Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Listening to Bach

A great number of articles have been written about whether listening to classical makes you smarter. From my limited research, I’ve found that most experts agree it doesn’t, just as listening to rock or rap music doesn’t make you dumber.
However, experts also have found that listening, really listening, to the music of Mozart or Bach, for example, makes you use both sides of your brain and create more connections between them.

It is generally agreed that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is the most profound ever composed. During his lifetime he was famous for being a boring intellectualist, but his music is emotional and passionate.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bach recently. I found a guide on how to progress through his compositions in order to more fully appreciate their complexity and I bought MP3 downloads from Amazon. But I don’t think you can ever buy all of Bach! There’s so much.

You can listen to the music of Bach like any other, of course, letting it flow over you. Its tunes are memorable and its rhythms and harmonies are always interesting and pleasurable.

 But Bach's music offers special rewards that you can uncover if you try listening with your attention focused on:

 Counterpoint: Much of Bach's music is written in counterpoint, which means the playing of multiple melodies at the same time, overlapping each other. You can pick the top line and hear it as the "main tune" or you can listen to the subordinate parts and discover a tremendous richness of detail and meaning. Bach wrote many fugues, which are pieces of music in which the same melody overlaps itself in a different key, and races after itself ("fugue" comes from the Latin word for "flight," as in "tempus fugit," "time flies"). Listening to a fugue is like juggling with your ears.

Bass line: Bach's music has a forward movement driven by a clear and distinct bass line. You will find the music opens up for you if, instead of listening to the main tune, you focus on the lowest notes and see where they go: They will always guide where the top melody can settle.

Here’s a list I found on how to listen to Bach’s music. Maybe you, like me, like to make new discoveries, and who knows, maybe it WILL make us smarter.

1. Start with "Air on the G string", one of his most famous and accessible pieces.

2. "Badinerie" from Orchestral Suite No. 2, a familiar piece you probably already know from somewhere.

3.  "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring." More than likely, you’ve heard this at weddings.

4. "Toccata and fugue in D minor." It’s usually associated with horror scenes, but if you listen carefully you'll notice that isn't so bad after all.

5.  "Brandenburg Concertos." Start with No. 2 and 3, then all the others. These reveal a lighter, poppish side of Bach.

6. First Suite for Solo Cello.

7. Concerto for two violins or Double Violin Concerto: Search for the movement "Largo ma non troppo", it is one of Bach's masterpieces.

8. Other Violin Concertos.

9. Church cantatas BWV 1, BWV 25, BWV 41, BWV 78, BWV 82, BWV 140, BWV 191. Take your time.

10. Orchestral Suites.

11. Kyrie Eleison from the Mass in B minor.

12. Sonatas for Violin and Cembalo BWV 1014-1019. Start with BWV 1018.

13. Aria "Erbame Dich" from St. Matthew Passion.

14. The Well-Tempered Clavier and keyboard works, the English and French Suites.

15. The"heavier" works. Give a complete listen to the Mass in B minor and St. Matthew Passion. These are Bach's most ambitious and impressive works.

16. Complete Cello Suites.

17. Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, these are probably Bach's most profound and personal works.

18. At this point you don't need any guide; you are an expert in Bach's music. You can listen to his "late" works, Goldberg Variations, Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue. You can also explore his vast output of cantatas and organ works

Don’t we all want to exercise our brains? Some of us do crossword puzzles, play card games and we also know that physical exercise is a great boost to our brains as well. And then there’s eating the right things, i.e., brain foods such as salmon, blueberries, avocados and any number of other foods.
What about you? Do you love Bach's music, or feel indifferent about it? Who are your favorite classical composers?


  1. Thanks for all the background on Bach and his music. My daughter played Harp in the Concert Band and I'm going to send this to her after her finals are over. Very interesting! My musical brain exercise these days is trying to remember the words to Jailhouse Rock and Devil With The Blue Dress, when they are played in the pool for my Water Aerobics classes, since adding singing makes me exercise harder.

    1. Hi Beryl, that's too funny! I used to know the lyrics to Jailhouse Rock and it's fun to recite them. Love Bach. I'd be interested to hear your daughter's take on all this!

  2. I love Bach's masterpieces and really appreciated this post! I will look forward trying out some of the "listening techniques" that you suggested too.

    1. Hi Heather,
      I really liked your post yesterday about the election outcome in France. I will eventually comment there but don't want to wade too deeply into the waters wihout thinking it through. I think you are right on!! I am happy you enjoyed this post about Bach. Happy listening!

  3. We are great fans of Bach....he is regarded as father of music,with Beethoven as the son,and Brahms as the holy ghost!
    Bach learnt his organ skills from Buxtehude (Danish).

    As HB is a choral singer I have sat through the St Matthew Passion (in English)and his Magnificat.Utter bliss. We have loads of his cd's.

    I am listening to Elgar's music at the moment.I have CD's (digitally enhanced) of his original music recorded on 78's in the late 1920's/30's with the teenage Yehudi Menuhin playing his violin concerto--all conducted by Elgar himself complete with sliding strings of the period.

    Thank you for a stimulating post. Ida

  4. Love this post. I will print it and try to develop these listening skills. I love Bach and as a child we were introduced to some of his compositions from our piano lessons. Too bad we get "too busy" to sit back, relax and listen. Thanks for the info.

  5. What do you think about my approach?

  6. What do you think about my approach?


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