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I have been learning piano for many years and am able to really enjoy the music of Beethoven and Chopin. However, when it comes to Bach, I must shamefully admit, I can't see why he is held in such high esteem.

To me - his work just seems like scales coming one after the other and one over the other. I am not able to associate any emotions with them. I think this inability could be due to one or more of the following:

  1. My ear for perceiving polyphony is not yet developed. As I get better at this, perhaps I will be able to see things in a different light.

  2. I am from India and I have grown up in a different musical tradition. Most of the music here is based on a system that has no harmony. This cultural shift may make it difficult for me to relate to the music of Bach.

  3. Only certain people whose brains are designed to comprehend it, have a gift for appreciating Bach's type of music. And perhaps my brain processes information in a way that makes his style of music less appealing to me.

I want to know which of these comes closest to the truth. Or are there any other possible reasons?

Is it possible to train myself to enjoy his music? If yes, how can this be done?

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Why the downvote? I think this is an interesting question. – Raskolnikov May 25 '12 at 8:28
Suggestion on BACH appreciation: Listen and study the following (basic Bach to mind blowing Bach): The two part inventions, The 48 Preludes and Fugues, The Brandenburg concertos, and finally The Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Bach is all about canon and fugue form at its most pristine. He is the master of harmony of the Baroque music period. Beethoven's work would have never crossed the river without Bach's bridge. – filzilla May 25 '12 at 18:26
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about music appreciation, not performance. – Dan Hulme Jan 16 '14 at 10:44
"finally The Toccata and Fugue in D minor."? It's rather simplistic, to the degree that its authorship is seriously in doubt. The "final" stage is the B minor mass. At any rate, I'd suggest something like the St John's passion regarding vocal works (it's surprisingly operatic). The two and three part inventions are educational but tiring. They won't help much with appreciation. I like the view of the early (!) Gould recordings on the Goldberg variations. Don't bother with the later "mature" ones. Monteverdi's Vespers also give a great view into the Baroque music tradition. – User8773 Feb 7 '14 at 14:02
And then there's "The Art of Fugue", for which one could also make a case for the "final" stage. I like Pierre-Laurent Aimard's version for solo piano. Interestingly, Bach died while writing this, and the last fugue just stops in the middle. There's something ethereal and spiritual about this to my mind. – BobRodes Jun 16 '14 at 3:33

12 Answers 12

I'd say 2. is likely the closest, but it may just be as simple as personal taste.

You're just not that used to hearing it and as you say, there's no emotion associated with it. I doubt I'd be capable of appreciating the subtle nuances and emotions in Indian Raga and I can't imagine such a melody stirring any great emotion in me. We have sounds and dissonances today which Bach would have hated - not because he wouldn't be able to "comprehend" it, but because it's not what he'd be used to.

But the thing that fascinates me about music is that you can enjoy it in spite of your level of understanding - no matter how small (or great) that understanding may be, which is why I think you should rule out your reasons 1. and 3.

For example, a non-musician might simply appreciate the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582) because it sounds "dark and moody". An organist might enjoy it because it has a double fugue subject, a musicologist might enjoy it because the pedal ostinato may have been "borrowed" from French composer André Raison.

A lot (all?) of Bach's work is academically very clever and your comment that "it just seems like scales coming one after the other and one over the other" is almost testament to the genius of his work - it sounds deceptively simple and neat, yet when you dig beneath the surface it's vastly complex.

If you don't like it, you don't like it - no point in "training" yourself to like it! But if you want to give yourself a chance at maybe seeing something you've missed so far, maybe study his The Art of Fugue series of works and see how the complexity builds up.

