Zen for Ten Post 3: Bach for Your Brain

Welcome to Zen for Ten: Storytelling and Sound. New posts go up every Thursday and include a short piano-performance video, commentary about the piece and composer, and (often) a storytelling thought-exercise to go with the music. Take ten minutes, enjoy some music, and refresh your mind. If you like today’s post, please SUBSCRIBE to the blog (the button on the right), SHARE, and invite others to come check it out!

Today’s feature: Sinfonia (Three-Part Invention) no. 13 in A minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach

Note: Instead of writing all of my comments after the piece, today I decided to include them in the first part of the video. If you’d like to skip straight to the music, fast-forward the video to the 4:10 mark (though my mini-commentary is pretty good too 🙂 ). Either way, please be sure to check out the end of the writeup below, about why Bach is great for your brain.

About the music:

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was arguably one of the greatest composers of all time. He was so prolific, creative, and brilliant with his writing that, after his death, the next generation of composers had to develop new approaches to creating music. The general feeling was that Bach had done pretty much everything that could be done within the style of the time. That’s why the Baroque period in music history, dating from 1600 to 1750, ends with the year of Bach’s death.

Today’s featured piece, the Sinfonia or Three-Part Invention in A minor, showcases one of Bach’s favorite writing techniques: imitation. If you’ve studied piano, you might be familiar with Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. (If not, you can listen to a sample here, of the Two-Part Invention no. 1 as played by Glenn Gould.) The Inventions are short pieces in which each hand has its own part, independent of the other. The two hands work like two voices in conversation, trading “dialogue” (lines of melody) back and forth.

In the Sinfonias, Bach uses the same idea, except now in addition to the right hand’s voice and the left hand’s voice, there’s also a third voice in the middle. The two hands share that third voice between them. The three voices trade a simple melody back and forth in the high, low, and middle registers of the keyboard.

This kind of music is very tough to write. Each of the three voices has to have a melody that sounds good on its own, but you also have to be able to put them all together and create a consonant, beautiful “big picture.” Bach was a master of this approach to composition: maybe the greatest we’ve ever had.

The complexity and beauty of Bach’s music makes it terrific to listen to on a couple of levels. On the first level, we can simply take the music in and appreciate the beautiful harmonies and lyrical tunes. A second (and third, and fourth, etc…) listen, though, can give us more. We can start to pick out individual voices and hear what Bach does with each one, how he takes the basic melody that he starts with and builds it into such a rich and intricate piece.

Bach’s music is a gold standard for pianists and many other musicians, because of the technical mastery it demands. For all listeners, though, it helps to exercise the brain. In fact, parents are often encouraged to play Bach’s music for young children, because the music stimulates both sides of the brain: the left side with its logic and structure, and the right side with its melody and rhythm. At any age, it’s great to give your brain a boost, so be sure to have your Bach today!

Thought exercise:

If this piece is in fact a conversation between three speakers, who are they? What are they talking about? Is this a pleasant conversation, or an argument, or a little of each? What happens at the end of the conversation? Flesh out the three characters and what they’re discussing as fully as you can.


2 thoughts on “Zen for Ten Post 3: Bach for Your Brain

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