Subject (music)

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First theme of Haydn's Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 1-12 First theme Haydn's Sonata in G Major.png
First theme of Haydn's Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 1–12

In music, a subject is the material, usually a recognizable melody, upon which part or all of a composition is based. In forms other than the fugue, this may be known as the theme.



A subject may be perceivable as a complete musical expression in itself, separate from the work in which it is found. [2] In contrast to an idea or motif, a subject is usually a complete phrase or period. [3] The Encyclopédie Fasquelle defines a theme (subject) as "[a]ny element, motif, or small musical piece that has given rise to some variation becomes thereby a theme". [4]

Thematic changes and processes are often structurally important, and theorists such as Rudolph Reti have created analysis from a purely thematic perspective. [5] [6] Fred Lerdahl describes thematic relations as "associational" and thus outside his cognitive-based generative theory's scope of analysis. [7] [ clarification needed ]

First theme of Mozart's Sonata in C major, K. 309, I. Mozart - Sonata in C Major, K. 309, I - exposition theme 1.png
First theme of Mozart's Sonata in C major, K. 309, I.

In different types of music

Music based on a single theme is called 'monothematic', while music based on several themes is called 'polythematic'. Most fugues are monothematic and most pieces in sonata form are polythematic. [8] In the exposition of a fugue, the principal theme (usually called the 'subject') is announced successively in each voice – sometimes in a transposed form.

In some compositions, a principal subject is announced and then a second melody, sometimes called a 'countersubject' or 'secondary theme', may occur. When one of the sections in the exposition of a sonata-form movement consists of several themes or other material, defined by function and (usually) their tonality, rather than by melodic characteristics alone, the term 'theme group' (or 'subject group') is sometimes used. [9] [1]

Music without subjects/themes, or without recognizable, repeating, and developing subjects/themes, is called 'athematic'. Examples include the pre-twelve-tone or early atonal works of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and Alois Hába. Schoenberg once said that, "intoxicated by the enthusiasm of having freed music from the shackles of tonality, I had thought to find further liberty of expression. In fact, I … believed that now music could renounce motivic features and remain coherent and comprehensible nevertheless". [10] [ clarification needed ] Examples by Schoenberg include Erwartung . Examples in the works of later composers include Polyphonie X and Structures I by Pierre Boulez, Sonata for Two Pianos by Karel Goeyvaerts, and Punkte by Karlheinz Stockhausen. [11] [ clarification needed ]

Opening of Bach's Fugue No. 2 in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 847, showing the subject, answer, and countersubject Bach - BWV 847, mm. 1-4.png
Opening of Bach's Fugue No. 2 in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier , Book I, BWV 847, showing the subject, answer, and countersubject


In a fugue, when the first voice has completed the subject, and the second voice is playing the answer, the first voice usually continues by playing a new theme that is called the 'countersubject'. The countersubject usually contrasts with the subject/answer phrase shape.

In a fugue, a countersubject is "the continuation of counterpoint in the voice that began with the subject", occurring against the answer. [13] It is not usually regarded as an essential feature of fugue, however. [14]

The typical fugue opening resembles the following: [13]

Soprano voice:Answer        Alto voice:Subject    Countersubject

Since a countersubject may be used both above and below the answer, countersubjects are usually invertible, all perfect fifths inverting to perfect fourths which required resolution. [15]

See also

Related Research Articles

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In music, a fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject that is introduced at the beginning in imitation and which recurs frequently in the course of the composition. It is not to be confused with a fuguing tune, which is a style of song popularized by and mostly limited to early American music and West Gallery music. A fugue usually has three main sections: an exposition, a development and a final entry that contains the return of the subject in the fugue's tonic key. Some fugues have a recapitulation.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Musical analysis</span>

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<i>Pierrot lunaire</i> Musical setting by Arnold Schoenberg of 21 selected poems by Albert Giraud

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Motif (music)</span> Short recurring musical phrase

In music, a motif(pronunciation)  IPA: (/moʊˈtiːf/) is a short musical phrase, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "The motive is the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity".

