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I’m a senior novice at the piano, I have an understanding of rhythm, note values, pitches and their positions, and major and minor scales. I like classical pieces and play comfortably in a relatively slow manner. I have learned many ideas about sight reading and would like to get fairly good at it.

When I play a piece, I do so without an understanding of things beyond the basic notes. In other words, I memorize a piece and play it note by note. What on a higher level should I be thinking about as I play through a piece such as Bach’s Minuet in G major or his Minuet in G minor?

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Well, beware of over-thinking! Always a pitfall for the adult student who prefers to analysis to the steady plod of sustained practice.

But you could consider the structure of this simple piece. A 2-bar melodic fragment, repeated 'upside down'. Another three variants of the first half of the theme lead us to a resting point ('cadence') with an echo of it in the left hand taking us into a repeat with a modified ending - a more final cadence. The first, 'half-way' cadence rests on the dominant chord (D) and is called an 'imperfect cadence'. The second 'perfect cadence' takes us home to the tonic (G). (I've seen regional variations in naming these cadence types. But they refer to the same idea.)

Then we set off in the dominant key (D), with an imperfect cadence in THAT key at bar 20 (resting on the chord of A major - using a C# accidental not in the key signature of the overall key, G major), reaching a perfect cadance in D major at bar 24. But that D chord immediately has a C natural added to it, making it D7, the dominant of... yes, our home key G major! 8 bars in that key, still using variants of the melody and rhythms of the opening few bars, and Bach wraps it up.

So, development of a simple musical theme. A key structure that takes a trip to the dominant then comes home. We're well on the way towards Sonata Form, the backbone of the 'classical' period. Have a look at Beethoven's F minor Sonata, op. 2 No. 1. It's too hard for you to play yet, but it's an excellent demonstration of Sonata form, using basically the same methods as Bach does in the Minuet in G.

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What on a higher level should I be thinking about as I play through a piece such as Bach’s Minuet in G major or his Minuet in G minor?

Once you have the muscle memory of a piece down, there's an important component of music that can often be overlooked by musicians who like to think: the emotion.

One good goal for learning a piece of music is to get it to the point where the playing of it is so automatic that you transcend the concept of playing it correctly and are able to focus on playing it with feeling. Listeners want to feel something, they (almost all of them) are not looking at how many mistakes you make or whether you understand structure, forms, or theory. They want to feel something.

Each piece of music (in any genre) has one or more emotions "encoded" into its composition, and when a piece is performed, the musicians can, and usually should, both interpret the inherent emotions and also communicate their own take and feelings that they are inspired to feel when they hear or play the piece.

So when you have mastered a piece in the technical sense, the next step is to think about how the piece makes you feel, what it reminds you of, what kind of emotional conversation is started inside you when you play it or hear it. Then, your goal is to continue that conversation. Some musicians attempt to relay their best guess at the original intended emotion(s) only, others add a little or a lot of their own take on things, and some even work to subvert the original intent and use the raw material to convey something very different.

When you are engaging in an emotional conversation with the composer and the audience, that is when you are truly making music.

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You might want to try to dig into music theory and understand 'how those pieces work' - modulation, alterations etc. This is a technical part of Bach (and any composer) mastery.

Another interesting part could be to understand a semantics of Bach's music. There are several folks who investigate leitmotifs in Bach's music. Albert Schweitzer was the first. Then Bodki and Boleslav Yavorsky. For instance, and this could be interesting for you, the piece you play (I expect #7 from Anna Magdalena) is based on arpeggios. This texture is commonly accepted as a musical descriptive of angels. Therefore, we can reveal the Annunciation background of the piece.

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  • Do you mean leitmotifs, or just motives? By "Leitmotiv," we typically mean Wagner or later; if someone extends the concept of Leitmotiv earlier, they usually only go as early as Weber or so. – Richard Jan 26 '18 at 18:01
  • In your terms, it is definitely motifs. But if we use the definition of leitmotif as a repeatedly used motif to express the same or close ideas, then those could be cold leitmotifs. If we don't like it, we can say 'rhetoric figures', as Bach's art of fugue follows the same principles of parts interaction as in rhetorics. Some examples of those rhetoric figures: notes B-A-C_H - usually represents a cross and crucifixion; tetrachord up is an assertion of faith, arpeggio on tonics - angels; if the notes line forms a shape of the letter M - symbol of Maria, Stabat Mater etc. See Schweitzer. – Sergey Belyaev Jan 28 '18 at 12:18

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