Bach 2. RHYTHM

Starting Beat


Everything has rhythm. Everything dances.

Maya Angelou


CHAPTER AIMS: To discuss classical music and dance (without mentioning ballet)


Marking Time

Brandenburg Concerto No 2  1st movement  

We now have a view of this music, an instrumental view.

This is the first movement of a piece of music featuring a band of four soloists – violin, oboe, flute, and trumpet – playing within a larger band of string players.

The relationships between these soloists and the rest of the string orchestra defines the action that takes place in the music. In practical terms, that means alternating sections of soloists playing with sections where the rest of the orchestra (including all or most of the soloists).



Let’s now turn to the more abstract qualities of the music. Starting with the most basic and fundemental musical quality: Rhythm.

What do we think about the rhythmic quality of this music. What can we say about its beat or pulse?


Well, it’s certainly very regular.

The main tempo is four beats in the bar, which means four beats every three seconds or so. That’s the basic rhythmic frame on which the entire piece is constructed.

And that regular beat tells us something not just about this piece, and not just about Bach’s music in general. It tells us something about the music of Bach’s age (known as Baroque Music), and the origins of classical music.






A Baroque Beat


You just can’t help but notice that regularity. It’s like clockwork.  And it remains uniform throughout the entire piece.

If you clap along to this piece, your clapping will stay the same throughout the piece, first bar to last. Do the same with any of the other five pieces on this course, and the result won’t be anything like as uniform. All the other pieces have pauses, breaks, or entire changes in tempo.



Bach composed at a hugely exciting time for music.  We’re talking end of the 17th, early 18th century, three hundred years ago. It’s an age of music we now term ‘Baroque’.

The harmonic language had been established over the last few hundred years, and was now essentially settled. The instruments had mostly been invented. But the forms for the music, the genres, the delivery system for all this lovely new sound, were all up for grabs.

All kinds of genres from across Europe were being combined into new and exciting forms, and it was actually dancing that provided the blue prints.

To see this process in action, we need to travel back to the court of Louis Quatorze, the Sun King, and his palace in Versailles.




Dancing King

Bourree by Lully  



Louis XIV (1638-1715) was the royal superstar of the Baroque era.

This was the French monarch who built the palace of Versaille at what could be described as the high-water mark of royal power in Europe. Of course it didn’t end up working out so well for the later Louis. Barely a century, the entire royal edifice would come crumbling down during the French Revolution, when Louis XVI (great-great-great grandson) would lose his head.

But that’s a story for later chapters.


Right now, royalty sits at the top of Europe’s power ladder, and Louis sits on top of that ladder. He is a sumptious and lavish monarch. In keeping with that image, Louis rather humbly takes on the image of the sun as part of his official branding. Which is why to this day he is known as the Sun King, although personally I’d go for ‘King of Bling’, but there you go.

His court at Versailles was renowned for its glitz and glamour. It was the place to be in the middle of 17th century Europe, the capital of elegance and refinement. That meant the best gardens, the best costumes, the best food.

And also the best musicians and composers.


Louis adored dancing, and his court formalized dances such as the Gavotte, Gigue, or Sarabande into structured pieces of music with specific characteristics. At Louis’ court, these dance would be organised displays of musical dance with which Louis himself loved to join. The dancing king indeed.


These genres of dance would in turn become genres of classical music in their own right, and that’s a process that’s taking place exactly as Bach is composing. The Bourree for example that we’re hearing now, was a faster two or four step dance that originated with clog dancing.

So the bourree four-step clog dance, becomes in Bach’s hands a four beat fast-paced piece:

Bach French Suite Bourree  




This tells us that the way classical music, during it’s early Baroque days, is being defined. Generically that is by it’s rhythmic charecteristics.  Whether it’s two-step, or three step. Whether it’s fast or slow.

And so, early on, these forms of dances were transformed by composers into music you sat down and listen to. These early labels tell you what type of music you’ll hear. A fast double-step for a gigue. A slow three-step dance for the Sarabande.

