Palindromes in Music: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Palindromes in music are a unique compositional technique. This lesson will examine the theory of musical palindromes and provide a few noteworthy examples.

What Are Musical Palindromes?

A palindrome in music is no different than one in writing or speech: a music that is the same when played forward or backward. That would mean, much like in writing how the word 'radar' is the same in either direction, you could have a musical phrase with the notes 'A-B-C-B-A.' Also, just like in language, you can have palindromic phrases; like 'Draw, O Caesar, erase a coward,' would be like if you played Twinkle Twinkle forwards, then at the end you played it backwards.


Palindrome Based Styles

In fact, there are entire compositional styles built around the idea of a palindrome. One type is called a crab cannon, where the music is reversed and transposed. Unlike in the traditional palindrome, the reversed/transposed content can be playing while the original content is still happening. Think about the song Row Row Row Your Boat. Have you ever sang it as a round, where one person starts the song, then the next person starts singing when the first person reaches the second line? If you wanted to make it crab canon instead of a round then when the second voice came in you would have to sing it backwards and transpose it (meaning you would move the notes to a different starting location, but keep the relationships the same between each note: this could look like C-D-E-F-G being transposed to G-A-B-C-D).

Another idea, similar to the crab cannon, is a retrograde development - basically to play the musical idea backwards. The difference between the two is in the transposition: a crab canon transposes the musical idea, while retrograde means only to play in reverse.

There is also what is called arch form, which while not exactly a palindrome, takes the idea of a palindrome all the way to the structural level, giving you a piece that has the form of a palindrome. Now we're talking about the entirety of the piece and each musical section. In arch form the musical sections look like this: A-B-C-B-A, where each letter represents an entire musical section. This could look like an A section with Twinkle Twinkle, a B section with Mary Had a Little Lamb, and a C section with Jingle Bells. Arch form does not necessarily have the repeated B and A section in reverse, though it could. Usually what you end up with is a structural palindrome, rather than truly palindromic music.

What Are Some Famous Examples?

One of the earliest known examples of palindromes in music is Guillaume de Machaut's 'Ma fin est mon commencement,' which translates as 'My end is my beginning.' In a bit of a musical joke, the title hints at the palindrome in the music.

Another classic example is Haydn's Symphony no. 47. The third movement has multiple palindromes: the minuet in the first half is a palindrome, followed by the trio, which is also palindromic.

J.S. Bach's Musical Offering is an example of the crab canon we looked at earlier.

Berg, composer of Lulu
Alban Berg

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