Subject (music)

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First theme of Haydn's Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: G1, I, mm. 1-12 (Benward and Saker 2009, 136) 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 ( Benward and Saker 2009 , 136)

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 ( Drabkin 2001 ). In contrast to an idea or motif, a subject is usually a complete phrase or period ( Dunsby 2002 ). 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" ( Michel 1958–61 ).

Thematic changes and processes are often structurally important, and theorists such as Rudolph Reti have created analysis from a purely thematic perspective (Reti 1951; Reti 1967). Fred Lerdahl describes thematic relations as "associational" and thus outside his cognitive-based generative theory's scope of analysis ( Lerdahl 2001 , 5).[ 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 ( Randel 2002 , 429). 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 (Rushton 2001; Benward and Saker 2009 , 136).

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" ( Schoenberg 1975 , 88).[ 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 ( Grondines 2000 ).[ 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 (Benward and Saker 2009, 57) 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 ( Benward and Saker 2009 , 57)


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 ( Benward and Saker 2009 , 2:50). It is not usually regarded as an essential feature of fugue, however ( Walker 2001 ).

The typical fugue opening resembles the following ( Benward and Saker 2009 , 2:50):

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 ( Benward and Saker 2009 , 2:51).

See also

Related Research Articles

Fugue Contrapuntal musical form based on a subject that recurs in imitation

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.

Symphony Type of extended musical composition

A symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, most often written by composers for orchestra. Although the term has had many meanings from its origins in the ancient Greek era, by the late 18th century the word had taken on the meaning common today: a work usually consisting of multiple distinct sections or movements, often four, with the first movement in sonata form. Symphonies are almost always scored for an orchestra consisting of a string section, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments which altogether number about 30 to 100 musicians. Symphonies are notated in a musical score, which contains all the instrument parts. Orchestral musicians play from parts which contain just the notated music for their own instrument. Some symphonies also contain vocal parts.

Sonata form is a musical structure consisting of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. It has been used widely since the middle of the 18th century.

A symphonic poem or tone poem is a piece of orchestral music, usually in a single continuous movement, which illustrates or evokes the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other (non-musical) source. The German term Tondichtung appears to have been first used by the composer Carl Loewe in 1828. The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt first applied the term Symphonische Dichtung to his 13 works in this vein.

Rondo and the part-equivalent French term rondeau are words long used in music in a number of ways, most often in reference to a musical form.

Musical analysis

Musical analysis is the study of musical structure in either compositions or performances. According to music theorist Ian Bent, music analysis "is the means of answering directly the question 'How does it work?'". The method employed to answer this question, and indeed exactly what is meant by the question, differs from analyst to analyst, and according to the purpose of the analysis. According to Ian Bent, "its emergence as an approach and method can be traced back to the 1750s. However it existed as a scholarly tool, albeit an auxiliary one, from the Middle Ages onwards." Adolf Bernhard Marx was influential in formalising concepts about composition and music understanding towards the second half of the 19th century.

Canon (music) Musical technique

In music, a canon is a contrapuntal (counterpoint-based) compositional technique that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration. The initial melody is called the leader, while the imitative melody, which is played in a different voice, is called the follower. The follower must imitate the leader, either as an exact replication of its rhythms and intervals or some transformation thereof. Repeating canons in which all voices are musically identical are called rounds—"Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and "Frère Jacques" are popular examples.

In music, texture is how the tempo, melodic, and harmonic materials are combined in a composition, thus determining the overall quality of the sound in a piece. Texture is often described in regard to the density, or thickness, and range, or width, between lowest and highest pitches, in relative terms as well as more specifically distinguished according to the number of voices, or parts, and the relationship between these voices. For example, a thick texture contains many 'layers' of instruments. One of these layers could be a string section, or another brass. The thickness also is changed by the amount and the richness of the instruments playing the piece. The thickness varies from light to thick. A piece's texture may be changed by the number and character of parts playing at once, the timbre of the instruments or voices playing these parts and the harmony, tempo, and rhythms used. The types categorized by number and relationship of parts are analyzed and determined through the labeling of primary textural elements: primary melody (PM), secondary melody (SM), parallel supporting melody (PSM), static support (SS), harmonic support (HS), rhythmic support (RS), and harmonic and rhythmic support (HRS).

Neoclassicism (music) Music genre

Neoclassicism in music was a twentieth-century trend, particularly current in the interwar period, in which composers sought to return to aesthetic precepts associated with the broadly defined concept of "classicism", namely order, balance, clarity, economy, and emotional restraint. As such, neoclassicism was a reaction against the unrestrained emotionalism and perceived formlessness of late Romanticism, as well as a "call to order" after the experimental ferment of the first two decades of the twentieth century. The neoclassical impulse found its expression in such features as the use of pared-down performing forces, an emphasis on rhythm and on contrapuntal texture, an updated or expanded tonal harmony, and a concentration on absolute music as opposed to Romantic program music.

Invention (musical composition)

In music, an invention is a short composition in two-part counterpoint. Well-known examples are the fifteen inventions that make up the first half of Johann Sebastian Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias. Inventions are usually not performed in public, but serve as exercises for keyboard students, and as pedagogical exercises for composition students.

In Western music theory, the term sentence is analogous to the way the term is used in linguistics, in that it usually refers to a complete, somewhat self-contained statement. Usually a sentence refers to musical spans towards the lower end of the durational scale; i.e. melodic or thematic entities well below the level of 'movement' or 'section', but above the level of 'motif' or 'measure'. The term is usually encountered in discussions of thematic construction. In the last fifty years, an increasing number of theorists such as William Caplin have used the term to refer to a specific theme-type involving repetition and development.

In music, especially western popular music, a bridge is a contrasting section that prepares for the return of the original material section. In a piece in which the original material or melody is referred to as the "A" section, the bridge may be the third eight-bar phrase in a thirty-two-bar form, or may be used more loosely in verse-chorus form, or, in a compound AABA form, used as a contrast to a full AABA section.

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 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."
Imitation (music)

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.

Exposition (music)

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.

A musical line which is the reverse of a previously or simultaneously stated line is said to be its retrograde or cancrizans. An exact retrograde includes both the pitches and rhythms in reverse. An even more exact retrograde reverses the physical contour of the notes themselves, though this is possible only in electronic music. Some composers choose to subject just the pitches of a musical line to retrograde, or just the rhythms. In twelve-tone music, reversal of the pitch classes alone—regardless of the melodic contour created by their registral placement—is regarded as a retrograde.

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'.


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.

Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014–1019

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.


Further reading