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In music, a theme is the material, usually a recognizable melody, upon which part or all of a composition is based. It 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 (Michel 1958–61) defines a theme as "Any element, motif, or small musical piece that has given rise to some variation becomes thereby a theme."



In classical composition, a principal theme is announced and then a second melody, sometimes called a countertheme or secondary theme, may occur.

A leitmotif is a motif or theme associated with a person, place, or idea. See also figure and cell.

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

Music based on one theme is monothematic while music based on several themes is polythematic. For example, most fugues are monothematic and most pieces in sonata form are polythematic (Randel 2002, 429). 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).


In a three-part fugue, the principal theme (usually called the "subject") is announced three times in three different voices—soprano, alto, bass—or some variation of this.

In a four-part fugue, the principal theme is announced four times. A motif is a short melodic figure used repeatedly which may be used to construct a theme.

Music without themes

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, and Alban Berg. 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,).

See also


  • Drabkin, William (2001). "Theme". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Dunsby, Jonathan (2002). "Theme". The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198662122
  • Lerdahl, Fred (1992)."Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems". Contemporary Music Review 6, no. 2:97-121.
  • Michel, François (ed). (1958–61). Encyclopédie de la musique, 3 vols. Paris: Fasquelle. (Cited in Nattiez 1990.)
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0-691-02714-5.
  • Randel, Don Michael (ed.) (1999). The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-00978-9.
  • Rushton, Julia 2001. "Subject Group". New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Schoenberg, Arnold (1975). "My Evolution", in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg,, edited by Leonard Stein, translated by Leo Black, 88. London: Faber. ISBN 0571097227

Simple English

In music, a theme is the initial or primary melody.

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