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What is meant by “Bach was a mathematical composer”?

9 Answers

Peter Flom, Bach, Coltrane and the Beatles


Answered Oct 29 2015 · Upvoted by John Wicks, 40 plus years as a music professional, formerly signed
to Virgin Records. and Alon Amit, PhD in Mathematics; Mathcircler. ·Author has 21.8k answers
and 71.4m answer views

Bach was very fond of counterpoint - fugues, canons and other variations.

In most western music, there is a single melodic line, with other notes adding
harmony. In counterpoint, there are multiple melodic lines, with notes acting as both
harmony and melody simultaneously.

Some fugues and other such works involve various techniques that seem math-y. For
instance, one line may be played at twice the speed of another, or upside-down, and so
on.

In addition, although I haven't got data to back it up, I think that Bach (and other
composers who do this sort of thing, but Bach above all) is popular among
mathematicians.

I highly recommend Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas


Hofstadter. Not an easy read, but a richly rewarding one.

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Nick du Plessis, I sing and play several instruments and I've read a lot on the topic.
Answered Jun 6 2016 · Author has 2.3k answers and 2.1m answer views
A few thoughts:

Counterpoint, polyphony, canon, and fugue comprise a way of music making that can
be simple (i.e., a round like Row Row Row Your Boat) but tends toward the rigorous
and complex. Art of Fugue is an uncompleted work and naturally the incomplete fugue
has a semi-mythical reputation for daunting complexity, partly due to the theme
“BACH” (B flat, A, C, B natural) the sort of numerological gambit Bach loved.

Musicologically and historically accurate interpretations of Bach gained traction in the


Fifties. Compared to the heavy Romantic stylings of say, Busoni, Wanda Landowska
and Glenn Gould sounded like Liebnizian timepieces - exacting and a little stern. The
art of contrapuntal writing rang through loud and clear though, and it had a striking
effect on the new physics savants and druggies (or both) of the postwar era.

Bach had a strong understanding of organ design and building. He earned extra
money as a consultant on the instrument. In 1685–1750, the pipe organ was at the
very high end of technology.

Bach’s death marked the end of the Baroque Era. He mined a musical vein that went
back to Josquin and Palestrina for all his life. He was considered a repository of
archaic knowledge during his lifetime. In later, freer musical eras, Mozart and others
admired Bach. Bach had become a cult figure. He also had a glorious posthumous
comeback. Bach’s mystique was now complete.

Bach was a notable proponent of “well temperament”, a tuning system that made all
twenty-four keys available to the most practical of keyboard instrument designs.
Mathematical purity (the “perfect” intervals) was sacrificed but the net result was the
availability of greater harmonic variety.

In a way, the “math” label is an unfortunate distraction. JSB was neither the cold
Teutonic technician nor the maudlin and perpetually grieving father and widower of
popular perception. He was, as writer Christoph Wolff put it, a learned man of the
Enlightenment. Bach had a lot of soul, and in many of his great works, the technique
should not be allowed to overshadow the heart.

It’s interesting that the reputation of Bach, the consummate religious composer, is
more or less equally great among believers and presumably more sciencey non-
believers and doubters.

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Mark Andrews, Composer and pianist. PhD in Composition.


Answered Nov 4 2015 · Author has 1.3k answers and 1m answer views
It's an unjust slur, because Bach was truly a musician's musician. A "mathematical"
composer is someone like Pierre Boulez who started out as a mathematician.

What people mean, is that Bach's music is carefully calculated because so cleverly
contrapuntal. However, Bach is always dealing with notes as notes, and therefore
sounds as sounds. Though he obviously thought carefully about writing something
such as a 2 part retrograde canon (Musical Offering), the result was always subject to
what he also considered to be aesthetically pleasing (ie. good MUSIC).

I'm sure your calculus teacher is an excellent mathematician, but if he composes at all
as he imagines Bach did, it will be clever but soulless music, which Bach's certainly
isn't.
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Andrew Qian, I spend a large portion of my life at the piano


Answered Dec 8 2015 · Author has 572 answers and 1m answer views
The "mathematics" is not really what you would think of as mathematics, but Bach did
write very structured music. I once did an independent study unit with the renowned
harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, who pointed this out to me.

The most famous example is of course the baroque fugue, which usually has
somewhere between 3 and 5 voices (think people singing independently, even though
it's 1 person playing 1 keyboard instrument). It is often taught that the fugue has "a
subject", or maybe even two, which are motifs that get repeated throughout the piece. I
will use no. 16 from book II of the Well Tempered Clavier as an example:

As you can see, the first 2 bars in the bottom clef is the "theme". The 16th notes aren't
always in that pattern though, if memory serves me correctly.

