What is a Fugue?

A fugue is a style of composition. It is a series of melodies woven together using different voices (either instruments of actual voices) which are introduced one by one. It can be a stand alone piece or form part of a longer piece of music.

sheet music arranged so it looks circular - infinite

CC image by pfly, flickr

It may help to think of a fugue as similar to those songs that are sung in rounds like ‘row row row your boat’. One singer starts and when they’re halfway through the first line the second one starts and so on.

A fugue starts with a single musical idea, a melody known as the subject. Then another voice will start, known as the answer. This second voice will usually play the same melody as the subject but at a different pitch (i.e. higher or lower).

Then these two voices will be playing and a third may join and so on. The voices most likely will differ by pitch and sometimes by key. By playing at the same time they compliment and weave about each other’s melody creating the one harmony.

The origins of the word fugue are latin and mean ‘to chase’ which is kind of what all the voices are doing in this type of music.

How long is a fugue?

It varies. Fugues can be part of a larger work or stand alone by themselves.

What/who is a fugue played by?

CC by Andy Bagley

CC image by Andy Bagley


They are usually designed for one type of instrument (or vocal)

Famous Fugue composers

Johann Sebastian Bach

Statue of Bach with his name on the plinth

CC image by Maggie Stephens

 Fugues are quite technically complicated to compose. Luckily you don’t need  to know the details to enjoy listening to them.

Many of the famous composers wrote fugues. Probably the most famous was  Bach. Bach wrote many of his fugues for an early version of the organ or a  harpsichord.



“Great” fugue in G Minor, by Bach

This is an animated representation of the different voices in this fugue. The visuals really help to see what’s going on with the composition.  Not to mention see how difficult it would be to write or play.


Toccata and fugue in D Minor by Bach

You’ll definitely know this one. It’s Bach’s most famous fugue.

What are the different sections of a fugue?

A fugue doesn’t have a totally fixed structure, instead it has a general style.

This is a simplified version of the structure a composer might choose to use.

  •  Exposition – like an introduction of the subject. The first voice enters with the melody – the subject, and then another will enter and respond to it- the answer. A bit like a call and respond in popular music.
  • Episode – may or may not appear – it’s like a transition between sections
  • Development – the middle section of the fugue is further development of the original subject and answer with either the introduction of new voices, different keys, pitches and/or subtle altering of the subject itself.
  • Final Section/Coda – part of the piece that follows the final entry of the subject is usually the coda.

What is the history of the fugue?

The musical term fugue has been around since the middle-ages but not in a form recognizable to us now.

During the 16th Century the fugue grew more into those which we know today but it wasn’t until the Baroque era that they became popular with composers.

Featured image via Elek Laszlo, flickr

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