Failing that, why not just have a dance?! Virgil Fox - Gigue Fugue

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The problem with taking 2 for an answer is I am able to understand and appreciate harmonic material from other composers very much, especially, as I have mentioned, the romantic ones. There seems to be something very universal about it. This is so intense in some of the sections that I feel that I know these composers intimately, and I become one with their emotions. But with Bach, I am like 'I realise this is something grand, but I have no clue what u're trying to say.' – gigahari Jun 1 '12 at 13:49
Romantic composers are a totally different piece of cake: their music very much falls in the categories of melody+supporting harmony. When doing vocal arrangements, most singers will have rather dull voicing to pull off. With Bach, every singer tends to have his own melodic lines making independent sense and the harmonies are more of an emerging than a governing phenomenon (of course, the real art here is that they are both). The underlying mastery of melody, fugue, counterpoint has more or less pinackled with Bach: afterwards melody became a governing principle. – User8773 Feb 7 '14 at 14:10
Actually, the Romantics were highly, highly influenced by Bach. Bear in mind that Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Brahms all wrote fugues, and that much of Romantic music tends to resemble a typical Baroque trio sonata in texture. – Patrx2 Feb 22 at 17:41

For one thing, J. S. Bach's music for solo keyboard represents only a small fraction of his work as a composer. Bach was primarily a composer of choral and vocal music, and music for chamber orchestra. I would suggest listening to recordings of his choral and vocal music (notably, his cantatas and masses) and his orchestral music to gain a broader appreciation of who Bach was as a composer and artist.

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For some reason, Bach is better appreciated by learned musicians. Talking to any well-trained musician who plays a lot of Bach, you will realize that it is fully possible to make an emotional connection with the music. In fact, I would argue that Bach alone has written the very most inspirational music, ever.

Here's why: Bach was a genius. As user Widor (impostor!) suggested, the untrained ear can find a little beauty in J.S. Bach's music, perhaps, if they are listening to the overall sound. But listening to each individual note is where the beauty actually happens. (By the way, I think there is a technical aspect to this question and that it is still on-topic). Bach wrote contrapuntal music, which is known to be very organized and "strict". The great thing about Bach is that he knew all of the rules, but broke and bent them in just the right ways to create something altogether new and unfathomably musical and not very strict at all. So you have to listen to each voice and layer of the music and hear their distinctness. Every single note and phrase has a special musical significance.

The sheer variety is endless, and the creativity and development of the music is mind blowing. Often, you hear snippets that really sound like Beethoven or Mozart, or even Chopin; things we don't see again for at least another hundred years: that's Bach being inventive. Many musicians and historians think he was God-inspired. Indeed, there are many theological aspects of Bach's music, just look at the Passions or the Orgelbüchlein.

Across the board, in the other answers and comments, you will hear the same thing: "You gotta listen to this stuff! Here's a list!". I'm going to repeat it. You won't learn how to listen to Bach unless you practice listening to it, just like you won't learn how to play a piece without practicing it. You can start anywhere, because while some Bach music is more complex than other Bach music, it is all equally beautiful, and you are trying to learn to appreciate the beauty here. I had the same question as you about Bach when I was a thirteen-year-old organist and my teacher gave me a Bach CD: After that I was scared I might have been actually addicted to the stuff. ;)

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This beautiful answer draws conclusions of subtle complexity out of a set of straightforward observations; Bach would be proud. – ninemileskid Jun 24 '14 at 22:14

Question: Would Beethoven and Chopin sound as good played on guitar? Answer: Probably not.

I think this captures what is going on - J.S. Bach wrote his keyboard pieces primarily for the harpsichord. I have heard Bach played on the harpsichord many times and it's absolutely wonderful. Last week I heard a skillful pianist play one Bach's pieces on the piano - I was shocked at how mechanical it sounds when played on the piano in comparison to music that was composed for performance on the piano.

My feeling is that it's difficult to appreciate J.S. Bach's music unless you hear it played on the instrument it was intended to be played on. Composers do take the characteristics of an instrument and how it can be played into consideration - these subtleties can sometime make something ordinary into something absolutely extraordinary.

