(Translation: The entire piece should be played with the most delicate and unmuted sound).
This effect no doubt would've sounded eerie and beautiful on the pianofortes of 1801, but the pianos today have longer sustains, which means that holding down the sustain pedal for the entirety of the piece will likely just result in a muddy sound. For a more complete discussion of the different pedaling options commonly used in the Moonlight Sonata, check out the full guide here.
Ultimately, it's up to the performer to interpret as she will what feels right (and sounds right) to her, just as it's up to the listeners to decide which Moonlight Sonata performance or recording sounds and feels the best for them.
We mention melodies and harmonies above, but what exactly is a melody or a harmony? Learn about the differences between melodies and harmonies here.
Looking for more Beethoven piano music insights? Read our article on Für Elise.
Thinking about applying to conservatory? Check out our article on the best music schools in the US here.
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.