Through some previous questions on SE, I have recently managed to find several books on fugues that I like and am having much more success analyzing them. But I haven't gotten to the point where I have written a fugue successfully and I can tell this is because I need to develop an "ear" for writing fugues.

I have had success developing my so called "ear" in other genres by starting with simpler songs. For instance, writing cello solos before attempting to write two-hand piano pieces. In this way, I gradually built up my skills set and have been successful. I am wondering if something similar would work for fugues.

In particular, I have read that canons are very related to fugues and that canon writing is a very useful skill to have before attempting to write fugues. To put it crudely, from what I understand, fugues seem similar to canons but with a bunch of other rules and tricks that make them somewhat more complex. But both canons and fugues seem to share this element of repetition and, because of that, learning to write canons helps you to write fugues by making you better at that repetition coordination element.

Is this true? Does anyone have any knowledge, experience, or references that can confirm this idea? Are there resources that discuss the transition from canon writing to fugues?

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    I'm not sure why this question is down-voted and voted to close. There are specific techniques used for both canons and fugues that can be explained. Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 15:39
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    There are a number of great answers already, so I won't rehash what many have already said. I will say, however, that any "decent" counterpoint textbook will begin with imitative counterpoint in two voices, move through canonic writing, and into fugue. It's tough to imagine trying to teach someone the fugal process (fugue is a process, not a form!) that does not know how to write a canon.
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 11:18

3 Answers 3


Depends. A simple canon at the octave is a bit of a doddle. The biggest difficulty is avoiding the impression of "running in place": it's a distinct advantage to have some aptitude for reharmonisation of existing melodic lines.

The difficulty with canons at other intervals is in avoiding having the material running away from you, so to speak: it will want to move away from the tonic. Again, a certain facility with reharmonisation comes into its own.

Canon by inversion has its own challenges, and cancrizans (crab canon) can be bloody difficult because rhythms don't work the same way when they're played backwards. When you start into various combinations of cancrizans or retrograde with inversion, augmentation and diminution, life gets interesting. <wry grin>

Fugue has its own difficulties. For one, you are responsible for creating a viable form with it, so all the usual problems of creating a medium- to large-scale work are coupled with the requirement for contrapuntal mastery. If you look at the fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier, you will find that the fugues vary considerably in form, including some very well-defined binary and ternary forms.

Again, there are differing levels of contrapuntal difficulty: fugues can contain canons, they can contain retrograded and/or inverted subjects, they can make use of augmentation and diminution, they can work with multiple subjects (need a good grasp of invertible counterpoint for that), etc. If you want to see some real compositional virtuosity using all of this, lay your hands on the score for Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis. Here's Sviatoslav Richter playing the entire thing (with score): Paul Hindemith - Ludus Tonalis.

Now, having said all that, I don't think there is too much difficulty writing either simple canons or fugues, and I don't see that one need sacrifice artistry in doing so. You don't need to be fancy, and you don't need to sound like Bach; you just need good melodic ideas that are open-ended and that want to form duets with other voices. Note that fugues before Bach rarely used countersubjects, invertible counterpoint, sequential episodes, etc. They just brought in the subject and answer in various voices with free accompaniment, and episodes rarely lasted more than 2 bars - 4 bars was a long episode. Pachelbel's Magnificat fugues are good examples: Pachelbel, Fugues on the Magnificat sexti toni Nos 3, 5, 6, 8, 9.

  • A very interesting post. since posting, i have written my first canon and indeed it was a doddle. I can see what you mean about running in place. Although pleasing, my canon was like "row row row your boat" and did not have that complexity I see in Pachelbel's canon. He can make it seem completely non-repetitive even when repition exists. I had never heard of Hindsmith. He has written some books I see. I will look at Pachelbel's fugues. It's a shame that (as i understand it) fugues fell out of fashion by Chopin's time. He's only written one I know of an it was terrible. Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 4:06
  • I definitely think writing a canon was a helpful step toward fugue writing. But I must expand beyond writing rounds to other forms like those you mentioned. Undoubtedly if one can handle repetition in complex canon forms, a fugue surely shouldn't be considerably more difficult. Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 4:07
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    A fugue is in some ways easier, because you aren't writing the parts in lockstep. It can be a very expressive method of writing. Fugues never did really go out of style, though: Brahms wrote a few reasonably good ones; Reger wrote prodigious amounts of 'em; Bartók's opening movement for the Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta is one; Shostakovich wrote a set of 24; Hindemith wrote as you see, and the finale of his 3rd Piano Sonata is a triple fugue... Even Schoenberg got in the game: the Prelude to Genesis is a 12-tone fugue.
    – user16935
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 4:20
  • Do you know of any books that discuss this "running in place" problem and ways around that? If you have a text on canons in general, but I'd take a reference for that as well. I just listened to Pachelbel's canon again and I'm sure there must be authors who detail how to expand from simple canons like mine into complex ones like that. The trick is to find good authors. One I like is Ebenezer Prout, but he's the only guy I have found so far. Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 7:27
  • Walter Piston's Counterpoint, maybe: contrary to what you might expect, it deals with modern counterpoint rather than species counterpoint. The trick to moving a canon at the octave or unison along, though, is to bring in a foreign leading tone at an appropriate spot in the dux (leader). For instance, assume you have a line of A-B-C in the key of C in the comes (follower), what happens when your dux proceeds by A-G♯-A at the same time?
    – user16935
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 17:45

To my thinking, a canon is in some ways more difficult, due to the strictness and the need for a really powerful but simple line. However, a canon in general would seem a smaller project than a fugue, and with less historical baggage to grok. Here's a text that seems to back that up. https://books.google.com/books?id=1PGj55jfH2cC&pg=PA304&lpg=PA304&dq=canons+easier+to+write+than+fugues&source=bl&ots=9iNOZa1bOg&sig=hjmaTmKH9jPRT9BM9Yg7xzo8HXw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=rDCiVLXVK8WnNriUgbAH&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=canons%20easier%20to%20write%20than%20fugues&f=false

You are a composer, so no doubt you are already familiar with the devices and structures common to a fugue of the usual sort, so that should make it rather easier (along with modern composition tools). But if you intend to introduce it with a prelude/toccata/fantasy/etc., that's more writing, of course.

I have only piddled here and there with composition, though (and not much with serialism etc.), so don't take my feelings too far. If you have commissions or performance opportunities, you might do well to choose the smaller project first, and whichever you have the best musical material in mind for.


From the point of esthetics, writing cannons are harder without making them sound dull and repetitive over time.

Consider the fact that it was a culture of improvisation. Strict rules of fugues are a result of an evolution process which makes sure fugues sound really great even when improvised on a given theme (You had only one shot to play something sounding really good). So theme is a seed. If you are able to write a good seed theme, the result will be a great fugue.

Cannons have simpler rules which don't direct to anywhere beyond your original theme. So you need to include more from yourself to reach a similar esthetic level with fugues.

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