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I find it much more mechanical on harpsichord to be frank. The piano allows for much more dynamics than a harpsichord can. – Raskolnikov May 31 '12 at 19:04
I agree somewhat with both you and @Raskolnikov. Bach on harpsichord is extremely interesting, and IMO many pieces sound fantastic that way, in part due to the mechanical sound of the harpsichord. In some other ways though the piano can sound bland for these pieces, particularly when single notes are being played and the sound is less rich. In any case, hearing music the way it was intended to be played is valuable. – Matthew Read Jun 1 '12 at 16:58
It very much depends on the performer. The piano allows individual articulation and dynamics for individual voices. But it takes a lot of preparation and a really sovereign player to actually make this count. Gould's early "Goldberg Variations" on the piano reached pop music like popularity, and for good reason. Some Brandenburg concerto has the harpsichord as a solo instrument, and the quill noise thunderstorm in the fast passages gets distracting. – User8773 Mar 18 '14 at 20:14
When I saw the start of your answer, I thought you were making exactly the opposite point! IMO Bach's music relies much more on melody and harmony than timbre - the keyboard pieces sound good on any keyboard (or arranged for a combination of instruments), and the solo pieces work on any instrument that can play them. – sweeneyrod Jul 19 '14 at 19:39
@Raskolnikov with the exception of a few professional pianists, the piano can not bring clarity to Bach's counterpoint as well as the harpsichord. And in the harpsichord concertos (including Brandenburg no 5), the piano is absolutely inferior in sound; it lacks the penetrating bright tones needed to liven the sound. – Apprentice Queue Apr 18 at 1:29

If you are an Indian and want to appreciate Bach's works, an Indian composer called Ilaiyaraja has drawn a parallel between Preludium in E by Bach and a carnatic raga in his composition "I met Bach in my house" from the album How to Name It. This should give you a new direction to think and understand them from your cultural background.

Update: The whole album of "How to name it" is a tribute to Bach and Thyagaraja(One of the three fathers of Carnatic Music). All the tracks are excellent western-carnatic fusions with numerous adapted western nuances. There is one track where two violins talk, one of which speaks western classical and the other one indian classical!. A must listen for all music enthusiasts.

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Thanks. The link you provided did not work, but I think I found the piece you are referring to here: – gigahari Mar 19 '14 at 6:01
Sorry about that, that was the same video I was pointing to. Edited my answer with the correct link. – Rana Prathap Mar 19 '14 at 12:23

I hesitate greatly in answering this (someone already dinged you)... after all everything is a matter of taste and opinion but... perhaps there just isn't enough harmonic tension or dissonance to satisfy your personal taste.

I had a teacher once equate dissonance with spicy food... at first it's too hot... but you start to like it after the first couple times and after that... well... food is bland without it. Not to say that there isn't tension and resolution in Bach's music. (On a side note... after learning the proper voice leading rules Bach used compared to Beethoven or Chopin; I find it odd that you would use the word "scales" as a discriptor here.)

To be truthful, it's been over a decade since I even thought about these things or the stylistic differences between the Baroque, Classical and Romantic era's. Even though my first instrument was violin and I grew up playing in orchestras & string ensembles; nowadays I have a hard time sitting through anything pre-Romantic period to be completely honest... I intellectually appreciate the way everything is resolving and moving independently in Bach's music but I personally like a lot of dissonance. (I didn't so much in the past... but hey... there's twelve notes afterall...)

If it's the case that you have a more "modern" harmonic palette... then I don't imagine you're going to suddenly find what you've been missing in his music.

However... if you really want to appreciate what he's doing harmonically, you really need to go and analyze what he's doing beat for beat... it's really amazing... and you'll really learn a lot.

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I appreciate your very candid and honest answer but I would like to add that you didn't mention the one fluke of Bach where his use of dissonant tone clusters are clearly 300 years into the future: The Toccata and Fugue in D minor. – filzilla May 25 '12 at 18:35
To be honest, I'd forgotten that was him (probably because more than half the time all you get to hear is the first section); and precisely also because it is a "fluke"... – David Axtell Moore II May 28 '12 at 4:02
@filzila OK... I read up a little more on comment editing (always useful to know). but even saying it was written in 1708, your arguing what? That a minor second and two tri-tones that resolve are 100 years more dissonant that Charles Ives early period even? He ends his Symphony No.2 with an eleven note chord. Or course looking up Ives again brings up Poly-Tonality and also Quarter Tones. Which brings us back around to <iddle Eastern and Indian music again... Let me go find the reference I saw... – David Axtell Moore II May 28 '12 at 4:49
Hey @David, I fixed up your comment links a bit -- the format is [text]( Just a friendly reminder to use our chatroom for extended discussions, rather than comments. If you feel you can incorporate any of this into your answer, feel free to do so and remove those comments :) – Matthew Read Jun 1 '12 at 17:04

Lots of great answers here! Here are my two cents, as a big fan of Bach.

