Fugues and Techniques for Learning Them

Fugues are one of the most challenging of musical forms. Perhaps even the most challenging.

Not only are there a lot of notes, but the structure is incredibly dense, entwined, and alarmingly cerebral!

Generally, students do not study fugues until at least three years of study. The foundation just isn't there. A student needs to have understanding of harmonic structure (I, V) and intervals, articulation (lifts), ability to hear melodic lines buried in the texture, finger dexterity to bring these voices to the fore one after another, a good work ethic, and perseverance.


I believe it is best to go right to Bach. Why not? All composers go there to learn! If there is only one "master" of music, it is Bach. Hard to believe that in his day he was a little-known local performer, occasional composer for his local churches, and organ tester....

Prior to fugue study, I recommend extensive time spent in imitative music. Bach's "Little Preludes" are an excellent start. Generally of only two voices (but sometimes three), these are pieces short but challenging. I usually use the Kalmus edition (#02000), edited by Hans Bischoff. Those of you who know my preference for Urtext editions will be surprised, since Herr Professor Bischoff's edition is fairly highly-edited. I use this edition, however, because the price is right. And it's easy to paint out all the garbage with Liquid Paper.

By garbage, I mean: dynamic markings, tempo markings, metronome speeds, slurs, staccatos, and accents. All of this is non-Bach. Bach wrote these pieces to be played on the harpsichord (or the organ). The harpsichord is unable to play loud and soft, unable to make accents, etc. Staccato notes are an editor's [feeble] attempt to indicate articulation. Bach hardly ever gave tempo markings. He took it for granted that the player would "know" the proper speed. In most music of the 17th- and 18th-centuries, there are no tempo markings. The composers assumed the player was familiar enough with the musical idiom of the day that a tempo marking would be superfluous (and an insult!). The organ can play dynamic levels by changing manuals or adding/subtracting stops, but accents are not possible. Again, articulation is the key.

Articulation is the technique of bringing out melodic lines and motifs by way of finger action rather than volume. The end of a phrase is denoted by a lift (a cessation of sound). An accent is made by a lift before the note to be accented. A combination of slurred and detached notes "shape" the motif. In an imitative piece, the motif (or the subject, if we are discussing a fugue) is always delineated with the same combinations of slurs and detached notes. That's how the listener is able to pick it out of the texture.

Think of a detached note as one in which half the value is sound and the other half silence. A detached eighth-note is a sixteenth-note of sound followed by a sixteenth-note of rest, for example.

Lifts are the same thing. The difference in nomenclature is that a lift is at the end of a phrase. Or before an ornament. A detached note is found in the midst of a phrase.

This is a complex topic. Please check on my main pedagogy page for a file specifically on articulation in Baroque music.

I teach the "Little Preludes" in the following order (book of 18 preludes):

I usually do not teach the piece #16 unless I also teach the minuet (by Stoelzel) for which this trio was written.

Preludes BWV 924, 925, 926, 927, 928, and 930 are from the notebook Bach collected for his son Wilhelm Friedemann.

There is some scholarly discussion whether BWV 939, 940, 941, and 942 are truly by Bach. Preludes BWV 939 and 941 seem to me to be a bit more shallow than one would expect from Bach, but they are good little pieces for the purpose of beginning study of imitative music, and I use them (and call them "Bach" without compunction).

A thorough study of the "little preludes" builds a firm foundation for further study in Bach (fugues, as well as other pieces). A good grounding in Bach's imitative works makes study of fugues by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Shostakovich, etc. more productive. (Some of these are more difficult than some of the inventions, but I teach the preludes first.)

After these preludes, I move to the Bach Two-Part Inventions. Some are easier than others. I have my students study these particular inventions first:

I sometimes teach the rest of the 2-part inventions but often not.

Then it's three-part inventions. I teach #15 first (B Minor, BWV 801). It's a rollicking good time!

As to the Well-Tempered Klavier, just a few suggestions:

Everyone should play the preludes/fugues mentioned above, even if no other "large" Bach preludes and fugues are undertaken.


I studied with the Kalmus editions (think "starving student"), but I encourage my students to invest in the Henle if they can ("This is an investment. You will use this book forever."). Otherwise, it's Kalmus for Bach preludes. With Kalmus, "painting" is necessary, but since other editions also require the same extensive artwork, why not go for price?

The Alfred editions with all the gray "interpretation" staves are extremely difficult to read and thus an impediment. I avoid them. (Or, I paint them out if a transfer student brings this edition.)

Note: Follow the link from the pedagogy page for a file on Baroque ornamentation.

Learning Techniques

The first step in learning any fugue is to identify the subject. The subject is the musical idea that the composer manipulates. In Bach, the subject is beautifully apparent, beginning in the first measure.

It is very helpful to mark the entrance of the subject every time it appears, no matter in which voice.

At a later point in the learning process, the student will be able to identify fragments of the subject, as well as its inversion. By inversion, I mean the intervals have been reversed: if, in the original subject, movement is up a fifth, down a third, and up an octave, the inversion will be down a fifth, up a third, and down an octave. I say "later" because usually the beginning fugue student is not able to recognize these permutations by looking at the printed score. It is necessary to play the piece and "live" in it for a while.

After the subject and its first appearances (called entrances - - there is one initial entrance in each voice) have been identified so the initial structure is noted, the student should study hands apart. Time spent playing hands apart is always amply repaid, but the repayment is a quantum leap with fugal material. This kind of study allows the student to follow the subject in a simplified texture.

