Serious Music Question: Does Bach’s Invention #1 sound like . . .

Serious Music Question: Does Bach’s Invention #1 sound like . . .

My kid is studying music and as a result I get to hear the same music over and over and over again each day and sometimes day after day, and for particularly difficult pieces for weeks on end. The teachers are trying to give him a classical music education so he does a lot of scales and arpeggios and finger exercises. He has finally reached the point where he is working on Bach’s Inventions (to the relief of every piano teacher on the east side of town – apparently this is a very big deal if one is to become a serious player of the keys and a proper young man). All of this to say that I have been hearing the first half or so of Bach’s First Invention, at about half speed (30 bpm- the slowest setting on his electronic metronome) for the last month or two.

We have also been binge watching seasons of The West Wing, and we both love the theme music (which is a good thing because you hear it at every step setting up the disks, then at the beginning and end of each episode).

So every day we usually hear the West Wing Theme and Bach’s Invention #1 (played at 30beats per minute) multiple times. Sometimes I am convinced they are almost the same piece of music, but I can’t say why, or how. The most I can do is play the theme music and say: “This part! Right here sounds like . . .well not anymore” and then play a recording of him performing the Invention and saying: “Right before this part . . . now this part again, well . .” It is difficult for me to explain why, but I am sure Snuffy Walden used the Bach piece as inspiration for the theme music. The theme music is a whole orchestra (after the first four episodes) and the Bach is played on an upright piano which makes it tough for me to make apples to apples comparisons – I am just not well enough schooled to understand what the music would sound like with different instrumentation.

I am sure it is not just association because I hear them back to back, I sure hope I am not so suggestible that it is because they both make me think of dead white men in powdered wigs and leggings[well, not Jed Bartlett, but I can’t see that image of the White House with the transparent flag fluttering over it and not think of the founders]. So can someone with a fuller understanding use some of those musical terms I think I understand until I hear them used by experts to tell me if these two pieces of music do actually “resemble” each other? Is there some harmony, or progression, or tempo, or structure, or something I can’t even name that links the two works? There is nothing at stake here, I am pretty sure the Bach is in public domain. No one is going to fork over royalties over this.

Actually, short of explaining how and why, does anyone else even think the two works sound alike?

Wish I could help, but I just listened to both, and…I don’t hear it.

(But they are both pretty!)

Thank you for the reply Trinopus.
My worst fear realized, no one else seems to recognize any relationship at all, let alone a causal one. I had really hoped WordMan or one of the other music experts here at the Dope would have been able to confirm that they do sound alike – and ideally even stipulate that identical parts of Invention No. 1 are wholly implanted in the WW theme like a mash-up or a sample, at least an homage.

Every time I hear either piece, it reminds me of the other. It seems to me that they both have these ascending parts of building potential (like a switchback trail up a steep mountain) that are a little frantic – followed by something more calm. I know many pieces of music have a part where the tone (and tension) go up – then resolve, but these two really seem identical to me. I was hoping someone could say with some authority something like the size of the ascending steps are the same, or that the duration of the ascent is identical. Does anyone hear the similarity I think is at least as obvious as the one Led Zeppelin had to go to court over recently?

One last thought. All of the music teachers say that the Bach is very different from any other music because the other (usually left) hand isn’t playing accompaniment but a whole second melody. Truthfully, I can’t hear that there are two distinct melodies playing and it sounds pretty darn similar to the other music my kid plays. Where I can hear two distinct voices of music is within the Avenger’s Theme by Laurie Johnson. In that piece of music the strings are playing something entirely romantic that make me want to spend time alone with Mrs. Peel sipping champagne and nibbling on chocolate covered strawberries- and other treats- by candle light, while the brass is entirely swashbuckling and inspires me to want to draw a sword from my cane or umbrella and assist Mr. Steed in ridding the world of some fiendishly clever evildoer and his henchmen. So with regard to Bach; I cannot hear what all the experts say is most certainly there – but I can hear a connection to another piece of music no one else hears.

Yeah, can’t help you unfortunately. I’m very familiar with Invention #1, having played through it many times over the years. Not so familiar with the West Wing theme, but listening to it a couple times earlier today, I really don’t know what it is that you’re glomming onto in terms of similarity. I’m not really catching anything in terms of the melody, harmony, or rhythm, so I don’t know. I mean, I am just trying to listen to the “contours” of the melodies and not necessarily the exact notes themselves, and I’m still not reminded of the other.

I wish I could help… My musical knowledge is spotty, although the Baroque is my very favorite era. Telemann and Vivaldi are my two fave composers.

The Canadian Brass has a recording of the Toccata and Fugue that is really remarkable: as each of the melodic lines is played by a different brass instrument, you can hear the separate lines more distinctly than you can when the work is played on an organ. It “surgically dissects” the piece, allowing you, more clearly, to hear the different fugal threads.

A friend also taught me the trick of fiddling the the tone controls of the music player, to help isolate/focus on the lower registers. Sort of focus on the “left hand” of the music. I’ve had a lot of fun listening to music with the Bass turned all the way up and the Treble turned all the way down. It’s…different! It helps emphasize the construction of the piece.

Bach’s religious vocal/choral music is astonishing and beautiful; by coincidence, I was listening to the Magnificat earlier tonight.

