I've listened to Gould's performance of this piece many times, sometimes following the score, and I've noticed that maybe Gould plays this piece wrong at the beginning.

Unfortunately, I am unable to post a video of his performance, because it's blocked on YouTube, but it's available on Spotify.

Anyway, about an hour ago, I used MuseScore to write both Bach's version and the one I kept hearing from Gould's performance. The first example is Bach's original version and the second is the way in which I perceive Gould's playing.

When I finished writing, I started listening to the piece again, while I was following Bach's version. Suddenly, I realized that this was the way Gould plays the piece. However, I listened to the beginning again, now focusing on the second image, and I changed my mind again.

I think it depends from the beginning, when I take into account the eighth rest (therefore, I perceive that Gould also takes the rest into account, too) or not. Sometimes I hear the first F# on o-ne, and sometimes on o-ne (which was Bach's intention), i.e. accented or not.

What do you hear? Does Gould play the piece "right" or "wrong"? Or am I counting wrong?


Short Answer: Just tap eighth notes throughout the entire subject. You'll find that the G♯ lasts four eighth notes, not three or five. Furthermore, Gould gives slight accents to the first of each slurred two-note grouping; this shows that he's accenting the stronger downbeats as opposed to each upbeat. He's definitely playing it the right way!

Long Answer: Your brain is just be playing tricks on you!

In A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, the authors (a composer/theorist and a linguist) create sets of "well-formedness" and "preference" rules, and the claim is that these rules describe how we hear and understand music of this repertoire.

Most pertinent to your question is what we call the "strong beat early" metrical preference rule:

Prefer a metrical structure in which the strongest beat in a group appears relatively early in the group.

The way Bach wrote this subject, the strongest beat in the group doesn't appear until the eighth pitch. But from a standpoint of Gestalt psychology, we will tend to want to hear a strong beat as early as possible—as early, in fact, as the very first pitch. This is what your brain is doing: telling you that the first pitch you hear is actually the downbeat.

To make matters more difficult, Gould waits a bit to start his ornamentation on the penultimate pitch, which almost makes it sound like that ornamentation begins on beat 3 (which is what you'd expect with your notation).

  • It's funny that since I posted my question, I can consciously decide which version I want to perceive, the "right" one or the "wrong" one. – George Sep 19 '18 at 21:49
  • 2
    It's your own musical spinning dancer! – Richard Sep 19 '18 at 23:15

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