Imitation (music)

Imitation first at the octave then at the M6 in Bartók's "Chromatic Invention", Mikrokosmos, vol. III, no. 91, mm. 1-4[1]  Play .
"Row, Row, Row Your Boat" round  Play . A new part can join the singing by starting at the beginning whenever another part reaches any asterisk. If one ignores the sixteenth notes that pass between the main chords, every single note is in the tonic triad—in this case, a C, E, or G.
Example of a tonal answer in J.S. Bach's Fugue no. 16 in G minor, BWV 861, from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. ( Listen )
The first note of the subject, D, (in red) is a prominent dominant note, demanding that the first note of the answer (in blue) sounds as the tonic, G, rather than A.

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.

Imitation helps provide unity to a composition.


When a phrase recurs exactly as before (except perhaps transposed), it is called strict imitation. A round is thus an example of strict imitation. Repetition is defined as the repetition of a phrase or melody often with variations in key, rhythm, and voice.

Different authors define imitation somewhat differently:

Real imitation[:] An imitation with no modifications except for the usual diatonic adjustment of half and whole steps. The exact transposition of a melody at different pitch levels.
Benward & Saker (2003)[2]
Imitation[:] The repetition of a melody or melodic group in close succession, but in a different voice; the repetition of a melody at a different pitch level in a polyphonic texture.
Benward & Saker[2]
Imitation[:] The restatement in close succession of melodic figures in different voices in polyphonic textures.
Benward & Saker (2009)[3]

In counterpoint, imitation occurs in a second voice, usually at a different pitch. A short phrase treated imitatively is called an attacco.

Use in various musical styles

In European classical music, imitative writing was featured heavily in the highly polyphonic compositions of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. A more improvisatory form of imitation can be found in Arab and Indian vocal music where the instrumentalist may accompany the vocalist in a vocal improvisation with imitation.

In pop music a much clichéd form of imitation consists of a background choir repeating — usually the last notes — of the lead singer's last line. See: fill (music).

See also


  1. Bruce Benward; Marilyn Saker (May 2008). Music in theory and practice. p. 300. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  2. 1 2 Benward & Saker (2003), p.361.
  3. Benward & Saker (2009), p.357.
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