I have a predilection for music from the first half of the 20th century. I can't pinpoint the exact reason why, I suspect it is from absorbing so much music from movies, tv series and computer games which mainly draws on late romantic and early modern idioms. There was also an incredible variety of different styles in that period, but above all, there was a search for something beyond tonality, an exploration that already started in the late works of Franz Liszt. Several approaches were attempted. The Viennese school and its dodecaphonism is probably one of the most influential systems of the early 20th century, but many composers took different paths. So, the musical world was like in turmoil and producing many interesting idioms.

Among them --enough with the lengthy preamble-- is Sergei Prokofiev. The thing is, Prokofiev is actually composing in a tonal style. But somehow it feels very different from anything tonal composed previously. It has nothing to do with Bartók's style either.

So I asked my brother, who is a trained musicologist what makes Prokofiev so distinct and recognizable. He could answer me in some very general terms, it boiling down to using a very personal counterpoint/harmony, breaking the classical rules. But that is still a bit vague. He could not tell me more; as he explained, the standard curricula are so focused on Schönberg or Stravinsky, that they kind of neglect composers like Prokofiev who still compose in a tonal system, to the point of even pooh-poohing them.

So, is there anyone who studied Prokofiev more deeply and can enlighten me a bit on his idiom?

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    I think one of the reasons Prokoviev is underrated and understudied (especially by american musicologists) is that he decided to come back living in the USSR in the 1930s. He suffered a lot from this personally in the 1940s. The most important is that his music is played very frequently.
    – Eric
    Commented May 10, 2011 at 21:34
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    one characteristic I've definitely noticed is response to a theme in a key other than the dominant, e.g. theme in D major followed by a response in C major Commented May 11, 2011 at 14:51
  • He's one of my favorites, maybe not of all era. But I always find his themes enticing and his way to develop them even more so. I often notice that music from movies is using a lot from him. So finding out where they got their stuff from was a revelation, and the source is definitely better! He has produced a lot of accessible music, but also very intricate music. His musical universe is so rich that I could live on an isolated island listening only to his repertoire. Commented May 11, 2011 at 19:27
  • I'd love it if someone could answer this in vocabulary that can be understood by a performer. I've always wondered about this too, though I lack the theory knowledge to even formulate the question, let alone answer it. Commented May 13, 2011 at 2:55

6 Answers 6


There are a couple interesting idioms used by Prokofiev that stand out for me:

  • Tonal ambiguity and disjunct melody, often using chromatic lines, fourths (quartal harmony), tritones, symmetric scales based on minor or major thirds (octatonic or augmented, respectively), harmonies and melodies involving dissonant minor second and major seventh intervals, chromatic displacement, and frequent key changes (often to distant tonal centers).

  • Sharp dynamic contrast, preferring dynamic accents to agogic and tiered changes in dynamics to crescendo and decrescendo (especially in his own playing). Also notable are sudden changes in dynamics, for instance brief bars of forte in otherwise mezzo-piano passages.

Edit: here are a couple dissertations that may prove of some use for further study, including formal analysis:

  • I'm late to this game, but interested readers should also check out work by Deborah Rifkin; see especially this article and her dissertation.
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 11:02

I haven't done a proper study of the matter, but the following do stand out for me:

  • use of the lydian mode
  • melodies spanning a large pitch range
  • frequent key changes, even multiple times in a passage
  • repetition of a theme in a different key (especially a tone lower; e.g 8-bars in D major then repeated in C major)

These are, of course, not enough to distinguish Prokofiev's particular style, though. But I do hear them coming up again and again in his music.


If you want to find out what he had to say about his own music, and his life, you might want to read his autobiography. It has been translated into English.

Prokofiev by Prokofiev: a composer's memoir by Sergei Prokofiev

Among other things, he discusses some of his musical teachers, including Glière, and some of his early attempts at composing.


Check out the many, scattered and voluminous albums and videos of the British rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman, best known as the keyboardist for the band Yes in their heyday.

One of his favorite "parlour tricks" is playing and improvising music in the style of Prokofiev, and he's really good at it. I think you could learn a bit from his technique. Most of this music is quite fun and not "serious", and that's a good thing.


Not sure if anyone's still following this, but I'm working on a doctoral degree in piano performance.

Prokofiev identified his own style in the autobiography mentioned above. He talked about it in terms of 5 different aspects/"five lines of composition" that contribute to his sound. I definitely remember 4 of them, and I think I know the fifth. I really ought to go back and have another look...

1) motoric - incredibly insistent/persistent rhythmic energy (see Toccata) 2) lyrical - wonderful melodist, like Mozart with harsh harmony (see slow movement, 1st violin concerto) 3) classical - innovative use of classical devices for historical consistent, overall impact (see classical symphony) 4) (as I recall...) Modern - a special technique used to give harmonies that "edgy" quality that can sound very harsh (see Scythian Suite) 5) "grotesque" - acknowledged by composer, but mostly promoted by audience - a primitivistic, raunchy sound (see second piano concerto, movement 3)

Hope this is helpful! Prokofiev discusses these in pretty short order in his autobiography. Wouldn't have to read the whole thing for a much better synopsis of his style! Incidentally, I believe it was translated by his own son, so its translation is fairly reliable.


To me his style is all about effect. The linear melody and contrapunctal lines keep the music together, and harmonically he is going out as far as possible, but still to my ears with always having a tonal center. The use of chromaticism helps him "mask" the harmony and letting him go out to unexpected chords.

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