That's not a very sophisticated theme or motif to weave into a piece. If you play as
some people do, and try to accent that theme to "bring it out", you arrive at an
unsatisfying interpretation where the rest of the notes seem like complementary nice
sounds. You have 4 voices, and one of them plays this theme at a time, with some
decoration right? That doesn't sound very mathematical does it?

What really happens with this piece is more interesting:

Notice in measure 3, in the bass clef, Bach has inverted the first 2 bars. This is
actually another theme! Notice how it's interleaved with the first theme. If you listen
closely, you'll hear a variation of these 3 bars exactly 6 times, with some transition
stuff in between.

There's a good reason why it's 6. That's 4 (voices available) choose 2 (voices needed for
the "themes"). What happens is that each time that pattern appears, he uses a
different combination of 2 voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) to play that thematic
material while the other 2 accompany it.

If you listen along, here it's alto+soprano first, then bass + tenor, then tenor+alto,
bass+soprano, then bass +alto, then finally something called a stretto where it starts
with soprano + tenor, the last of the possible pairs you can pick from the 4 voices,
except before it's finished the bass and alto "interrupt" with the same thematic
material. Try to see if you can hear this.

You will also notice that Bach cycles through keys each time there's one of these
themes. He's first at G minor, the home key, then moves to D minor, then B flat major,
then F major (again a 5th up), then C minor, then back to G minor for the end.

That wasn't the best example, some of Bach's fugues are even more "textbook". For
example, with a 3 subject fugue, he'll get each permutation of the 3 subjects (aka, in
terms of order of voicing from low to high, ABC, ACB, BCA, BAC, CAB, CBA) in at
some point, rotating through the few keys "close" to the home key, and that'll
essentially be the entire piece, usually with a 4th voice adding a note here and there.
There's other stuff like the prelude and fugue when paired together having numerically
some multiple of each other's bars, switching a subset of the subjects halfway through
to some related variants, etc.

Strettos in particular get pretty epic when the fugue has more going on, for example
with the famous C# minor fugue, no.4 (BWV 849) from Book I as well, there are 5
voices working with a 3 subject theme that is constantly "interrupted":
(skip to 8:05 for the stretto)

The above video also has the 3 subjects color coded red, pink, and blue towards the
end. The first page of the piece is more free form. Also makes for fun listening,
although I don't like how Richter tries really hard to bring out only the first theme
(highlighted red). Maybe I'll record myself playing this one sometime.

Bach is like a musical crossword/Sudoku puzzle; he weaves a few (usually, sort of)
melodic themes together and adds embellishment in a way that it sounds good. The
mind can't pick up on all these patterns as you're listening but the familiar themes
playing in different variations each time keeps the music interesting.
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Christopher Smith, musician and teacher of music


Answered Jan 31 2016 · Author has 1.9k answers and 869.9k answer views
Well, people SAY mathematical, but honestly, the techniques he used involved
arithmetic almost any grade 5 student could handle. Transpose the idea (that is to
say, start it on a different note) - you only have 6 diatonic choices really, or leave it on
the same note when it appears again, and some of those won't work very well, which
cuts down your choices. Turn it (or part of it) upside down, that's easy. Move it to a
different part of the measure (that is to say, start it on a different beat) - again you
have very few choices inside the system that Bach was using. Or if none of those re-
uses of the material work, come up with something that still fits the existing material,
but isn't actually brand new, kind of like musical spackling to fill the cracks, but not
very often nor too much at a time!

Where his genius showed was him knowing the absolute best time to use each of those
rather simple techniques and when NOT to use them to create a piece that explored
the very limits of the (again) rather simple idea he started with. Imagine crocheting a
lace square where all the lace formations are variants of each other with very little
repetition, and it still works out to be a perfect square.

Some other people claim that he was writing music at a desk (not on an instrument)
without regard to the technical limitations of the instruments he wrote for, so THAT
was what made him a mathematical composer. Any violinist or cellist who has ever
looked at his violin partitas or cello suites can pooh-pooh that one right away. His
keyboard music is difficult to finger, it's true (my piano teacher told me that Anna
Magdalena, his second wife that he wrote the educational clavier pieces for, must have
been either an excellent player or he didn't like her very much!) but this was a time
before thumb-under fingering was commonplace.

He himself claimed that he only became good at composing because he applied


himself, and that anyone who worked as hard as he did would have done the same.
Composers back then didn't think that music expressed anything other than music,
and that the laws were laid out by God, so someone who composed well was only
showing that they understood how God wanted music to work. That idea might seem a
little dry to us today, but then again, just listen to it!

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Nicole Tay, LRSM in Piano Performance


Answered Sep 11 2016
Since the other answers have given a perspective into how Bach used math in the
structure of his music, I’d like to give an example of how Bach fully integrated
Mathematics in his music in a different way - through words that were associated with
his Lutheran faith. For this answer, I’ll be using his Goldberg Variations as an
example.

