What Is Retrograde? The Timeless Appeal of Reverse Compositions

Explore the world of retrograde in music. From Bach to Schoenberg, explore how composers flip melodies backward for innovative sounds.

Ever traveled back in time, feeding your mind with the vivacity of retro hits? Looked around curiously, wondering how the genius of those days managed to spin magic that still slaps. Well, prepare to be stoked because we’ll be plunging into the depth of musical estrangement where notes walk backward, rhythms reverse, and melodies flip, taking a straight dive into retrograde.

What is retrograde? When a melodic line turns into its mirrored reflection, reversing its tune, rhythm, or physical contour, it is called a retrograde. This process is just as insane as it sounds, bringing a peculiar sort of freshness to the music.

What is retrograde in music?

Retrograde, or Cancrizans, meaning ‘walking backward’ in Latin, is a fascinating musical concept that revolves around the idea of reversal. It can be thought of as a form of musical reflection, like looking at a melody through a mirror. When a piece of music is presented in retrograde, its notes are played in the opposite order, from the end to the beginning.

Image of a musician playing the piano. Source: pexels
Image of a musician playing the piano. Source: pexels

Picture a melody as a series of consecutive notes moving forward in time. Now, take that series and reverse it, so the last note becomes the first and the first becomes the last. The resulting melody is the retrograde version of the original. This intriguing reversal doesn’t simply mean hitting the rewind button on a track; instead, it’s a deliberate compositional choice to alter the direction of the melody or motif.

My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is retrograde? The timeless appeal of reverse compositions | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What are some applications of retrograde in music?

While the process might sound straightforward, retrograde’s application can vary in complexity. An exact retrograde includes both the pitches and rhythms in reverse. An even more exact retrograde in electronic music even reverses the physical contour of the notes. And sometimes, composers choose to subject just the pitches or just the rhythms to retrograde. In the 12-tone music world, reversing the pitch classes alone— irrespective of the melodic contour—that’s considered a retrograde too!

How did retrograde emerge in music history?

Alright, let’s hop off into the fascinating rabbit hole of history. Retrograde wasn’t the talk of the town until around 1500. It just wasn’t mentioned in musical treatises, believe it or not. When Nicola Vicentino rolled around in 1555, he shook things up a bit. He shed light on the challenges of finding canonic imitation due to peculiar factors like:

  • The ‘impediment of rests’
  • Ascending and descending parts
  • Parts starting at various places in the composition.

However, Vicentino advised against composers who created lopsided oddities just for intellectual pleasure without much attention to harmonic sweetness. His words still echo, “A composer of such fancies must make canons and fugues that are pleasant and full of sweetness and harmony.

Bach's two-part canon from 'the musical offering', where the lower voice flawlessly echoes the upper in precise retrograde. Source: wiki commons
Bach’s two-part canon from ‘the musical offering’, where the lower voice flawlessly echoes the upper in precise retrograde. Source: wiki commons

Vicentino was pretty vocal about his dislike for those who indulged in retrograde purely for intellectual pleasure rather than focusing on harmonic sweetness. He believed that “A composer of such fancies must make canons and fugues that are pleasant and full of sweetness and harmony.”

How did retrograde develop over time?

During the Baroque period, composers like Johann Sebastian Bach used retrograde, among other techniques, to create intricate canons and fugues. For example, in Bach’s “Crab Canon”, the main theme and its retrograde are played simultaneously.

In 1597, Thomas Morley in described retrograde in the conversation of canons.

In 1597, Thomas Morley in described retrograde in the conversation of canons. He mentioned a work by Byrd, highlighting signature touches of retrograde music pleasing to the ear. Then in 1754, Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg discussed the procedure, known by various names like ‘imitatio retrograda’, ‘cancrizans’, or ‘per motum retrogradum’. According to him, it was primarily used in canons and fugues.

With the advent of Serialism and the 12-tone technique in the 20th century, retrograde became a fundamental tool for composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg. In a world of increasing musical abstraction, playing with musical lines in retrograde became a way to generate new material and ensure thematic unity.

Today, retrograde continues to be used, not just in classical compositions, but also in electronic and experimental music. Modern tools allow for precise manipulation of sound, enabling composers and sound artists to explore retrograde in new and unprecedented ways.

What is the difference between retrograde and inversion in music?

When we talk about retrograde in music, we’re essentially discussing the art of playing a musical motif or a sequence backward. It’s like reflecting a melody along a vertical axis, offering a mirrored version of the original tune. Inversion, on the other hand, doesn’t flip the melody backward but rather “upside down.” Instead of reversing the order of notes, it flips the spaces between them, akin to reflecting the melody over a horizontal axis.

For instance, if the original melody moves up by a major third, the inversion will move down by a major third, and vice versa. This doesn’t necessarily mean playing the exact opposite pitches but rather the opposite intervals or distances between notes. While retrograde reverses a melody’s sequence, inversion mirrors its intervals, each offering a unique twist on the original musical motif.

If you want even more great tips and information, check out the video below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Curious minds might still have a few questions surrounding retrograde in music. Let’s dive into some of the most frequently asked queries.

How does retrograde impact music composition?

Retrograde can dramatically impact music composition by introducing an element of surprise and complexity. It allows the composer to manipulate melodies and rhythms, thereby creating a unique musical narrative that sets the composition apart.

Is recognizing retrograde essential for a music listener?

While it’s not essential, recognizing retrograde can enhance the listening experience, sparking curiosity and intellectual pleasure. However, it can also lead to vexation if the harmonic sweetness is compromised.

Can retrograde be used in any music genre?

Absolutely, retrograde is not confined to any specific genre. Whether it’s 12-tone, modal, or tonal music, retrograde can be utilized creatively to add a new dimension to the composition.


We’ve been all over the place with retrograde, haven’t we? It’s kind of like trying to play Twister by yourself, it sounds fun and looks cool, but it’s also a bit puzzling! As we know, music can sometimes be a complex beast, pulling you into strange realms and exciting dimensions. And isn’t that why we love it? 

Did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let’s keep this conversation going, and drop your thoughts in the comments section. I read and reply to every comment. If you enjoyed this musical journey, share it with your music-loving pals, and groove your way over to my full blog for more insights into the world of music. Until next time!

Key Takeaways

Embarking on this musical adventure, we’ve delved deep into the world of retrograde. This article covered the process, history, and impact of retrograde in music. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Retrograde is the reversal of a melodic line.
  • It was first mentioned by Nicola Vicentino back in 1555.
  • Its application adds a unique twist to a composition.
  • Retrograde can be challenging, but it adds richness to the listening experience.
  • Despite its complexity, retrograde can be used in any music genre to create intriguing narratives.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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Edited by Nick Eggert, Staff Editor

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