I've been teaching myself Piano (it's just for fun, I can't take classes at the moment so don't start with that) and reading music. I'm practicing a piece from J.S. Bach called Prelude in C major here's the part of the sheet that confuses me:

enter image description here

I'd never heard this piece before, but the melody I was playing sounded off to me. I went to YouTube to check some videos of people playing it or a Synthesia video and effectively the E note that is tied to the first E note on the treble isn't played (the one that should be played, AFAIK as a chord with the E on top of it) , why?

Another thing, why does this piece have two silences in the same staff?, and with different duration on top of that.

Lastly, that 1/8th E note on the treble is tied to the last E note of every "section" (I don't know how would you call a part of a bar?), is keeping that note going until that point even possible? I guess it would have to be done with a pedal, right? Is this done so more notes can "fit" into the time signature? because that really seems to me like a half note.

5 Answers 5


The two things required to understand this piece are:

  • tie and slur symbols look the same but have different meanings.

  • in piano music, especially polyphonic, you can have many melodies (think - virtual staves) squeezed into a single staff.

    1. The slur / tie problem:
  • If you tie two notes (they need to have the same pitch), it is always played as a single sound, played for the duration of both notes;

  • If you put a slur (which looks exactly like a tie) over notes that form a phrase, this means just that - that they form a phrase and should be played as such.

    1. The polyphonic problem

The upper staff contains two separate melodies, one is very simple (and consists of two sounds per bar, denoted by two pairs of tied notes), one is more complex (and marked with a slur). Because the two lines notes are squeezed into one staff, there is a different set of rests for each of them.

  • This, moreover, isn't a standard legato slur, this is a phrasing slur that tells you where the phrase starts and finishes. To see the difference: you can have a rest below a phrasing slur (since the phrase can contain a rest) -- this would be non-sense for a legato slur.
    – yo'
    Aug 3, 2015 at 8:31
  • @yo' That is why I was very careful NOT to call it a "legato slur", just a "slur". I avoided mentioning legato altogether, because in piano music the term has too many subtle meanings to be useful in this context.
    – fdreger
    Aug 3, 2015 at 8:52
  • 1
    @fdreger: On a piano that may be true, but on some other instruments or in vocal music it would be very common to slur two notes. In vocal music there may also sometimes be a dashed slur or dashed tie between notes (when part of the music should for some verses be sung as one syllable and for some as two syllables). In cases where the tie/slur would cross a bar line and the first note is an accidental, the distinction may be significant (though well-printed music should either cancel the accidental if a slur with changing pitches is intended).
    – supercat
    Sep 29, 2015 at 15:02
  • 1
    @supercat: it's a good thing then that both the original question and my answer were about piano music :-) In this specific case (the question includes a printout) the slurs and ties can be distinguished only by context, they look exactly the same (at least to me).
    – fdreger
    Sep 30, 2015 at 5:40
  • 1
    @fdreger: Although the original poster asked the question about a particular piece of piano music, I don't think it is only piano players who will encounter this issue. In any case, I'm sorry if you're not interested in the notational distinction; I thought you might like to know about it.
    – supercat
    Sep 30, 2015 at 6:04

This score writes three voices. The lowest voice is in the lower staff, stem down. The middle voice is in the upper staff, stem down, its rests close to the bottom staff line. The top voice is in the upper staff, stem up, its rests close to the top staff line.

As the piece progresses, the middle line (if I remember correctly) will likely venture into the lower staff as well. In this case, it will be stem up there, with the lowest voice staying stem down.

All of the three voices are pretty much kept alive during the entire prelude (not sure about the last two measures without looking them up though). In typical piano music, voices come and go: just look at the fugue following this prelude (of course, in a beginner's book you'll only see the prelude since the fugue is in a totally different class of difficulty, but both are prelude & fugue #1 from Bach's "Das wohltemperirte Clavier"). When a voice comes and goes, it is pretty much left to the discretion of the composer for how long he will write rests around the incoming voice.

In this particular case, the rests and ties are written very, very straightforwardly and the voicing is very clear. As your experience grows, figuring out which notes belong rhythmically together will get more automatic.


Generally, notes with up tails are deemed to be 'the melody'. Notes with down tails, as here, are ' the accompaniment'. Thus, the tune starts with two notes that are not the melody. There are three lines to this tune, and since the top line doesn't start immediately, it needs a rest shown. Similarly, so does the middle line of notes.