As a general background, the Goldberg variations was a work written for harpsichord
which consists of 2 arias and 30 variations. Bach was a highly religious man who was
Lutheran, and two concepts which he utilised in this piece were the ideas
of Unity and Trinity. General observations include that the variations all have 64
bars, with the exceptions of variations 3, 9, 21, and 30 with 32 bars each and
variation 16 with 95 bars.

Now here comes the fun bit. Through this answer, counting is based on the Roman
alphabet (or Latin alphabet), like this:

(Image credit: Wikipedia)


Variation 2 starts on the 129th bar. 129 = 3 x 43, and 43 = C+R+E+D+O. Credo is a
creed of the Christian church in Latin.

Variation 3 starts on bar 193. 1 is Unity, 3 is Trinity, 9 is a triptych of Trinity (3*3*3).

Variation 6 starts on bar 353 (again, Trinity framing well-tempered fifth). 6 is the first
perfect number. Variation 6 has 64 bars, ending on bar 416. 416 = 2^5 x 13 (triunity
again). 41 = J+S+B+A+C+H. Variation 11 starts at bar 641 which corresponds to the
earlier 416.

Variation 15 ends with bar 960. 960 = 2 x 10 x 48, 48 = I+N+R+I. INRI is an acronym
for the Latin phrase that means “Jesus, King of the Jews”.

Let’s examine Variation 16 more closely, as it is the center of the piece.

 Variation 16 has 95 bars (I+N+R+I + D+E+U+S). We can conclude that Bach


had specifically meant this variation to have 95 bars, as he had omitted one
bar in the repetition. 9+5=14 = B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8.
 Variation 16 is the midpoint of the 32 variations, which means that BACH is
the center of the piece.
 95 = 5 x 19. This could be a reference to the equal temperament tuning
system, with 19 tuning steps.
 Variation 16 starts at bar 961. 9+6+1=16. 961 = 31 x 31 (Triunity again).
 Bar 9 of Variation 16 has a bar number of 969. 9+6+9=24, the number of
accessible keys.
 Bar 39 of Variation 16 has bar number 999. 39 = 3 x 13 (Triunity). 9+9+9=27.
999/27=37. 27 = 3^3. 37 = J+C+H+R.

Some more fun on Triunity. 13 x 13 = 169. 31 x 31 = 961. (Reverse!) 31 x 13 = 403.

43 = C+R+E+D+O.

Variation 19 ends on bar 1247. 12 is a holy number distinguished by Luther. 12 is


also the number of semitones in an octave. 47 = D+E+U+S. 1247 = 29 x 43 (JSB and
CREDO)
I won’t be going into any more detail for now, as these are just some of the more
pertinent examples. There is still much that I have left out, and there are papers
written about the use of Math in the Goldberg variations available online which you
may search up if you have an interest in this :).

Now some of you might be thinking that all this might just be an analysis on our part,
and not truly what Bach meant. We cannot be sure exactly how much of the
mathematical occurrences in this piece were intended by Bach and calculated in the
same way as us. However, the sheer number of such occurrences make it extremely
unlikely that no form of mathematical thought was put into the piece.

I hope this helped you! :)

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Dimitris Trigkakis, 10 years of piano studies


Answered Dec 15 2015 · Author has 137 answers and 208.4k answer views
Bach was a composer during a time when complicated music was the norm.
Counterpoint was the main mode of composition during the Baroque era of classical
music, and it was one of the most complex and intricate paradigms to create music in.

In counterpoint, every musical note was mainly part of a melody. There was no sense
of repeated or boring accompaniment. Harmony was incidental, something that simply
resulted from the simultaneous passages of the many melodies.

To create an interesting melody is hard enough. To create many of them, and have all
the combinations between the parts sound good too is a very worthwhile
accomplishment. In essence, the degree of complexity rises exponentially in the
number of voices. Bach was able to improvise 5 and 6 part fugues, a common form in
counterpoint, with a moment's thought.

When you listen to a fugue, you have to remember that if you misplace even one note,
you will destroy the melodical structure of one line, and the harmonical structure of
another. Looking for the correct notes to place in a musical piece can never be done in
a random fashion. You would have to look at the big picture, and create so many
layers of abstraction that you would get lost in the details.

Bach was a master at handling this type of complexity. His music is like a
conversation, starting with little meaning, and attaining brilliant structure through
repeated self-reference.

Musical phrases repeat in other scales, get transformed, repeat in other voices, repeat
in contrast to themselves in other parts, and all in all get a contrapuntal treatment
that can only be compared to the works of other intellectual giants, like Gauss or
Hawking.