Most of the time, we take so-called classical music, like the music of Bach, at face value, and play the notes and rhythms as they were written down. (Which is somewhat weird, when you think about it, since we don't even play Bach on the instrument it was written for most of the time!) In this post and accompanying video, I’ll show you some of the basic principles I use in changing Bach’s music, in particular the rhythm, and how this process opens up this vast new landscape of musical possibilities for exploration, this vast landscape, that, once you see it, you start to see and hear rhythm a little differently in all the music you hear. Get ready to think about rhythm differently!
For me, the end result is not only more musically satisfying for our modern ears that are more attuned to complex rhythms and syncopation from pop and dance music, but also more suited to the piano in particular, since Bach didn’t write music for the piano, per se. As we’ll see this process has a lot to teach us about rhythm and about articulation, and these are just really important things to understand not only in Bach’s music, but in any music, whether you’re a composer, a performer, or just an interested listener. I’m going to use the example of the C minor prelude from the WTC, book 1 as an example. Here's the first two measures.
You can listen to each example in this post by pressing the "play" button in the upper left. If that mechanical sound is grating though (and I know it is), I invite you to listen to my recording of this prelude "as written" on my album Post | Bach. And don't worry, there's a fully syncopated version coming at the end of the post.
On one level, the rhythm is very simple, it’s just a constant stream of equally spaced notes:
Importantly, though, we have to think of music always in different layers; now this process can get unwieldy, so we’re not going to go too deep into it, but let's start by organizing the music into beats, which you naturally did when you were listening, whether you were aware of it or not. The music is organized so that four notes occur per beat, and there are four beats in each measure. The four beats alternate feeling strong and weak, for reasons that are explained in more detail here.
To really understand the beat, though, you have to think about it on several different levels at once, each level alternating strong and weak:
The parentheses show notes that "already" happen in a higher level of the hierarchy.
Perhaps a little bit easier to see this way:
Okay, let's set aside the beats for one moment and think about another way to break the music into layers, that is, into voices.
Let's imagine we have four singers singing this piece (the examples play with slightly less ridiculous sounding string instruments). Can you hear that the soprano and bass singers parts have more natural emphasis than the tenor and alto? (Or, at least, they would if the players were not mechanical.) The bass and soprano have some level of primacy over the inner voices in this case.
Now we get to our first interesting observation! Can you see that the soprano and bass voices match up or align with the the top two levels of the beat hierarchy (the strong beats)? Can you see that the inner voices, alto and tenor, align with or match up with the two lower levels of the beat hierarchy?
The way this music was written, there is a close association between the notes’ strength or emphasis by virtue of where they are in different layers of abstraction, the beat (metric) layer, and the voice layer, one that has metric emphasis and the other that has melodic and rhythmic emphasis. This point is almost so obvious when listening to the music that it is easily overlooked, glossed over, or deemed unimportant. But it is very important to realize!
This alignment is common in music; it is, in many ways, the natural order of things. Strong beats attract moments of natural musical emphasis, that is in one sense why they are strong beats, after all.
But what happens if we purposely move certain moments of emphasis so that they no longer fall on the strong beats, or stronger moments of the metrical emphasis? This misalignment is what we generally call syncopation. Listen carefully and see if you can hear which beat “moved.”
Did you feel the slight “surprise” anticipation of the third beat, almost like it came too soon? How does that look in our hierarchy? Well, we moved the rhythmic and melodic emphasis of the soprano and bass voices before the beat. If we operate strategically, we can create a strong desire for the emphasis to “return” to the beat, which is a fancy way of saying we can make something that sounds cool.
So we’ve made our first syncopation by moving the emphasis before the third beat, but truly we’re just getting started. Let’s try that syncopation a slightly different way.
Did you notice the difference? Now we’ve created a difference not only at the level of the emphasis, but at our first level, that of the basic surface rhythm, which now looks like this:
Let’s try that technique now on a different beat other than the third.
And now on a different beat:
What if we start combining different syncopations on different beats?
How about another one? Can we syncopate at the half-beat level of the hierarchy instead of the beat level? (Yes.)
Can you see, can you glimpse the vast world of possibilities we’ve unlocked, simply by thinking about the rhythm slightly differently? And we’re still on the first two measures of one single piece! Think about how we can start to change the syncopations as we go through the piece. The possibilities are (for all practical purposes) endless.
Here is one amongst those endless possibilities. Compare with the original. What do you think?
The Music Post
The Music Post is a blog / podcast for reflecting on all things musical, informed by years of writing, playing, and teaching music.