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  • Melinda Steffy

Bach Project Tutorial

How does it work? What is the system?

I hear these two questions a lot. So for all you curious minds, here’s a peek into my Bach Project system.

It starts with a bit of elementary music theory.

The chromatic scale has 12 half-step tones. I’ve drawn it here in C, which is the simplest key on the piano and the key J.S. Bach chose to begin his Well-Tempered Clavier suite.

Next comes a little color theory.

A basic color wheel includes 12 colors: 3 primary colors, 3 secondaries and 6 tertiaries. I’ve always thought of red as the starting color for the color wheel, probably because of the classic rainbow mnemonic ROY G BIV.

My system matches up the chromatic scale and the color wheel, so that each note corresponds with a color. For the Bach Project, C is red, C# is red-orange, D is orange, etc.

Then to build the grid, I map out the size of the rectangles according to the length of the note.

For each prelude, I identify the most common note value and set that as the square. Most of the time, Bach bases his lines of music on 16th notes, so usually one 16th note equals one square. Longer notes get accordingly longer rectangles. Each row of the grid corresponds with one measure of music, so a 4/4 measure with 16th notes as the primary rhythmic structure would end up being 16 squares across.

In the case of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the music typically features two distinct lines of music, one played by the left hand and one by the right. Bach frequently shifts the melody across hands and adds in so much counterpoint that there’s no easy way to create just one visualized line. So to make my system work, I follow the right-hand line while making occasional adjustments based on what will produce the best visual outcome.

The result is not a strict musical notation that someone could learn to read and play, but rather a visualization of the tonal patterns inherent in the music. Lines of music that are usually linear and time-based, in which you would only hear one note after the other, are now depicted all at once, in a spatial arrangement that reveals relationships you might not otherwise notice.

For example, the first prelude in C Major has a dominant pattern of vertical lines, while the fifth prelude in D Major has an almost circular pattern throughout.

Each prelude ends up with its own character and unique visual qualities, and the complexity of Bach’s music translates into intricate abstractions. I’m continually fascinated by the patterns that emerge and spend a lot of time staring at them!


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