The Rolfing-Sonata Metaphor Reconsidered

Pages: 26-28
Year: 1999
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Rolf Lines – SUMMER 1999 – Vol 27 – Nº 03

Volume: 27

In a previous article1, I considered several relationships between formal structures in Rolfing and classical sonata form. At the time, I was aware of certain problems inherent in my melocentric (melody based) approach. To simplify my presentation, I opted to sidestep this issue, although I was concerned that members of my audience familiar with sonata-form theory might take exception to my potentially problematic focus on melody.

This matter resurfaced in a recent class taught by Peter Schwind in Santa Fe.2 During the class, Peter shared with me that he too had explored relationships between sonata form and Rolfing in a presentation given in Munich some 12 year; earlier. On the final day of the class, he offered a summary of his ideas, focusing on sonata form’s two main themes. Peter explained the nature and interaction of the main thematic units and how their meaning was altered based on context. Here is a paraphrase of his metaphor: sonata form is traditionally divided into three sections: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation. The exposition contains two themes. The first theme is normally of a more emphatic and rhythmic character and establishes the main key area, the tonic. The second theme is a more melodic “song-like” theme. It presents new contrasting material in a new key, usually the dominant. In the development, the two themes are reworked and explored in a number of ways, subjected to harmonic and melodic modifications. Here, elements of these themes interact in an often complex and varied manner. What follows is a recapitulation: Is a return of the initial material reinterpreted in a new context.

Peter then suggested that the nature and interaction of these contrasting themes provided a powerful metaphor for how we work. His metaphor corresponded nicely to the form and structure of his demonstrations which focused on a few simple structural themes, carefully prepared, subtly elaborated and gently resolved. As I listened to Peter’s views and observed his precise approach to our work, I was reminded of the problems of using sonata form themes as a metaphor and decided to reconsider my argument in light of an obvious weakness in the original.3

The problem with any melodic metaphor has to do with a fundamental disparity between musical theory and practice. One way in which the traditional melodic model is deficient is that it does not work very well for the wide variety of sonata forms encountered in the Classical era.’ For instance, we find many sonata forms which have only one theme in the exposition, so-called mono-thematic sonatas. We also find sonata forms with poorly defined second themes and those where the arrival of the dominant is not linked to a new theme. In many cases, the development section is minimal and may be followed by a recapitulation which does not begin with the initial theme.’ In fact, sonata forms that are exceptions to the traditional melodic model, particularly in early and middle period Classical works (c. 1720-1770), exceed those that fall within the familiar melodic paradigm. This melodic model actually works considerably better for chronologically later works (such as mature Mozart and Schubert).

Because of this disparity, an approach that focuses on harmony proves more useful. One obvious reason why the harmonic model is superior at the macro level is the fact that sonata forms are divided into two large sections. The first unit, which contains the exposition, ends with a set of double bars and a repeat sign. In the second section, we find the development and recapitulation. Tonally, the first section modulates from the tonic to the dominant. The second section usually starts in the dominant and explores tonal and thematic tensions presented in the exposition. The tonality eventually returns to the dominant and, subsequently, the recapitulation begins in the tonic (see ex. 1, below). This simple binary scheme is universal through the late Romantic period and easily encompasses the wide variety of melocentric variants encountered in the diverse and large repertoire under consideration.

<img src=’https://novo.pedroprado.com.br/imgs/1999/541-1.jpg’>


By shifting our orientation to harmony, we can simplify the metaphor and employ a connection that also works quite well when considering how we structure our sessions. As we develop a conceptual framework for a session, we formulate an overall plan based on perceived strain patterns. Our strategy typically concerns how we might approach and exit from a particular holding, or how we might affect the pattern by feeding into it and then balancing the structure (both ways of thinking being clearly binary).