I tend to analyze music quite a bit, and Bach's music is probably the most analytically complex you'll find until the twentieth century. He was a master of the fugue, which is a form of music I personally enjoy. It is very difficult to compose a compelling fugue, but Bach excelled at it so much that he actually was able to improvise them.

However, some of Bach's music is not only analytically complex, but also beautiful. Try listening to the second movement of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins. The whole piece is wonderful, and famous, but the middle movement (which starts at 4:23 in the linked recording) is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written in the Baroque era to my ears. Or try listening to his Chaconne in d minor for solo violin -- and listen to the whole thing, in a dark room, paying attention to just the music.

In addition, Bach was innovative for his day. He started works on chords other than the tonic, which was practically unheard of in that day; he used novel chord sequences; he wrote dissonances that other composers would not touch for another hundred years. His Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and his Suites for solo cello are such masterpieces that there were not any equivalent works for solo violin written for another hundred or so years, and for solo cello for another two hundred.

Lastly, Bach paved the way for many of the composers after him. Actually, J.S. Bach (the most famous Bach today) sank into relative obscurity until Mendelssohn rediscovered and popularized his music. But pretty much all Western composers from that point on, including Beethoven and Brahms, were influenced by Bach.

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+1 for the solo cello suites, they're utterly amazing, and also takes away that potential stumbling block of how Bach used counterpoint on keyboard instruments, which can, I find, be a little overwhelming. I no longer find it so, but I definitely did at first. – Matthew Walton Jun 16 '14 at 13:05
Even Mozart was influenced by Bach when he happened to come upon one of Bach's 8-part motets. – Apprentice Queue Apr 18 at 1:45

I love Bachs music more than any other, from my childhood onwards, which I think must have a lot to do with it, but I think you can learn to appreciate different kinds of music over time. If you get used to a certain piece by practising or hearing, sometimes it can strike you all at a sudden as beautiful, even if you didn't like it before. It is as if you have to get acquainted with a particular musical language. I only began to like e.g. Mahler when I was a lot older. But still, as much as I love Bach, I am not always in the mood for it. When your ears are immersed in the romantic soundpattern, then switching to Bach it might sound dull and a bit stern. In the same way,if you were just blown away by the rythm of a rock song, then following immediately with Chopin could be real turn-off, even for a Chopin-lover. So I would suggest to take your time to immerse in the language of Bach. For instance by listening to the organ trio sonatas - one movement at a time - played by the very sensitive organ player Christian Barthen (see YouTube). It may sound just virtuoso at first, but there are lot of emotions hidden between the bars. Or try the nice and quiet Goldberg Variations before going to sleep (they were written for a sleepless Count as a kind of lullaby). If you don't get the taste of it, at least you have done Bach the honour of trying.

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Reasons 1 and 2, I think. Bach is popular enough in the West that I don't think that 3 really pertains: I don't think our fundamental wiring is any different.

I think your biggest problem may be that Bach's music often comprises both linear polyphony and organised harmony at one and the same time. That gives it an extraordinary... call it "density of events". There is more going on than in Romantic homophony.

That's not to say that Bach is exceedingly difficult to navigate in all fashions: in most cases his formal divisions are extremely clear, and he tends to use very clear motifs and a great deal of repetition (often varied) to establish his thematic ideas. The kinds of repetition he uses are what gives his music great propulsive force: sequence (repetition by transposition), imitative counterpoint (repetition of a melody in different voices, usually while previous instances continue onto something else), invertible counterpoint (change in the top-to-bottom order of the voices, i.e, shuffling the melodic materials previously exposed in each voice into a different voice), mutation (repetition with change of mode) and reharmonisation are all in his toolkit.

You'll also come to notice that his thematic ideas are fairly open-ended: they don't usually come to a real halt until the very last measure of a piece (and that's something he does have in common with the Hindustani, Carnatic and Persian traditions). Western music doesn't tend to be quite as rhythmically complex as Indian music, but the need of the voices and harmonies to line up and resolve with the rhythm can make up for that, and usually does in Bach's case. The rhythm of harmonic change also contributes to the movement of the music. It takes a concurrence of the melodic voices, the harmonies they form, the rhythms they follow, and appropriate cadential formulae to bring music to a halt, and Bach was a master of delaying this.

