chewing ideas down to stubble, then moving on…

J.S. Bach Helps Everything Make Sense

Posted by Jason on December 17, 2008

When things are crazy in my life, I listen to J.S. Bach. Lute suites are my favorite, but anything will pretty much do. It’s not that it’s feel-good music. It’s not always calming and relaxing. Bach is actually filled with a lot of tension. He rarely stays in the same key and moves around musically in some crazy ways.

What it really does for me is put things in order. It makes sense. Even when Bach moves from one key to another or just puts in some really gnarly harmonies, they make sense. There is an order in this music that just works for me. It’s often very complicated like an intense algebraic expression, but there is order. The problem can be solved. Each note, no matter how out of place it might sound, finds its place in the greater scheme of things.

If you took a vertical snapshot of many of Bach’s chords and played those notes at one time on the piano,  just as those notes sound at the same time in a piece of music, there’s a good chance that audio snapshot would not sound so lovely. However, take the two chords before it and the two chords after it, and that little spot of 5 beats will sound just as if it always belonged. Taken on their own and out of context many of Bach’s notes sound bad. It’s when they get connected in time that magic actually happens.

Now that seems all good for me, the music theory nerd, but it might just sound like a bunch of notes to you. Too many notes in fact. But here is where the beauty in Bach lies: imagine a couple different colored paintbrushes being pulled along a roadway. When they start off, it’s not a bunch of scribbles. That would be just noise. Maybe they race along in parallel lines, or maybe they cross over one another in nice, flowing curves going up and down. Always forward, but never backward. The order of Bach is that the race continues forward until the end of the piece. It flows, and the fun is trying to follow one or two colors/voices throughout the course of the race. Our ears are the chase helicopters that try and keep up with the competitors. Sometimes our cameras are trained on just one racer for a while; other times it switches to a wide view of the whole pack. Sometimes there are epic battles, back and forth, for first place; other times one voice starts in front and stays in front. 

Bach understood so well that life is tension, as well as release. This makes us alive; it’s really the essence of the entire world around us. Push, pull. Bad, good. Birth, death. When things are tense and I’m not comfortable in my own skin, Bach shows me that it will resolve. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but it will resolve. It might resolve on a minor chord or it might be a happy major chord. But it will resolve. Tension cannot be forever. It may last for longer than we are comfortable with, but that’s what makes music and life great.


6 Responses to “J.S. Bach Helps Everything Make Sense”

  1. Steve Perrin said

    Jason, I like your experiential approach to music. Yes, music is orderly, and your mind reflects that order. Your mind and Bach’s make music together. Bach is an excellent companion, as are Haydn and Mozart. –Steve from Planet Earth

  2. Jason said

    Thanks for your comment, Steve! I do feel that Bach has more harmonic motion that the later Classical period composers, though. Haydn is often terribly predictable, and Mozart also is, but to a lesser extent. While Bach’s music is often unpredictable, surprising, and tense, it still makes sense once the aural surprise has passed. I love your idea that our minds mix with that of the composer to make the music. It would be just sound if we couldn’t ascribe meaning to it.

  3. I’m more of a Tchaikovsky guy…

  4. Steve Perrin said

    Jason, How about Beethoven string quartets? I love the late ones where I picture him inventing music, just as J.S. Bach did in his day. I posted a blog on Wednesday, Music Consciousness, in which I struggled to get down the power of music as a means of communication without words. If you’re in the mood, check out onmymynd.wordpress.com/, Reflection 38. –Steve from Planet Earth

  5. Jason said

    I’m a big fan of Beethoven, mostly for his breaking the mold. He turned music from an art and a science in itself, to a tool for expression. Instead of putting his music on a pedestal, Beethoven took that music, shook it by the scruff of the neck and made it tell the entire world whatever he was feeling. While there is more technically fascinating music, I look at Beethoven much like the Jimi Hendrix of his time. Hendrix wasn’t the best technical guitar player around (sure he could play), but what draws people to call him a guitar god is that he could channel his emotions through the music better than anyone else ever had or will.

  6. godshouldnthave said

    This is one of your most useful and beautiful posts. Bach’s organ monster Toccata has made me cry. I do not leak from the eyes often. There is a visual representation of it on youtube that I imagine you have all ready seen, but if not seek it out. It breaks down in painted lines the intensely organized chaos of his resonate art. Cheers.

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