Theme (music)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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


A theme 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 theme is usually a complete phrase or period (Dunsby 2002). The Encyclopédie Fasquelle defines a theme as "Any 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).

In different types of music

Music based on one 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 theme is announced and then a second melody, sometimes called a countertheme 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 & Saker 2009, 136).

Music without themes, or without recognizable, repeating, and developing 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). 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).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Theme (music)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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