Topics are musical signs developed and employed primarily during the long eighteenth century. Their significance relies on associations that are clearly recognizable to the listener with different genres, styles and types of music making. Topic theory, which is used to explain conventional subjects of musical composition in this period, is grounded in eighteenth-century music theory, aesthetics, and criticism, while drawing also from music cognition and semiotics. The concept of topics was introduced into by Leonard Ratner in the 1980s to account for cross-references between eighteenth-century styles and genres. As the invention of a twentieth-century academic, topic theory as a field is comparatively new, and The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory provides a much-needed reconstruction of the field's aesthetic underpinnings.
The volume grounds the concept of topics in eighteenth-century music theory, aesthetics, and criticism. Documenting the historical reality of individual topics on the basis of eighteenth-century sources, it traces the origins of topical mixtures to transformations of eighteenth-century musical life, and relates topical analysis to other methods of music analysis conducted from the perspectives of composers, performers, and listeners. Focusing its scope on eighteenth-century musical repertoire, The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory lays the foundation for further investigation of topics in music of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.