Tool #49: Retrograde

To continue my discussion on motivic development, I would like to explore a technique that is simple at first glance, but can be developed into a very complex process.

Retrograding a motive is, at its simplest, reversing it.  So, a simple melody played backwards is the melody in retrograde.


This is a very effective tool in developing motives, but it goes deeper:

What happens if we only retrograde the pitches, and do not retrograde the rhythms they are assigned to?


What happens if we only retrograde the rhythms, and not the pitches?


There are limitless ways we can retrograde different elements of a motive, or entire motives.  The goals of retrograding are many:

  1. Retrogrades create sonic unity
  2. They can help unify the concept of a piece
  3. They are a way of developing motives that are organic to the piece one is writing, but while masking a clear relationship to the original motive
  4. They can be used theatrically; what does it imply if a motive associated with a character is suddenly reversed?

There are many more uses for retrogrades.  Some canons, called retrograde or “crab” canons, have the follower voice follow the leader backwards.  Here is an example of a crab canon by Bach, visualized quite creatively:

This is a simple technique, but there are many ways of exploring it.

Questions?  Comments?

Thanks for reading,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s