I'll give you something that does a good job of illustrating all of this: Prelude and Fugue in E♭ major BWV 552 ("St. Anne"). The complete score can be found here. Wikipedia gives a fairly good thematic analysis here, as part of its article on the third volume of the Clavier-Übung, good enough, at any rate, that you should be able to identify the themes as you follow along with the score. (They're quite obvious to the ear.)

If finally Bach fails to fall into place for you, don't fret: personalities do play a role. I'm not a great fan of Beethoven or Wagner despite the fact that I can hear their mastery quite clearly for myself. Their musical personalities are not a good fit with mine. Things like that happen.

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I don't think it's any of those three reasons. The Baroque tradition is very different, and for many, including western listeners steeped in the western canon, the music of Bach is an acquired taste. But, as with different cuisines from different cultures, the unexpected juxtaposition of familiar ingredients sometimes don't encourage easy acceptance or appreciation. As you are exposed more to the entire breadth of western music, your ears will develop an appreciation for each musical tradition. (Have you listened to Schoenberg, Webern, or most of the music written in the latter 20th century? Crazy stuff for anyone.) The contrapuntal, polyphonic textures of many of Bach's writing has no obvious relation to cultures outside the western world, and only repeated exposure to this style of writing will provide you with the structure, the skeleton, on which to hang the uniquely Baroque elements of sounds and textures.

Imagine when you were growing up, and your mother gave you a new dish that you had never had. Although you recognized most of the ingredients, the presentation and the taste was so foreign to you that you instantly didn't like it. However, as you matured, tried many different foods, new ingredients, from different cultures, your palate broadened, and your appreciation, if not affection, for those once unfamiliar foods grew by several orders of magnitude. In some cases, you actually grew fond of the same foods you detested when you were younger. That's how it is with western music. It is so broad, that one often starts with a few musical periods (usually Classical or Romantic), or even just a few composers or works, and then their musical palate grows.

Put yet another way, imagine being exposed to the English language for the first time, and remember how foreign the sound concept was. You had no point of reference for the vowels, sentence structure, and vocabulary. Same for an English speaker confronted with such foreign sounds as Hindi or Urdu. With time, one learns to appreciate, and maybe love, the uniquely beautiful qualities of the new.

In short, just keep listening. There is nothing wrong with your ears or your brain's processing powers. You'll find that Bach is much more than the few pieces most people have heard. Bach is not for everyone, but many devotees will tell you that many of his music encompasses and expresses the world in the most sublime ways imaginable. Almost religious. Just keep listening.

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It may just be different metrics. Bach is a master of giving self-sufficient parts to each instrument while maintaining a harmonic framework and keeping much more rules of composing practice than he breaks. Now a self-sufficient part means melodic material, and melodic material is at its heart composed of scales.

So what you hear is, indeed, just multiples scales running past each other when other composers make the basses deliver just the bass notes and fifths of the current harmony. Which Bach also does to a degree, but since his harmonies progress at a much faster rate through the measures than with popular music, this still allows for the basses to put a fundamental to harmonic progression while still being melodically active.

Now the rules of composition are surprisingly complex and most of them have some remote grounding in the physics of harmony and attention span.

Imagine 4 people talking fast to you at once, and everybody has something to say and convey but no two use a consonant at the same time and they tend to use the same vowels at the same time.

It's still just 4 people talking at the same time, but there is something that is more than just the sum of those parts.

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I agree with Max. Listen and listen. I especially appreciated his reference to Shoenberg and Webern. When first introduced to them in college, I almost walked out of the room. Having professor who studied with Varesse (xcuse sp if wrong) certainly helped. It took a while for me to appreciate this 'new' type of music.

Ironically, both these composers were also very 'counterpointal' in similar and different ways.( Tone rows, matrix stuff), By the time I took post tonal in one of my last courses, I could very much appreciate the music of these masters. My senior thesis was based on Weberns Octet.

I would say it took about 15 listenings be4 I think I knew what was happening. So just listen and listen more. At one point you will get to the eureka moment. Hope this helps.

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