Preparation and entry into the body, the first large unit of the session, corresponds to the binary sonata’s first section (see ex. 2, below). The shape of the second section mirrors that of the first. As development begins, thematic material from the first section intensifies, as does the harmonic activity. This intensification suggests the critical release which is often an intermediate goal of the session. This release may be extremely brief or may require considerable time and intensity. This range of tensional activity is analogous to the wide variety of developmental possibilities employed in classical sonata form. Once we have passed the session’s critical moment, harmonic tension gradually reduces, devolving into a diminishing of physical and structural tension. Here as the body eases, we wait for it to breathe, allowing our input to resonate and settle. This less intense integration phase corresponds nicely to the recapitulation in intention and organization.

Another way of representing this process of increased and diminished intensity is to employ the familiar “bell curve.”6 An obvious weakness of using the classic bell curve model is that it fails to take into account the number of minor peaks and valleys within a given session. The Rolfing session and classical sonata are not a directly linear process, but rather a series of minor events (harmonic gestures and melodic cells) with pauses, tensions, settlings and resolutions. Any model that fails to take into account the rich variety of local events in our sessions would suffer the same fate as the melodic sonata form template7. Local events must be placed in a larger context. How a single gesture plays out in the structure takes on more importance than creating a perfectly symmetrical session.

The easiest way to illustrate this idea is to consider the mid-level problem of where the new tonalities, the tonic and dominant, actually arrive within each section. The dominant does not arrive at the double bar, but is an important event that occurs more than halfway into the first unit. The analogous tonal event in the second section, the return of the tonic, occurs near the midpoint of this section. The example on the previous page reflects a typical pattern of internal tonal events within the overall form (ex. 2). Additionally, tonal activity intensifies and peaks within the development, not at its outset. Not until the dominant is reestablished does the tension level off and begin to decrease. To more accurately reflect this tensional displacement, I have shifted the peak of the bell curve within the development section (ex. 2).


The overall shape of our sessions is determined by a sequence of local events. Ideally, as we gain mastery of this Rolfing paradigm, the number of these local events is reduced. We learn that evaluation, precise palpation and allowing the body time to breathe become more important than a predetermined checklist of precise geographic territory. While we initially work with recipes and checklists, we soon learn that simplicity, flexibility and nuance play a larger roll in the success of our series than a photographic memory. As we master this simplified approach, we begin to resemble those masters of jazz improvisation, Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk, for example, whose reductionist solos explore new implications of familiar melodic material, eschewing banal virtuosity and formulaic melodic cliches. Freed from our “recipes,” we too can participate in a Neo-Classical Renaissance, where simplicity and global seeing supplant formulaic “classicizing” (an epiginous regurgitation of theoretical formulae). Constantly redefining how we work and what we do is just as critical to our evolution as the dynamic evolution of sonata form proved to be for its best and most original practitioners.


1. Ray Bishop, “golfing® and Sonata Form: An Architectonic Metaphor in Three Sections,” Rolf Lines, Spring, 1998, pp. .

2. Peter Schwind, Pressure Systems Class, Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 711,1998.

3. It is not my intention to challenge Peter’s ideas, but rather, to use them as acatalyst for a revised approach to the problems of structure presented in my previous paper. I am grateful to Peter for sharing his ideas during the class and for providing critical feedback on this paper.

4. Many of these ideas are elaborated in my master’s thesis, “The Sonatas of Florian Leopold Gassmann,”Masters of Music, Thesis, Musicology,(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1979).

5. A large body of recent musicological literature has been devoted to local events and structural anomalies in sonata form. See, for instance, Kirkpatrick, Ralph, Domenico Scarlatti, Paperback ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983). Kirkpatrick devises a unique scheme for analyzing Scarlatti’s early classical keyboard sonatas. He defends his novel scheme by pointing out the inadequacies of the traditional sonata form model when applied to Scarlatti. “Because of the unpredictability of the opening portions of the Scarlatti sonata it is impossible to employ a method of formal analysis such as has been applied rightly or wrongly to the classical sonata. In referring to the “classical sonata’, I mean the academic and frequently inadequate conception of sonata form which does not necessarily take into account the unlimited fantasy of a Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven” (italics mine) (p. 253).

6. The “bell curve” metaphor is based on an image presented during Peter’s class.

7. Ibid 5

To have full access to the content of this article you need to be registered on the site. Sign up or Register. 

Log In