That’s why in the Baroque period, the beat stays so consistent within a piece. Generally it is the largest most important way that music can be defined.


The Minuet in particular found itself welded into the history of classical music. This three-step dance became the third movement minuet-trio that is so common in the classical Symphony and String Quartet. Listen to any Symphony by Mozart or Haydn, and you will find a third movement minuet-trio in three-step time. It’s a staple form of classical music, buit it’s origins date directly back to dance.


Dance music would continue to influence classical music and its various genres after the time of Bach, right through the classical period pof Mozart and Haydn, through to the Romantic Age, with the Waltzes of Strauss and the Muzarkas of Chopin.

And that influence extends right into the 20th century, with the ballets of Stravinsky like the Rites of Spring. The truth is classical music and dance are inextricably linked. And yet, when we think about classical music, how often do we think about dance?




On the Dance Floor

Brandenburg Concerto No 2  1st movement  


Front-piece to Waltzing manual (1816)

People used to dance to classical music right the way until the twentieth century.

Whether that was courtiers in the court of King Louis, or social nobs of the 19th century twirling their silks and satins to the latest Strauss waltz.

Since then, classical music has become a dead-end for the dancing public. You’ve got ballet, sure. But if you really fancy a boogie, you’re scarcely going to rush for tickets to Swan Lake.


So why has classical music become so divorced from dance?

Or to reverse the question: how has classical music managed to survive despite keeping its audience so physically caged? The answer is that the music itself is full of movement. And that’s obvious if you’ve ever been to see a symphony orchestra in action.




Lord of the Dance

See a symphony orchestra live, and you immedately appreciate how much movement and motion there is in classical music.  That’s a reason, and a big reason, why experiencing live classical music can so enhance the experience of the music.

When you see a full orchestra in action, you see the pulse and movement of rhythm everywhere. For starters, many of the players can’t stop moving. Here a trumpeter points their trumpet higher in the air as he plays a higher note. There an oboist weaves as they wind out a melody. The players themselves move alot. And watching them can be fun, but can also tell you more about the music.

That’s particularly true when you watch groups of instruments moving together in a full symphony orchestra. A section of players lifting their instruments together ready to play – the uniform rise and fall of violin bows – the simultaneous rustle of hurriedly turning pages.

Lord of the Dance?

It gives an excellent visual reference for the music itself.


The string sections are best for this, as the rhythm of the music matches the bowing. You can actually see a musical phrase rippling through the string sections, a dance of bows that gets repeated in the different sections as the phrase is repeated. I’m pretty sure a completely deaf person can get a sense of a piece of classical music by watching the orchestra playing it.

You can get some sense of this from youtube videos, but it’s much better live, when your own eyes can be the judge of the music. If you’ve never managed it, I’d really encourage you to go see a proper orchestra in action. And don’t just listen to them, watch them!


Now look at the person at the centre of this musical maelstrom: the conductor.

Watch him at work, and you’ll see rhythm personified: the swirl of the baton, the frenetic gesticulations of body. If you’ve always assumed classical music occupies some higher plane to the dance-floor, ask yourself this:

How come he’s the only one allowed to dance?




Next chapter: Melody.



  • For the link to my contribution to that huge prestigious genre – the dancing conductor mashup – go here
  • People danced to Classical Music during the period Bach was composing. For some old forms of Baroque dance, try  this Minuet (3-step) from Handel’s Watermusic (the dancing has certainyl aged more than the music).
  • Here is a gigue, or jig, as it may have been performed in Bach’s time. The dance you might historically associate with sailors’ or highland jigs. It’s certainly a more lively dance than the minuet.
  • Now listen to what a gigue becomes in Bach’s hands, with this Gigue from Bach’s Violin Partita. An impressive performance from a young Hilary Hahn.
  • Finally, for those feeling musically bold, here is a free full score for this entire movement. You’ll need to scroll down to the ‘full score section’. If you like your music scored, then IMSLP is a superb free resource, with loads of free sheet music and even some recordings.

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