Update #1: Collecting, Organizing, and Understanding Data from a Musical Score

My research is very clearly divided between time spent analyzing and collecting data on the Bach organ fugues, and later the time spent on composition for my own fugue based upon what I learned from Bach and his craft. Since I have finished the background analytical phase, I am now writing two update posts on the two most important things I have learned from my project so far. This post will focus on my process for studying the seventeen fugues that I ended up using as my data set from which to glean compositional techniques. Analyzing each fugue took somewhere between one and four hours, depending upon its length and complexity. I am hopeful that the considerable time and effort I invested into this phase of the project will transmit itself well as I attempt to compose using Bach’s musical idiom.

One of the cool things about this research is that it all essentially comes from primary sources, since I have not consulted other scholars’ analysis of Bach’s practices (at least as it specifically pertains to this project). The edition I used is the Bärenreiter publication of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (the considerably less famous NBA), so while my source material has been filtered through their editors, almost all of the music I have been studying comes directly from the master himself. That being said, this focus on primary sources means I did not have a pre-existing framework in which to organize and record my observations, so my very first task was to formulate a spreadsheet that I could use to distill the most crucial data, both quantitative and qualitative, for each piece. In the remainder of this post, I will go through all of the different categories I used to analyze the fugues, what I was looking for with each one, and why that category is important in helping me understand the bigger picture.


Sequence of Fugue Subject: This is just a surface-level measure that I use to get a grasp of how the fugue is organized the first time I read through it. This involves no interpretation, just an observation of a) when the fugue subject enters and re-enters, b) in which voice(s), and c) where the episodes are located. The exposition of a fugue is the portion at the beginning in which the subject is stated once in each of the voices. The order of entry of the voices in the exposition is significant because it shows if the fugue subject is most coherently presented at ascending or descending pitch, and this order is often echoed later in the piece. After the exposition, “sequence of fugue subject” helps me to figure out if the subject usually re-enters with a single statement bracketed by episodes, or if multiple voices have the theme in each re-entry.

Sequence of Tonalities: Perhaps the most defining element of Bach’s fugues is the constant movement between different key areas and tonalities. In this category, my goal was to track how Bach moves through keys and to map out the macro-level blueprint of the piece, which will undoubtedly traverse many keys before ending in the key of the original tonic. Sometimes the key of a fragment of music is clear-cut, especially if the subject is being stated at that point, since the subject usually has an implicit harmonic structure along with its explicit melody. Other times, when tracking the tonal movement in episodes, I have to use my knowledge of music theory to infer about what key is being represented.

Brief Description of Theme: The fugue subject, or theme, is a compact melody that is stated over and over again throughout the course of a fugue. Here, I described the most important musical elements that give a theme its shape and meaning. Examples of these important musical elements include rhythmic motives, large jumps, rests, ornamentation, and many other factors that add intrigue.

Treatments Applied to the Theme: Following the exposition at the beginning of a fugue, the subject does not always come back in the exact same manner that it was initially stated. Bach uses a variety of techniques, or “treatments” to mix it up and make for more interesting and unusual counterpoint.

  • Modal Mixture: If the theme is in major, it is presented in minor, or vice versa. This generally requires changing some, though, not all, notes to conform to the new tonality. On rare occasion, Bach presents a theme in some different mode that is neither major or minor. This treatment is easily accomplished, and therefore by far the most common.
  • Stretto: Two or more statements of a theme overlap with each other.
  • Inversion: Every interval in the theme is flipped upside down, so the melody essentially becomes a mirror image of itself along a horizontal axis.
  • Augmentation: The theme is presented twice as slowly as normal.
  • Double Fugue: In one case, Bach introduces an entirely new subject partway through a fugue, with its own exposition and development. The two subjects are then combined together.

Repeated Rhythmic/Melodic Motives: Every Bach fugue has at least one, and likely many, identifiable organizing feature aside from just the fugue subject. This can be a repeated rhythmic pattern, a sequence of notes, or some combination thereof. These short motives, many of which consist of just two or three notes, are often used as connective tissue in episodes, where the theme is not present as an organizing feature.

General Notes: Many Bach fugues have some unique trait that is worth mentioning, and I also used this section to record any generic thoughts that I wanted to remember about a piece.


I have attached the spreadsheet here if anyone is interested. The reason this spreadsheet is so useful is that anytime I am encountered with a specific situation in my own compositional process, it is likely that in one of the fugues I have studied, Bach faced the same situation. By thoroughly recording my observation and thoughts, I can find useful examples that inform the choices that I make. These data will help me to sound like Bach to the extent that I can.

Fugue Data


  1. Hi, Owen–This sounds like a great project, and I’m stoked to hear the composition you make out of it.

    You’ve done an incredible job pulling apart and analyzing those seventeen fugues. Your process reminds me of the jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s process for becoming a great jazz musician: Imitation, Assimilation, and Innovation. It’s not a straight line going from jazz improvisation to fugue composition, but it seems to me like you’re already starting to assimilate what you’ve learned (imitated, in a way) from Bach into your own creations. Awesome!

    What I’m wondering is, will you undergo (or have you already undergone) the same imitation process for how you will play your composition? Is there an organist whose playing style you especially admire? From my non-classical perspective, the interpretation of a piece of music by a certain musician makes all the difference to how a listener responds.

    I should thank you, also, for reminding me how important it is to read transcriptions of music. Since I improvise so often on the drum kit, I make excuses to avoid the work of transcribing and/or reading a drum solo. If I put in the effort like you do, I would probably sound a lot better–like you do!

    I hope your project goes great!