This comes from BWV 847 (the C minor fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier).

Look at the third beat from measure 28.

I can't help but hear an A flat minor chord here, that is Eb, Cb, Ab. Especially when playing with an "organ" sound on a synthesizer or something rich (because of the harmonics of the Eb at the bass, I suppose). Try to add the Eb above middle C to the chord to see what I mean.

I know that the harmony is supposed to be a G dominant over the Eb (that is a vanilla V/I movement over the Eb), and you can suppress any tentative to think otherwise by adding the D to the chord (I even have an edition at home which suggest that there is at least one manuscript where the copier added this D).

Am I the only one to hear this "C flat" ? Is there any actual example of chromatic mediant movement in Bach by the way ? Would you add the D to the chord ?

EDIT: here I can hear it a lot :

(at 3:28)

enter image description here

  • Did you mean an Abm chord?
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 19:40
  • @Tim Yeah, of course. Fixed. Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 19:50
  • What's the difference between Cb and B? Shouldn't they be the same with well temperament? Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 9:25
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    @EricDuminil the question is whether you hear a G dominant over the Eb, or something stranger (Ab minor chord). In the second case, the B would have been noted CB instead. To hear the difference, play the circled chord adding respectively the D or the Eb above middle C. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 12:54

3 Answers 3


Sure, if you listen to this chord out of context, it sounds like a 2nd inversion Ab minor chord. But in context, at least to me, the chord and its resolution on the second eighth note seem to be a perfectly straightforward, and typical for Bach, dominant to tonic motion, where the dominant is a dimished seventh chord (missing its third and fifth), and the tonic is in the first inversion and anticipated in the bass.

And there's no room for a D in the chord- this is a three voice fugue.

  • Yeah, it's a 3 voice fugue, but if I were to disambiguate, that's what I would do (adding F to the chord would imply resolving onto a doubled Eb -- not good). Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 19:52
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    @AlexandreC. - yes, adding a D to the chord would strengthen the dominant feeling. But it would disrupt the fugue. Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 20:11
  • @ScottWallace, if I follow your answer, the essential harmony at the part circled in red is V-V4/2-i6, right? The B natural is then a suspension/retardation and the A flat above an appoggiatura? Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 20:07
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    @MichaelCurtis - the way I hear it- and this is of course subjective- is that the part circled in red is a dominant, in the form of a diminished seventh chord, very typical for Bach, which would be completely spelled out as B-D-F-Ab, but in this case, is missing the third and the fifth, but is also complicated by its resolution to the tonic being anticipated in the bass, in the first inversion. But there's such a thing as getting too wound up in analysis. Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 18:01

The way you've phrased your question is a little strange, since the only possible answer would be "no, you are undoubtedly not the only one."

I hear it a little differently from Scott, but it doesn't really make sense as a full chord. I hear the B and the Ab as simple accented non-chord tones, with a chromatic rise (B-C) and descent (Ab-G) to the expected i6 chord.

That seems fairly clear to me on reading it, and is also how I hear it when performed:

  • It depends on the instrument. Eg. youtube.com/watch?v=3ceiQadblRQ (at 3:28) Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 19:50
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    @AlexandreC. I just listened to your recording. If anything, it seems even more startling there. It feels too out of place to be a fundamental harmonic idea. That's NCT territory :)
    – Ben I.
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 20:15
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    @ScottWallace Ah, I see. For some reason, I didn't catch that from your answer. Then we are in total agreement, because the two NCTs are certainly dominant-ish :)
    – Ben I.
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 20:16
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    BenI, @ScottWallace Of course, being non-chord tones, this is not a "strict" chromatic mediant movement or anything like that, and the voice movement is what it is : B goes to C. But I definitely hear something funny in the organ version, and adding the D (using an organ sound on my keyboard) does change completely the quality of the chord to me. But maybe it's because of the repeated listening. Anyway thanks for taking the time to listen to this. Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 20:28
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    @AlexandreC. - I can't argue with that, and after repeated listenings, I too managed to hear an Ab minor chord there. I'm sure my perception is also colored by the fact that I've played this piece many times, and tend to hear Bach along the lines I'm accustomed too. And thanks for pointing this out- it's interesting in any case. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 10:38

There is no c-flat in the key of c minor, and that’s what key we’re in here.

The b-natural has a scale-degree function to move to c, and that’s what it does here. C-flat doesn’t have that role.

There is no harmonic function of a-flat minor in this spot. B and a-flat are non-harmonic tones resolving to c and g in the c minor triad in first inversion.

For those reasons, I’d say Bach notated this correctly.

  • There is absolutely no question that the intended harmony requires B -> C (V to I, over a pedal of Eb, if you want). Moreover, an accidental Cb would have to go down to Bb. This is only a matter of acoustics -- the chord sounds like an Ab minor chord (and thus a "chromatic mediant" movement) when played on an organ. Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 19:44

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