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J.S. Bach and the Brain

In a May 2018 Living the Classical Life interview, the distinguished pianist, Emanuel Ax admitted that his “brain would be twice its size” had he played more Bach. “It is one of my great regrets that I did not play a lot, a lot, a lot” (three times reiterated) of this composer’s music. “And of course, spiritually, there is very little as great as Bach.”

The pianist made a pledge to make up for lost time. While I’m “sorry” about it, I’m now “trying to play J.S. every day, learning what I can.”

Like Emanuel Ax, I embrace the study of Bach as it improves cognitive function while expanding spiritual horizons. Even a journey through the composer’s Little Preludes is not a top layer, frugal undertaking. It demands a deep, penetrative view of the music, despite an economy of voices. Such an exploration requires an analysis of counterpoint, rhythm, and harmony, (not to mention eliciting thoughtful fingering choices) that feed a cosmos of emotional expression.

One particular Bach composition, just one page long, offers, by example, an unusual paradigm of complexity.

Having first “read” through Little Prelude in A minor, BWV 942, in keeping with my DAILY exposure to Bach, I had an uneasy feeling of “tonal” disorientation at various intervals. Where was the composer heading through specific measures in an ambiguous tonal bubble, interspersed by phrases with tonal center gravity?–the latter were embodied in a set of sequences–one in D minor and the other back to the home key. Still, in my first phase learning overview, I was faced with measures of tonal uncertainty, and asymmetry between voices.

Measure 3 was particularly zone-boggling that compelled a need to “organize” my practicing. (To “organize” is to grow the brain’s amazing repository of neurotransmitters) It’s a cerebral workout worth a generous investment of time and energy.

With guiding patience at the center of all learning, I discovered a fugal dimension of the tricky 3rd measure that related back to the very opening in ‘A’ minor which was a descending trail of intervals from common tone A- by 4th, to 5th, to 6th to 7th with an attached upper neighbor above the lower note. These same intervals and their distribution appeared in the third measure bass line but transposed at the FIFTH above the initial subject entry. This fifth relationship occurs in a traditional Bach Fugue as the Tonal Answer.

BWV942, however, is NOT a FUGUE as one would encounter in the Well-Tempered Clavier, but it more closely resembles a “fughetta” that J.S. nourished along with his Little Preludes. Disclaimer: The musical term fughetta might be a bit of stretch as it applies to BWV 942, since my juxtaposed immersion in Bach’s Fughetta BWV 902 revealed a more pervasive interweaving of an imitative subject.


In Little Prelude, BWV 942, the upper voice (R.H.) of measure 3 played against the more ordered lower voice, is best contextualized in a nearly full contrary motion relationship, though the upper voice (R.H) is not a mirror of the opening subject. Its symmetry is reflected in a sequence of broken 4ths with upper neighbors attached but without a common tone springboard of departure as contained in the opening.

The R.H. 4ths are rising, as the bass line (LH) intervals in broken 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th pattern are falling.

Looking for parallel and contrary motion relationships between voices, and discovering what accidentals are inserted in various lines assist the player to “feel” and hear dual tonalities as they might occur, and then dissolve into a single tonal center. (All keys should be named)

Fingering choices pose an additional mental challenge. While assignment might work well in a separate hand exploration, putting hands together can demand a re-assessment of original designations. In measure 3, I opted for a redundant sequential fingering in the lower voice. 1, 3, 2—1, 3, 2–1, 3, 2–1, 4, 3, 5.

This choice allowed me to follow a trail down of what amounted to, as mentioned, a subject at the Fifth entry with consecutive expanding intervals.

The upper voice, however, did NOT include this fingering symmetry as it’s not in mirror image to the bass. Fingering for this upper part was therefore based on what was smooth in transit, and framed by an ‘e minor’ outflow. (D# is used as the raised 7th of the harmonic minor) In this probing, multiple cognitive contexts feed the “ear,” as one “plays” out well-formed relationships. (In scale-filled measures, knowing the modes, or forms of minors provide further “context” to advance learning.)

In conclusion to an abbreviated, narrowly focused Analytic discussion of BWV 942:

Measure 13, in the bass, is almost an exact reprise of the opening R.H. subject except that Bach inserts a C-sharp instead of a C natural which would be native to A minor.

In the upper voice, my particular “organizing” tool was noting descending parallel 6ths that attached lower neighbors, embedded in ‘A’ Harmonic and Melodic minor. Awareness of the “fugue”-like reappearance of the opening subject in the lower voice, was a valuable learning “organizer.”

Surely, a more probing investigator can decipher relationships, initially overlooked, that have particular import. Such analyses might be framed in Schenkerian or other theoretical terms.

Finally, the beauty of studying Bach resides in its potential to expand consciousness.

After days, weeks, or months of intensive analysis, a player might suddenly discover new insights that offer boundless possibilities in the course of an in-depth musical journey.

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