Imagine you are working with a fugue of Bach or any other composers, which is well-written, clever, and perfect. Such music:

  • Uses the minimal amount of thematic material.
  • Includes very clever counterpoint, using various techniques such as stretto, inversion, etc.

What word should I use to describe such music in a formal context? I cannot say it is "studied" because this term is too broad. I cannot say it is "clever" because this is too informal. I cannot say it is "mathematical" because only people who are familiar with maths understand what I mean.

What word should I use instead of "clever"?

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    I'm not sure, whether the phrase or any other composers helps to produce good answers. E. g. Vivaldi works more with melodies, plays with rhythms so the resulting music is less formal/elaborate/whatever. I'm also sceptical, how the minimal amount of thematic material fits into the picture. Bruckner extensively uses his material, but earns quite some criticism from non-afficionados for doing so. – guidot Jan 3 '20 at 16:21
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    You need to define "mathematically precise music" before anyone can legitimately find words to describe it. – user50691 Jan 3 '20 at 19:22
  • You may be interested in these terms: absolute music and economy of material – John Wu Jan 4 '20 at 0:55
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    I don't see any good reason to close this. There is terminology to answer the question. – Michael Curtis Jan 7 '20 at 22:27

For over a century people have described music by Brahms in this way; the word they often use is academic. Typically this word means exactly what you intend: the use of advanced, clever counterpoint and with a heavy emphasis on developed motives (and thus "minimal amount of thematic material" due to the motivic economy on display).

In other contexts, musicians will say something is in the learned style to describe music that uses contrapuntal techniques. But this phrase, at least in my experience, isn't specific in terms of the amount of thematic material used.

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    You should be aware of connotation as well. "academic" means roughly the same as "learned", but it tends to be used as a criticism - often as opposed to "natural" as espoused by the Romantic movement. – Kilian Foth Jan 3 '20 at 7:14
  • There is also the connotation of academic meaning something like "according to an academic program" like Gedalge's Treatise on Fugue. Not the same as "in the learned style." – Michael Curtis Jan 3 '20 at 16:18
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    For non-native speakers of English it might help to know that when used in this meaning, the word "learned" has two syllables, learn-ed. – Robert Furber Jan 3 '20 at 18:01
  • Thank you. Could you provide a reference for me to see how those words are used? – Ma Joad Jan 7 '20 at 21:51

...mathematical, perfect, clever...

An alternate word that you can use is procedural. In fact fugue is often described as a compositional procedure rather than a form.

...Uses the minimal amount of thematic material.

A word that came to my mind was attacco. It doesn't mean exactly minimally short fugue subject, but rather it means a short phrase treated imitatively. In a fugue an attacco could be a fragment of the subject.

Personally, I would stay away from using "mathematically precise" unless you are talking about stuff like serial music. Some fugue procedures are math-ish, but in the end it's art.


Here is something that uses attacco to describe a type of fugue subject...

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  • Do you have any reference that shows me how those words are used? Something like an article the compositional style of Bach or Brahms. – Ma Joad Jan 7 '20 at 21:54
  • Attacco, a definition in Grove's, books.google.com/… – Michael Curtis Jan 7 '20 at 22:09
  • For procedural there isn't a definition, but Mann's Study of Fugue shows how it's used books.google.com/… – Michael Curtis Jan 7 '20 at 22:14
  • Your welcome! I added another example in my answer, because it was the usage I originally thought of, but I could not find a referenced earlier. You might think about editing your original question, because it is now closed! It's a good question. If you edit it a bit, I think it will be reopened. – Michael Curtis Jan 7 '20 at 22:22

One option might be structured (or even, for emphasis, heavily-structured).

That highlights the way that the thematic material is built up and organised into an overall piece.  It contrasts with more ‘free’ (and hence less-structured) music, without implying too much of a value judgement either way.

I note that that term could also be applied to Classical and Romantic pieces which developed the sonata form into its most intricate forms; though I'm not sure whether that's an argument for or against its use here :-)

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