Reference Entry


Paul M. Walker

in Oxford Music Online

Published in print January 2001 |
Published online January 2001 | e-ISBN: 9781561592630 | DOI:

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A theme (or group of themes) on which a composition is based. One of the first to apply the word ‘subject’ to music was Zarlino, who in Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558) defined it, using the Italian cognate Soggetto, as any pre-existing material that formed the musical basis for the piece, including either a chosen theme or a borrowed cantus firmus. In modern English usage the term appears in two principal guises, in fugue and sonata form.

In fugue, ‘subject’ may refer either to the theme of the fugue or, more specifically, to the original version of the theme, that is, the version heard first. When used in the latter sense, the word is paired with Answer, the transposed version of the theme (see Fugue, §1). German terminology is clearer: the word Thema is used for the theme of the fugue and dux and comes (see Dux comes...

Reference Entry.  344 words. 

Subjects: Musical Form

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