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I'm interested in studying the music of J.S. Bach, but I don't know where to start. The main reason I'm studying it because I'm very interested in Bach's harmony, so that would by my main objective as to then implement it my own compositions. So where can I start and get the most out of studying Bach?

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  • I’m voting to close this question because recommendations for off-site information or learning materials tend to be opinion-based & don't add any value to the stack exchange network.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 20, 2022 at 12:23
  • Maybe you can rewrite your question. I think if you cut out the last sentence, where you ask for recommendations for off-site information, you might be able to get some answeres. Then it's more like a guide on how to study a certain style of music. But i'm not totally sure about that.
    – Olli
    Jan 20, 2022 at 13:14
  • This might be a bit subjective. Where you start with Bach might be different from where anyone else starts. I would start with my favorite pieces; and start with the shortest or earliest of those. Basically, why not study what you like the most? Since I can play piano, I would learn to play some easier keyboard works and also do score analysis. And I might write imitations. It depends. If that’s the kind of answer you’re looking for then to me that’s subjective. Jan 20, 2022 at 13:38
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    The question is not just asking for a list. Seeing that Bach wrote lots of pedagogical material and is probably the most studied composer what purpose is served by not pointing the OP to the obvious starting places. Jan 20, 2022 at 14:35
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    This forum has way too much closing of ordinary theory questions under the excuse of "it's asking for a list," but yet has no problem with things like identifying guitars from photos under the dubious "music practice" description. Help people study music using music theory: isn't that one of the main goals of this forum? How is that end served telling a beginning Bach student to go pound salt? Jan 20, 2022 at 14:42

1 Answer 1

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Two items come to mind:

The two and three part inventions. Bach wrote a preface to those in which he stated...

Sincere instruction...not only to compose good inventions, but to develop them well...and to acquire a taste fro the elements of composition.

The 371 harmonized chorales. In the preface the author states...

...we know from C.P.E. Bach's preface [to earlier editions] that the editors did not want to put together a choral hymnbook but an instructive collection of examples of Bach's compositional style performable chiefly on a keyboard instrument.

A number of other items were composed by Bach for instructing members of his family like the Wilhelm Friedemann and Anna Magdalena notebooks. Some of the items in those books were not composed by Bach, but a good edition should have notes on those details. I think the Magdalena book includes more item not composed by Bach than the Wilhelm book.

At any rate, my point is there are several well known items that Bach composed for teaching purposes. Those make excellent choices for what to study.

In terms of how to study them, there are three general approaches:

  • Roman numeral analysis of the harmony
  • Identifying contrapuntal devices
  • Identifying elements of melodic/motif development

The last two could be lumped into one category, but you can think of them as different. For example identifying contrapuntal devices might include noting tonal versus real answers and stretto in a fugue. Melodic development might include inverting, truncating, or interval modification of lines. The former does really involve changes to material so it's more of a finding process, the later involve thematic material changed so you must first identify that thematic material and alos recognize when it has been changed.

A harmony textbook like Kostka, Tonal Harmony is the kind of resource to learn about the harmonic analysis.

A counterpoint textbook like Piston, Counterpoint or Kennan, Counterpoint is the kind of resource to learn about conterpoint/motif development.

Actually, Bach is probably the most studied composer, certainly one of the most musically quoted. Just about any college oriented textbook about harmony or counterpoint will include, if not be dominated by, examples and analysis of Bach's music.

One final thought: much of Bach's music is linear. Even in simple compositions like the first invention there are seemingly no chords, or there is so much linear motion you don't know where chords begin and end. That could present a stumbling block for you if you are new to harmonic analysis. Just understand that the lines in Bach's music often outline or embellish harmonic framework with things like broken chords, turns and other figuration. If this is a problem for you, first select the simple pieces with "block" chords, then look for the ones with broken chord patterns, then work on the ones with scalar lines, turn figures, etc. That approach will move progressively from obvious harmonic material to stuff that obscures harmony with lots of linear motion.

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