This is meant to be a quick guide, not a definitive authority. Bach in particular used a lot of Latin epigrams, having aced all his Latin exams as a boy. I can translate canon-specific jargon for you into musical terms, and even a define a few musical terms, but if you are finding a lot of unfamiliar words in the definitions, you may need a music dictionary to take it from there. Let me know if you would like to see more terms defined here! -TDE
The archaic and obsolete art of divining metals. The famous physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton was also an alchemist, for example. There is a strong historical connection between alchemy and canons.
An effect where the follower transforms the imitation by using shorter note values, usually half that of the original. (See diminution.)
Breve. Double whole note. It was originally called 'breve' (meaning 'brief') because it was the shortest time value used in music.
Backwards. syn: crab, retrograde
canon [from the Greek kanon]
1. a rule by which a missing voice may be added to a composition
2. a polyphonic, continuously imitative section of a composition
3. a composition in which one or more voices are strictly imitated
The follower in a canonic imitation
Upside down! When the leader ascends, the follower descends. Contrary motion may happen diatonically, where the position of the notes on the staff is mirrored, or chromatically, where the mirroring is even more strict than the notation, each interval mirrored by precisely the same interval from an axis pitch.
1. The art of writing more than one melody to sound simultaneously.
Backwards (the idea being that crabs walk backwards, sort of). syn: cancrizans, retrograde
Octave. Greek terms for musical intervals were retained by medieval and Renaissance philosophers who venerated tuning systems traditionally associated with Pythagoras, Plato or Aristotle.
The interval of a fifth.
The interval of a fourth.
An effect where the follower transforms the imitation by performing it using shorter note values, usually half that of the original. (See augmentation.)
A symbol used at the end of a staff indicating the pitch of the first note on the following line. (Lat: custos; Ger: Wachte; It: guida)
Understanding canon under the narrower definition as a piece in strict imitation, a double canon happens when there are two leaders, each with at least one follower. See also: triple canon, and so on
Invertible counterpoint involving two voices whose melodies are written in order to be capable of being inverted with one another.
The leader in canonic imitation.
1. an imitative, polyphonic composition in a given number of voices using the concept of subject and answer: The subject is a brief, well-composed melody, entering alone in a single voice, and is answered when a second voice enters with the same melody, but now a fifth or fourth away, i.e. in a different but closely-related key. Each voice enters in turn with a subject or answer while the previous voices continue to sound in counterpoint. The introduction of the voices one-by-one until all have entered with the subject consitutes the exposition, or first section of a fugue. The remainder of the composition consists in alternations between episodes of relief from the subject, individual entries of the subject, and subsequent expositions. The pairing of subjects and answers in fourths and fifths is based on the limitations of the human voice; while it is compositionally easier to imitate at the unison or octave, the four common voice ranges, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, differ by fourths and fifths, the tenor voicd lying roughly a fifth higher than the bass, the alto about a fourth higher than the tenor, and so on. Fugues commonly employ the same transformative devices as canon, such as diminution, retrograde, invertible counterpoint, and so on; among these should be included canonic imitation, which when involving the subject is called stretto.
2. the genre of fugues. Fugue is central to baroque music.
"A melody, usually in the bass and hence often called a ground bass (basso ostinato in Italian), recurring many times in succession, accompanied by continuous variation in the upper parts. The term ‘ground’ may refer to the bass melody itself, to an entire musical scheme including the harmonies and upper voices, to the process of repetition in general, or to a composition in which it occurs. The word was first used in England late in the 16th century and appeared frequently there throughout the Baroque period, sometimes associated with improvisation; modern scholars have also applied the term to the same technique in other countries and in other periods of history. In addition, it has occasionally been applied to the OSTINATO recurrence of an essentially harmonic progression, which may or may not be accompanied by an exactly recurring bass line."
[This definition quoted from the entry "Ground" in Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Oxford Music Online, , accessed October 2 2014).]
When one voice follows another
1. The re-arrangement of two melodies so that the one that was first above the other is now heard below it; switching the treble and bass melodies. Ordinarily voices are inverted at the octave, but other intervals are possible.
2. Chords may also be inverted. In such cases the root of the chord is no longer the lowest note.
3. Occasionally some writers use the term "inversion" to mean contrary motion.
Counterpoint involving two or more voices whose melodies are written in order to be capable of being inverted with one another.
Perpetual. It is customary to write never-ending canons with repeats that send you continually back to the beginning. The tradition is to consider canons as eternal music of the heavens.
A musical texture consisting of simultaneous, often equally-important melodies.
Invertible counterpoint involving four voices whose melodies are written in order to be capable of being inverted with one another, and in particular where any one of the voices may be treated as the bass or treble voice.
Invertible counterpoint involving five voices whose melodies are written in order to be capable of being inverted with one another, and in particular where any one of the voices may be treated as the bass or treble voice.
A contrapuntal composition in which different, unassociated melodies are combined contrapuntally.
Backwards. Starting at the end and ending at the beginning.
A perpetual canon at the unison whose parts enter at even intervals dividing the canon into equal sections of time.
Invertible counterpoint involving six voices whose melodies are written in order to be capable of being inverted with one another, and in particular where any one of the voices may be treated as the bass or treble voice.
A sign or segno placsed above or below the staff in the notation of an enigmatic canon to indicate the point in time where a canonic entry is to begin. (plural: signa congruentiae).
Invertible counterpoint involving three voices whose melodies are written in order to be capable of being inverted with one another, and in particular where any one of the voices may be treated as the bass or treble voice.
A part in a contrapuntal composition. A voice is not necessarily a human voice. A canon for three flutes would be composed of three voices. An invention by Bach, to be played on a keyboard, has two voices; each hand plays one melody.