I understand that imitation is repetition within a polyphonic texture...so my understanding is that for example, when the trumpet part repeats the string part at 0:21 in this piece by Handel (

), this is repetition rather than imitation. But the grey area for me is, if a part repeats in another voice within a polyphonic texture, maybe a bar or more after the first part has finished...is this imitation or do the 2 parts need to overlap?

  • a little bit sophisticated ... but I like this questions more than others, as I know now what is a stretto. Apr 4, 2019 at 13:53

1 Answer 1


'Imitation' is a very broad term for a very broad musical concept. Imagine a composition where a melodic or rhythmic element DIDN'T often echo something already heard?

Let's start from the Wikipedia opinion - "the repetition of a melody in a polyphonic texture shortly after its first appearance in a different voice."

OK, that excludes rhythmic imitation, and avoids the question of how exact the copy should be - imitation need not be literal. But it'll do as a basis.

Your question hinges on how short is 'shortly'. An overlap obviously meets the requirement! Simple re-use of a melody several pages later obviously doesn't. I'd suggest: 'Imitation is when a repetition directly follows the initial statement. Nothing of import should intervene. But it need not actually overlap.'

There is a special name 'Stretto' for a series of overlapping imitations where the entries DO overlap, 'piling up' on each other. Look at the first musical examples on this page:


  • 1
    I like your definition. Thanks for that Laurence and for the Stretto examples. Is it right to say that in the Handel example above, the horns at 0:27, repeating the statement by trumpets at 0:21 is not an example of imitation, simply because the texture is not polyphonic?
    – John MC
    Apr 4, 2019 at 11:53
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    You don't need to build a brick wall between 'repitition' and 'imitation'. A Stretto is at one end of the range of types of repitition we call 'imitation'. The Handel is at the other.
    – Laurence
    Apr 4, 2019 at 13:48
  • I would say - without building a brickwall ;) - in this case here this a repetition. Apr 4, 2019 at 13:52
  • Thanks Laurence, I really like the way you've described the range and agree that there shouldn't be a brick wall. Thanks also for your thoughts Albert, because I feel more comfortable with calling it a repetition due to the texture not being polyphonic...particularly because I'm teaching Chinese students, some of whom have difficulty with English, so sometimes it's useful to put a concept neatly into a box for that purpose.
    – John MC
    Apr 5, 2019 at 13:05

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