I come from a blues/rock background and play some jazz too. Recently I started to learn Bach's cello suite 1 on bass guitar, and I am confused by the way I am supposed to feel the rhythm. If I were to write it down, I would do using 8th notes, because of the following reasons:

  • It feels much more natural for me to tap my foot to every second note
  • I feel every measure in the way it is normally written as two measures.

Is there a specific reason that it is written in 16ths, or am I supposed to be feeling the rhythm differently?

  • I'm not sure, which movement you are talking about, but the first three are typically played quite fast; if you tap your foot every second note, then (even in case you are not slowing down too much) you may atomize the intended melodical lines. The suites are to be played in the spirit of dances. – guidot Mar 17 at 10:58
  • I am currently working on the prelude. – Ali Rasim Kocal Mar 17 at 11:18
  • For curiosity's sake, what printed time signature does the prelude of Bach's Cello Suite 1 use? – Dekkadeci Mar 17 at 13:38
  • why is Bach's Air written in 32nds? I don't know. He could have saved a lot of ink! – Albrecht Hügli Mar 17 at 14:54
  • Classical pieces tend to have much longer melodic phrases and structures than rock/blues does. As you study and learn (listen to!) material from 1200 CE thru the 19th or 20th century, you'll find phrases which run for many measures, even tho' there is an underlying emphasis pattern. – Carl Witthoft Mar 18 at 12:40

Music notation conventions have changed, at different times in history.

Bach did not give any tempo indication for the prelude and wrote it in common time. Therefore the written "beat" was a quarter note, i.e. every four written notes.

In Bach's time, musical tempos were defined relative to the human heart beat, not as MM values (the metronome had not yet been invented). Some contemporary books on music theory compared the pulse rate with the length of a swinging pendulum, which gives the default tempo at that time (and the average heartbeat rate of musicians!) as about 80 beats per minute. The practical range of tempi varied from two musical beats in three heartbeats (i.e. about 54 BPM) to three musical beats in two heartbeats (i.e. about 120 BPM).

Modern dance music tends to use faster tempi but with fewer subdivisions, so your instinct to count 2 notes to a beat and not 4 is probably not too far from the historically "correct" performance speed. But a classical musician would probably "feel" the rhythm of this piece with only two (slow) or one (very slow) beats in each bar - i.e. the "beats" correspond to the "chord changes" in the music, not to some faster rhythm.

In music of Bach's time, the shortest written notes in different pieces tended to be of similar duration, independent of the tempo in "beats per minute." Thus, "slow" pieces (in terms of BPM) were often written in shorter note values than "fast" pieces. In the absence of precise tempo markings (no metronomes!) this was a useful visual clue as to the character of the music - the score of a "slow" piece would typically have lots of 16th and 32nd notes, while a "fast" one would be written mostly in quarters and 8ths.

  • This is fascinating material! Your answer would benefit from the addition of a few references / citations, just to help validate this information. – Carl Witthoft Mar 18 at 12:41

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