How to Learn a Fugue

Piano Lessons / music theory / How to Learn a Fugue

Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s subject is about how to learn and memorize fugues. Fugues are some of the most complex examples of counterpoint. Most music has melody and harmony. Typically on the piano, you have the melody in the right hand and accompaniment in the left-hand. But with a fugue, you have several intertwining melodies. To demonstrate this, I’ve chosen the C Minor Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier book one. I’m choosing this one because it’s a relatively simple fugue. I want you to understand the methodology, because it’s going to apply to all counterpoint and all fugues.

A fugue has a subject and a countersubject.

The entire fugue is built upon the subject and countersubject. The subject is stated and then the subject repeats starting in a different key, typically, the dominant (5 notes above the starting note). So with the C Minor Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, the subject repeats starting on G. While that’s happening, the counter subject is introduced. Amazingly, the entire fugue is crafted from those two elements! The subject is of particular importance. So you want to bring out the subject wherever it occurs. Of course it will start with just the subject, but then when the subject returns in the dominant, you want to bring that out more than the countersubject. Throughout the entire fugue you want to bring out the subject whenever it occurs.

Sometimes the subject is divided between the hands.

Any of you who follow my YouTube channel knows that I learn music and teach music by absorbing digestible chunks of music at a time. Dividing the hands and learning hands separately is a great way of doing that. Once you can play each hand fluently from memory, you have a good chance of being able to play the hands together and getting that memorized. But with a fugue, sometimes it’s not so neat and tidy! This is true of any music that has substantial counterpoint. When you have a place in the music where the fugue subject is divided between your two hands, you still want to bring out the subject. So anytime the fugue subject is divided between the hands, you want to play it so you hear it when you play hands together. That way, you can bring out the fugue subject, even when it’s divided between the hands.

So aside from learning hands separately, you also want to have the integrity of all the lines so you can hear them. You must not only learn the hands separately, but make sure that you follow each voice through, particularly in instances where a voice is divided between the hands. You need to hear each voice. Play voices by themselves so you can hear them. Then when you play the hands together, even if you do learn hands separately, you can follow through and hear the voices. You don’t want to hear just your separate hands, because they really are not complete by themselves when a subject (or countersubject) is divided between the hands.

That’s the method for learning fugues!

Learning a fugue uses the same methodology as learning any music, but with the extra element of following the counterpoint of all the lines. Now this is a very simple example. Sometimes you have things that get really complicated. You’ll see fugues where notes are constantly dividing between the hands. So you really have to study the score to hear what’s going on and not just abstractly learn each hand separately when voices are divided between the hands since that doesn’t always make sense. I hope this is helpful for you! Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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2 thoughts on “How to Learn a Fugue”

    1. Although the 3rd movement of Beehtoven’s Moonlight Sonata is challenging because of the demands of speed and power, fugues don’t offer the multiple repeats of sections as you find in this piece (as you do in just about all sonatas). The counterpoint of fugues is more complex writing than in most sonatas. Check out some late Beethoven sonatas like the Hammerklavier Sonata which has a massive fugue at the end of the 3rd movement if you want a real challenge!

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