It is at this hands-apart point that fingering should be solidified. Practice should be done with consistent fingering as soon as possible in the learning process. It may take an entire lesson to work out the fingering, perhaps only for part of the fugue. You will have a general idea, based on what works for you, but this probably won't be 100% feasible for your student.

Please note that most piano music is edited by adult men...but...most pianists are adult women, teens, and children. Therefore, what is comfortable for a man is most likely not comfortable for anyone else, since the man will select fingerings that fit his large hand. An excellent example of this is using 4 and 5 on four-note arpeggiations, such as C-E-G-octave C. A man might prefer 1-2-4-5, but the large stretch between 4 and 5 is not as comfortable for a smaller hand as 1-2-3-5 is.

Back to hands-apart practicing.

If the piece has more than one voice per hand, the voices should be played separately so the student can see how each voice is structured and how it moves among and interacts with the other voices.

This voices-apart step is particularly important if a voice is divided between the hands, as is nearly always the case with a three-voice fugue. (The middle voice is shared by the left and right hands. Nearly always, the right hand has the upper voice and the left hand the lower one.)

Following this familiarization with the subject, the student should investigate how the first entrances of the subject in all voices fit together. (This grouping of all first entrances is called the exposition.) Does the subject in one voice end before the subject appears in another voice? Do they overlap? If so, by how much? Do all entrances of the subject overlap in the same way? Are all entrances there in full or are some truncated? Does the subject enter first in the bass and work its way up to the soprano or vice versa? Or does it start with the alto or tenor voice?

Note: There is far more depth to the study of fugue structure - - real and tonal answers, countersubjects, etc., for example. I discuss only the barest bones at this point in the student's study. A thorough analysis comes quite a bit later. A student at these early stages may be able to notice that certain voices enter on the dominant, but beyond this is too much detail for now.

After study of the individual voices, it is time to put some parts together. Let me add that this is no earlier than the fourth week of study of the piece unless the student is in college as a music major, in which case it could be the second week, depending on the student's familiarity with Bach and Baroque music in general.

If one hand has more than one voice, the first step is to reconstruct that one hand's part. Do this hands separately. The student may have done this already if there is only one voice per hand.

The next step is to put hands together. This is a quantum leap and a very challenging juggling process!

Continued study might include various voices together. Suppose it is a four-voice fugue. Soprano and tenor might be played together or soprano and bass. This is further illuminating study in how notes of one voice might be divided between the hands. It makes the student aware of how the subject lies under the hands. The student should remember to retain exact fingerings even though he is not playing the full texture.

At some point after hands are put together, the student will discover "Hell's Kitchen" (a place where "all h*ll breaks loose"). There might even be a "Hell's Pantry" (an expression coined by a student) or two. Hell's Kitchen is usually about two-thirds of the way through the piece. The subject plus any countersubjects and other motivic tidbits that the composer has used will clump together, overlapping and lying atop one another in a glorious and horribly frustrating tangle. Argh! It is the performer's job to separate each of these threads aurally (using articulation) so the listener can follow the crystalline weave of Bach's structure.

Of course, if the student doesn't see this structure, there is no way it can be elucidated for the listener, which is why the preliminary steps are so critical. Learning this music is not called "studying Bach" for no reason!

This heavy traffic section should be identified as early as possible after hands are put together (usually this section steps forward on its own and smacks the student between the eyes) and learned first. (This is what I call The Lewis Down Hill Method - - learn the hardest place first and the rest of the piece will be "down hill.") It is difficult to stay focused on this section because satisfaction is so slow to emerge. (How much more fun it is to play the first two entrances of the subject - - or even the entire exposition - - than to trudge through this heavy-traffic morass!) It's demanding, but the student should do it, anyway.

After this section is mastered, the student should proceed to the next-most-difficult place and learn that, eventually arriving at the easiest place (the first entrance of the subject).

At all times, practice should be ONLY as fast as the student is in complete control. Practice of a fugue may be at a glacial speed for several weeks. Not to worry. All this care will pay off.

I also highly recommend the use of the metronome. Rhythms is a salutary practice technique, also.

No one has ever said fugues were easy to play. They certainly aren't easy to learn! But, oh!, so satisfying to play! Not to mention the thrill of knowing one has conquered a really demanding piece!

All these techniques also apply to the study of simple imitative music, suitably adjusted.

Note: After study of the great Johann's fugues, the student will be able to derive considerable pleasure from comparative study (yes, study) of PDQ Bach's works. Particularly, I recommend: "Three Teeny Preludes," "Toot Suite," "The Notebook for Betty Sue Bach," and, of course, "The Short-Tempered Clavier." This last volume is, in fact, a good teaching tool for fugues since many of the subjects are recognizable as nursery tunes, pop tunes, etc. (Two of the Teeny Preludes are from this book but are published separately.) The "Teeny Preludes" are accessible to students at late intermediate level, but I recommend some imitative study first so the student can appreciate PDQ's cleverness.

Moreover, the student will see how Bach's last (and least) son was able to pervert his father's most noble creations (as well as other monuments of music). Professor Schickele has done the world a great favor by resurrecting these masterpieces (and exposing PDQ for what he was). The professor's biography of PDQ, The Definitive Biography of PDQ Bach, is an important (or valueless, depending on your point of view) examination of why PDQ's music is the way it is/isn't, should you care to cogitate on this composer's oeuvre in greater depth.

copyright 2003-2004, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.

Piano Home Page | Business | Music Humor
| Copyright and Music Questions and Answers
Consumer Topics | Music Links | Biography | Home Page