One of Bach’s more subtle…and delightful…cantatas is “Hercules at the Crossroads,” where the young Hercules has to choose between a life of duty and a life of pleasure. In a sweet little movement, he asks Echo for advice. Echo, of course, cannot originate an answer, but only repeat what she is told to say. The result is oddly pre-ordained. Here is a YouTube recording (sound only.)

I think I might hear what you’re getting at. The West Wing theme has some inner-voice stuff going on—mostly straight eighths and sixteenths—that may be reminding you of the counterpoint in the Bach invention. I think it’s particularly noticeable around the 30 second mark.

Beyond that, however, I don’t think the pieces are similar at all. I believe that Walden was going for a Copland-ish-Americana anthem-like style in his theme, with a few neoclassical touches to suggest the era of the Founding Fathers. I seriously doubt that he was thinking specifically of the Bach invention.

Thank you for the additional answers, all are very helpful.

I think** erysichthon** has the answer I needed to hear; that is the part of the sheet music I am always pointing to when I say “This is in there somewhere” and the 30 second mark of the theme is where I have the strongest sense of almost putting it together. I think I was so excited about noticing a mild similarity, being the novice I am, that I tended to run in circles chasing my tail, yapping uncontrollably, and occasionally peeing on the carpet. I became more and more driven to understand and describe the similarities I thought I insightfully noticed (on my own!) that I made them more significant than they turn out to be. Thank you for the pat on the head erysichthon, I have calmed down and the carpet is safe now during music practice. Your explanation makes much more sense, I guess I just couldn’t let it go until somebody understood what I was trying to convey.

It turns out I couldn’t articulate the connection because it was so tenuous, it seems. But that doesn’t discourage me; I guess I need to learn more so I can recognize the difference between a casual similarity – and a causal relationship.

Pulykamell, if you will permit a few additional questions . . .? Are the Inventions and Sinfonias truly the dividing line between twinkle, twinkle and serious adult music? An important milestone on the road to becoming a ‘real’ musician? This is some of the first music he is playing as it was originally written (along with several Minuets), up until now most of his ‘classical’ music has been simplified, edited down, and often transposed to a simpler key. Is it normal to struggle for months over a single piece? (I will say, he can learn his alto sax band music in a week or less each semester. Most pieces the first day he receives them, but it is . . . you know, public school band.) Also, the Bach seems less complex than some of his other music. I am not saying it is simple; it just seems very straightforward with reasonable fingerings. It is tedious and exacting, but steady and predictable. It is sometimes just one hand or the other, and even when the hands are playing together they are playing on mostly the same beats as opposed to some jazz he sometimes plays. (**Route 66 **has what I believe to be much more complex rhythms, and even the very repetitive piano part on Take Five is hard to get hands together.) Another concern I have about his playing is that the more complex the music gets, the less he seems to understand it or even work on understanding it. He is tending to focus exclusively on executing the music physically with little or no thought given to what is going on within the music. Is this okay? Will he pick up theory by osmosis over time? Or is this evidence he is being pushed too hard and needs to work on more simple music?

Lastly, pulykamell I want to ask about your playing. You mention that you have played this piece of music many times; does it flow out of you now, without effort? Was it a struggle to learn originally? When you play it now, do you set up the sheet music and “read” along as you play in a studious manner, or do you play from memory? Is playing (this kind of) music an emotional experience, an intellectual experience, possibly some combination? When playing music, do you ever reach some transcending place where thoughts and emotions and physical dexterity combine into one overwhelming experience of pure joy? I assume you must at times be playing while thinking about other things (got to finish this set list, help load out the gear, get paid, then go all the way across town . . .) Do you tend to experience joy more often while performing for an audience, or playing alone in an empty room? Are they both pleasing experiences but in different ways? Is playing music usually only mildly pleasing in any setting – but occasionally stupendously joyful? Do you live in a constant state of satisfaction and accomplishment due to your musical skills? (I must admit I live in a constant state of admiration for musicians, especially keyboardists, now that I have tried it. Please forgive me if any or all of this is too intrusive, I will understand if you do not care to answer. I believe the brightest future for my kid lies with music, yet I sometimes have trouble picturing him as accomplished as you have become. Being incapable of providing a model myself, I find it useful to occasionally say to him: “I know of a man who . . . can play the inventions from memory” or: “. . . who still gets out his book and studies the inventions after learning them decades ago.” Either way can be inspiring, just want to give him a true example is why I am asking.)

Trinopus, thank you for the links and the recommendations. I have listened to the YouTube link a couple of times while I was writing this, but want to listen again when I am focused exclusively on it. I also want to understand the story better before listening again. I am very excited to hear the Canadian Brass version of T&F soon. So used to hearing it on organ (very often big impressive pipe organs) hearing the brass should make an interesting comparison. I am also eager to hear the different voices so distinctly. I have high hopes perhaps being able to imagine each part separately. I think I must miss some of the Gestalt since I am only hearing a whole. Once I can identify the individual parts, I may find the combination greater than the whole.

In addition, I will try to fiddle with the knobs a bit. However I often find a preponderance of bass and a lack of subtle highs to be a problem with current music. I might have to overcome my prejudice against thumping bass and little else to appreciate your suggestion. I also suspect I need to be better educated on the “structure” of music to fully understand and appreciate it. I am afraid decades in the building trades have made ‘structure’ a word too literal in meaning to me (a building) to be applied to music. I might substitute the term form for structure – but form seems to mean something very specific in music and I am sure I would misuse the term. In any case thank you for your replies and your suggestions, I appreciate both.