Musical Excursion: Bach Invention #1 in C Major

Whether consciously outlined or not, one of the major tenets of modern "worship music" (indeed, all pop music) is a rejection of intellectual complexity. This stands in direct opposition to the aesthetic that drives the creation and consumption of "classical music," (or "art music") which operates in a different realm. Art Music seeks to reward repeated listening, engage the intellect as well as the heart, and be accessible and interesting to listeners of all levels. In doing so, Art Music forsakes contemporary and fleeting popularity, for enduring value.

What are the specific devices used to make this happen? Today I'd like to focus on a composition by J. S. Bach (1685-1750), his Invention in C Major. Time and space do not permit a full analysis of this work, so instead I'd like to focus on four important techniques Bach uses to construct this type of piece. These approaches are common to all types of Music, including Jazz. Curiously, they are normally rejected in modern worship music and popular music (but that's the subject of another post.)

First, however, let me introduce a term: a motive is defined as a discrete musical unit. It's generally a snip of a melody--consider the opening four notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony (, of this distinctive melody from Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," that is immediately recognizable as being distinctive to a particular piece. I use the word "idea" and "motive" interchangeably.

These techniques are:

  • Sequence. An idea or motive is repeated one or more times, at different pitch levels (see below for an example).
  • Fragmentation. A motive that's only partially used is called fragmented, which means that it's been broken up. Like a cookie that's been fragmented, you may only get a piece of the whole thing, but you know what you've eaten.
  • Augmentation. Augmentation occurs when a part of a musical idea is "stretched out" in time, lengthening (slowing) the note values rhythmically.
  • Inversion. Ideas that ascend or move upward are made to descend. The idea or motive is "flipped upside-down," so as to be different, but still recognizable.

These techniques may be applied individually, or all at once, to create interest.

Below I've written some examples of how these techniques might be applied to a motive, and this motive I've borrowed from the tune, "Yankee Doodle Went to Town."

Observe that the motive (the the notes being C-C-D-E-C-E-D) undergoes a variety of treatments:

  • First it is sequenced; that is, repeated but heard at a different pitch level (transposed upward a step) each time,
  • Next it is fragmented; specifically, the first measure is excerpted and repeated three times,
  • It is augmented--the eighth-hote values are now half-notes, stretching out (or augmenting) the motive in time, and
  • It is inverted; compare the last two measures to the first two.

Obviously, there are many possibilities this short example won't cover, but we should "walk before we can run."

Next, let's listen: . The score is below.

Now, let's examine how these techniques are applied.

Below is the musical idea heard in the opening measure. Let's call it the motive.

I draw your attention to the following:

  1. It begins with an ascending, stepwise motion (it goes up a fourth, which I've marked), and
  2. It returns, via two descending thirds (F-D, E-C), to the beginning note, and
  3. It ends with some slower (eigth-note) leaps upward.

It may be surprising, but it's possible to relate every subsequent musical idea in this work to the material present in this short motive! Much like an organism's relationship to its DNA, a composition like this contains a high degree of unity, almost like a fractal diagram.

Consider the following pasasge, starting at measure 3:

The ideas highlighted in green represent the application of the following techniques:

  • Inversion: Notice how the ascending stepwise motion of a fourth is now descending, and those descending thirds (see points 1 & 2, above) are now ascending
  • Sequence: This inverted idea is repeated, but lower each time
  • Fragmentation: We're not hearing the entire motive (see point 3, above) but just the sixteenth-note (1 & 2) segment.

Wow. So that's pretty neat, but what about the left hand? The notes I've highlighted with the red bar represent (surprise, surprise) the following techniques:

  • Fragmentation: Each part (with the red line) is a stepwise, ascent of a fourth. Where have we seen that? But wait, in the original idea, they were sixteenths, which means that we must be...
  • Augmenting: The ascending four sixteenth notes are now eighths, moving half as quickly as in the original
  • Sequence: Yes, we're sequencing again, that four-note idea is repeated at different levels.

We find there is an awful lot going in two short measures! We'll look at the rest of the piece at a later date, but trust me--this work (as well as the entire body of Western Art Music) is chock-full of these kind of details. (Top-40, modern popular music does not hold up well to such scrutiny--if you're looking for fragmentation, augmentation, inversion, and sequence in that world, you'll have some difficulty.)

Please listen to the piece again and try to follow along in the score. Try to listen for places where we hear the motive, and try to hear the various treatments it receives.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Can you prove me wrong and find popular music that uses fragmentation, augmentation, inversion, and sequence?
  2. Would this piece "fit in" in your place of worship?
  3. If not, would it "fit in" better if it were played by a guitar and a bass? A saxophone and a bass? Why or why not?