That 'eighth note' is a dotted semiquaver, and tied to another quaver - the middle line, if you like. The line that sweeps over the 7 or 8 notes is a phrase line, not tying any specific notes.

Your last para. isn't too clear, though!

  • That's what I wanted to know, so it's not a tie, but a phrase line... is there any difference? it seems to me that ties have very blurred meanings.
    – Eddnav
    Aug 1, 2015 at 19:51
  • 2
    This piece is a baroque prelude and does not have a melody in the usual sense of later common-period music. It's all arpeggios with the bass and tenor voices sustained throughout the arpeggio. Aug 2, 2015 at 21:58
  • @Eddnav - there has been some discussion lately here about ties/phrase lines. Please check it out. Ties always join notes of the same pitch, adjacent to each other.
    – Tim
    Aug 3, 2015 at 14:21

This is what this score is saying:

  1. 1st 16th note, play and hold middle C with your left hand.
  2. 2nd 16th note, play and hold the E above middle C with your right thumb.
  3. 3rd - 5th 16th notes, keep holding the E with your right thumb while other fingers of your right hand complete the arpeggio.
  4. 6th - 8th 16th notes, keep holding the E with your right thumb (do not play it again) and repeat the last three notes of the arpeggio with the fingers of your right hand.
  5. Repeat that same pattern of play for the second half of the first measure and so on, beginning with releasing all the notes on your right hand and playing the middle C with you left for the 9th 16th note.
  • Seems about right, but why is this note omitted? better yet, why is it there in the first place if it's just holding it?
    – Eddnav
    Aug 1, 2015 at 16:13
  • 4
    I think it's much easier to play if both the C and the E are played with the left hand, and the G-C-E arpeggio is done with the right by the way. This is actually a pretty strange fingering in this particular edition. @Eddnav Ties have a variety of uses, but they are mostly used to indicate lengths that couldn't be shown otherwise (or would be too confusing to read). A note lasting 7 sixteenths would be a doubly-dotted quarter note, which are quite rare, and would be especially confusing if notated starting on the the second sixteenth of the first beat. It's ultimately easier to read this way. Aug 1, 2015 at 17:09
  • 1
    Fingering suggestions are written below the note for the left hand, and above for the right. So the 1 below the second note is intended to be played with the left hand, not the right.
    – Caleb
    Jul 1, 2018 at 6:54
  • @Caleb You're probably right. In this case that seems to conflict with another convention that the notes on the upper staff are played with the right and and the notes on the lower staff are played by the left. Jul 2, 2018 at 7:15
  • 1
    @ToddWilcox In the version I have, the first two notes are indeed written on the lower staff (with ledger lines). Perhaps it's written above with the second note on the upper staff for compactness.
    – Caleb
    Jul 2, 2018 at 12:57

The part that probably isn't clear - and may be played wrong in the Youtude video - is the prelude is actually three separate "voices."

Superficially it looks like a bunch of rolled chords, arpeggios. But it's actually like a trio, like three people singing separate parts. In technical terms we would say there is counterpoint between the three parts, and even though this is played on one piano we refer to the three parts as three "voices."

Using red, blue, and green for the three voices we have...

enter image description here

The bass in green just plays steady half notes on beats 1 and 3 while the two other voices are displaced rhythmically with rests. The effect of that displacement makes the combination of parts sound like one single arpeggio starting at the bass note of each chord.

The Es and D of the middle voice in blue are almost full half notes, but the sixteenth rest displaces them to start right after the bass.

The top voice in red is displaced a little more than the middle voice with a eighth note rest, it then continues with a broken chord pattern.

Again, the rhythmic displacements in the middle and top voices create a combined effect of a large arpeggio, but it isn't really played that way. The bass and middle voices should be held for their long values while the top voice sixteenth notes are not held. Despite the "legato" marking - which is an editorial marking, not Bach's - the top part should not keep the keys held down like an arpeggiated chord. I've heard recordings were the top part was played with a detached sound to highlight the difference in the lower two parts and the top.

  • I assume if you don't have three hands, you can play the green and blue parts with the same hand.
    – Simon B
    Apr 28, 2021 at 17:50
  • 1
    The middle voice is for your nose :-) I would play the bass and middle voice in LH and the top voice RH. Apr 28, 2021 at 19:57

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