Subject (music)

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A theme (Greek; actually “the set, the set” - see theme ) is a more or less concise musical figure, which is laid out as a fundamental idea of ​​a piece of music for recurrence, modification and processing in the further course and possibly with further ones Topics can be faced or combined. No general statements can be made about the length, construction, rhythmic conciseness or composition structure (unanimous, polyphonic, homophonic or polyphonic ), since the shape of a topic depends very much on factors such as genre , form , style of composition and work intention. So are z. B. the thematic terms of fugue , sonata and work of variations clearly different.

Topics can take different forms, for example:

  • “Closed” as a clearly delimited section or “open”, d. H. Barely noticeable merging into non-topic parts
  • perceived as primarily melodic-linear or conceived from the outset to be tonal-harmonic or even polyphonic
  • designed as a uniform or contrasting motifs composed
  • as a new creation or as a takeover or processing of already existing material

Subject and motive

Hugo Riemann describes the relationship between theme and motif as follows: “A theme is called a musical thought which, although not completely rounded and closed, is already so extensive that it shows a characteristic physiognomy; the subject differs in this from the motif, which is only a germ of thematic design. A real theme is the result of the formative power of a motif, be it that this is repeated in a straight or reversed movement or has received a contrast. "

Accordingly, a topic is to be thought of as being composed of several different motifs or modifications of a motif. Although one can often get along with this definition, there are limits to its universal applicability. With a fugue theme that sometimes only comprises four or five tones, it can be difficult to recognize a subdivision into motifs; In Beethoven's Fifth Symphony , one is quite helpless when faced with the problem of using the term theme plausibly: Basically, the theme of the first movement (in the literal sense of the word) consists only of the succinct four-tone opening motif; however, if one follows Riemann's definition, one would have to understand a larger context working with this motif as a topic, whereby one would then be faced with the difficulty of where to begin with its end.

The term leitmotif , which is particularly relevant for Wagner's opera works, is also not without problems. Often these “motifs” are quite long formations, which can be clearly subdivided into motifs and should therefore be addressed more as “topics” in the Riemannian sense.

Special musical applications

Subjects can have different characteristics and functions depending on the musical genres or forms in which they occur.


Variations are based on a certain pattern, which can be given as a melody (for example of a song or other piece of music), harmony sequence, bass tone line or a complete piece of music.

Chaconne and Passacaglia

Chaconne and Passacaglia are popular forms, especially in the Baroque, that originally go back to Spanish dances. What both have in common is that they consist of variations based on an ostinate bass, which here functions as a "theme".

Theme with variations

In the Baroque and increasingly in the Classical and Romantic periods , works of variations were created that used closed pieces of music in the form of arias , folk songs , marches or dances as a theme. One example each:


From today's perspective

The term “theme” plays an important role (from today's point of view) in particular with the fugue , which is typical for baroque music: The fugue always begins with an unaccompanied individual voice that introduces the theme. Further voices then join in, which take up the theme, repeat it on different pitches and combine with the other voices to form an artistic network. The theme is not the only, but the essential, material that is further processed in the composition and determines the course of the work. It can be modified in many ways according to the rules of counterpoint .


At the time when the fugue composition was flourishing, the term “theme” was rather unusual. Instead, based on Soggetto , this was referred to as “subject” and the counterpoint added to the topic as “counter-subject”.

Sonata main clause

In the classical period, the theme was given a central place in the exposition of the sonata form . There it often appears homophonically as an accompanied melody, but sometimes also interspersed with polyphonic elements. Usually another, often contrasting topic comes to the side. From the motifs and figures of both themes, the composer then develops the middle section of a sonata main movement, the “development”, before the “recapitulation” repeats the exposition in a modified form and concludes the piece (possibly with an appended coda ).


In jazz , the basis for the usual solo improvisations of the band members is formed by a theme that is introduced at the beginning and then varied by the individual musicians . In jazz pieces with such structure (often, but not necessarily pure instrumentals ), this topic - because of his questions at the beginning introduction - as a main theme ( Engl. Head ) indicates or in modern jazz , and here especially in the Bebop as bebop head .

See also


Individual evidence

  1. quoted from Hugo Riemann , Alfred Einstein : Hugo Riemanns Musiklexikon . 11th edition. Max Hesses Verlag, Berlin 1929, p. 1833 .