Prelude: Definition, Music & Songs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever heard a brief instrumental introduction to a longer piece of music? Did you know such beginnings have a name? In this lesson, we'll define a prelude in music and look at some examples.


First, let's define prelude. Basically, a prelude is a brief introduction or preface before something longer takes place. In music, that means it's often (but not always) a short passage at the beginning of a longer piece of music. It can also mean music that precedes a religious service or a ceremony, something that is played or sung before the event actually begins. For this lesson, we're going to concentrate on the idea of a prelude as a short musical introduction that may or may not connect to a longer composition.

Preludes Have A Long History

Musical preludes have been around for a long time. Hundreds of years ago, Baroque composers wrote preludes for harpsichord and organ. As an example, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed many preludes and often followed them with a fugue, a longer piece of music that takes a theme and repeats it many times in varied form. An excellent example of this is his Prelude and Fugue in G Minor. The work begins with a brief free-form prelude before moving into the more tightly controlled fugue.

Now, remember that prelude definition with the caveat that's its often but not always part of a longer work? Bach set his own rules and composed preludes that didn't always introduce a longer work. He wrote many organ preludes, among them a series called the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes or Leipzig Preludes. Don't be confused by the word chorale -- in this case, it's used because the preludes were based on familiar chorale tunes. Bach's chorale preludes were short, independent pieces for organ. They might have been used as etudes, or studies, for students, but scholars aren't sure.

Other Examples of Preludes

Composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) also wrote preludes for piano, and he openly admitted that Bach's earlier works inspired him. In his 24 Preludes (Op. 28), Chopin created brief independent musical preludes, some of extremely short duration, which showcased varied styles and moods of piano playing and differing levels of difficulty for the person playing them.

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