The Tristan chord is a chord made up of the notes F, B, D, and G:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Invention (musical composition)</span>

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In music, the Italian term stretto[ˈstretto] has two distinct meanings:

  1. In a fugue, stretto is the imitation of the subject in close succession, so that the answer enters before the subject is completed.
  2. In non-fugal compositions, a stretto is a passage, often at the end of an aria or movement, in faster tempo. Examples include the end of Franz Liszt's transcendental etude No.10, the end of the last movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; measure 227 of Chopin's Ballade No. 3; measures 16, 17 and 18, of his Prelude No. 4 in E minor; and measure 25 of his Etude Op. 10, No. 12, "The Revolutionary."
<span class="mw-page-title-main">Imitation (music)</span>

In music, imitation is the repetition of a melody in a polyphonic texture shortly after its first appearance in a different voice. The melody may vary through transposition, inversion, or otherwise, but retain its original character. The intervals and rhythms of an imitation may be exact or modified; imitation occurs at varying distances relative to the first occurrence, and phrases may begin with voices in imitation before they freely go their own ways.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Voicing (music)</span> Placement of notes in music

In music theory, voicing refers to two closely related concepts:

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  2. The simultaneous vertical placement of notes in relation to each other; this relates to the concepts of spacing and doubling
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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Exposition (music)</span>

In musical form and analysis, exposition is the initial presentation of the thematic material of a musical composition, movement, or section. The use of the term generally implies that the material will be developed or varied.

Thematic transformation is a musical technique in which a leitmotif, or theme, is developed by changing the theme by using permutation, augmentation, diminution, and fragmentation. It was primarily developed by Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. The technique is essentially one of variation. A basic theme is reprised throughout a musical work, but it undergoes constant transformations and disguises and is made to appear in several contrasting roles. However, the transformations of this theme will always serve the purpose of "unity within variety" that was the architectural role of sonata form in the classical symphony. The difference here is that thematic transformation can accommodate the dramatically charged phrases, highly coloured melodies and atmospheric harmonies favored by the Romantic composers, whereas sonata form was geared more toward the more objective characteristics of absolute music. Also, while thematic transformation is similar to variation, the effect is usually different since the transformed theme has a life of its own and is no longer a sibling to the original theme.

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Rudolph Reti, also Réti, was a musical analyst, composer and pianist. He was the older brother of the chess master Richard Réti, but unlike his brother, Reti did not write his surname with an acute accent on the 'e'.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hauptstimme</span>

In music, Hauptstimme or Hauptsatz is the main voice, chief part; i.e., the contrapuntal or melodic line of primary importance, in opposition to Nebenstimme. Nebenstimme or Seitensatz is the secondary part; i.e., a secondary contrapuntal or melodic part, always occurring simultaneously with, and subsidiary to, the Hauptstimme. The practice of marking the primary voice within the musical score/parts was invented by Arnold Schoenberg.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014–1019</span> Works by J. S. Bach

The six sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1014–1019 by Johann Sebastian Bach are works in trio sonata form, with the two upper parts in the harpsichord and violin over a bass line supplied by the harpsichord and an optional viola da gamba. Unlike baroque sonatas for solo instrument and continuo, where the realisation of the figured bass was left to the discretion of the performer, the keyboard part in the sonatas was almost entirely specified by Bach. They were probably mostly composed during Bach's final years in Cöthen between 1720 and 1723, before he moved to Leipzig. The extant sources for the collection span the whole of Bach's period in Leipzig, during which time he continued to make changes to the score.


  1. 1 2 Benward and Saker 2009, 136.
  2. Drabkin 2001.
  3. Dunsby 2002.
  4. Michel 1958–1961.
  5. Reti 1951.
  6. Reti 1967.
  7. Lerdahl 2001, 5.
  8. Randel 2002, 429.
  9. Rushton 2001.
  10. Schoenberg 1975, 88.
  11. Grondines 2000.
  12. Benward and Saker 2009, 57.
  13. 1 2 Benward and Saker 2009, 2:50.
  14. Walker 2001.
  15. Benward and Saker 2009, 2:51.


Further reading