Imitation in music describes a composing device where a melody is played/sung and then repeated in a different voice.

It is a device that is used in a wide range of musical styles. For example:

  • In choir music, a melody may be sound by the sopranos and then repeated by the basses.
  • In piano music, the melody may be played in the right hand and then repeated in the left hand.
  • In contemporary pop music, imitation is used a lot, particularly between the lead vocalist and backing singers.

Here is a great example of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen, performing short pieces of improvised imitation with the crowd at a concert in Buenos Aires in 1981:

Can you hear how Freddie Mercury sings a phrase and then the crowd sing exactly the same melody back to him?
This imitation of a melody without any changes is called STRICT IMITATION.

Another example of strict imitation would be a round.
Have a look/listen to this well known round:

Three Blind Mice – An Example of Strict Imitation

Three Blind Mice Round Strict Imitation
Three Blind Mice

In the above round, part 2 repeats the exact melody sung by part 1 without any changes.

However, in many pieces of music, the melody is not exactly repeated – it is often changed through transposition or inversion.

Fugal Imitation

In fugues, imitation plays a crucial role in the compositional process.
The different parts enter at various points using imitation, but are often changed in different ways.
Have a look/listen to this example of the opening of a fugue by J.S. Bach.

Bach Fugal imitation example sheet music

Fugal Imitation

Can you see/hear how some of the pitches of the opening melody (blue notes) have been altered in the imitation (red notes) through transposition and changing some of the intervals?
In the 3rd voice (green notes), the melody has been inverted as well.
This polyphonic imitation is a typical characteristic of compositions that use counterpoint.

Composing Using Imitation

Imitation is a fantastic tool to use whatever style of music you are composing in.
The repetition of the melody brings a sense of familiarity and unity to the music, whilst the change between voices/instruments gives variety.

Have a go at repeating your melody in different parts/voices.
Remember, you may need to change the repeated melody in some way through transposition, inversion or changing the intervals so that it fits your chord progression.