Bach 3. MELODY


Who’s line is it anyway?


Study Bach: there you will find everything.

– Johannes Brahms
CHAPTER AIM: Introducing Counterpoint





Finding our Voice

One of the reasons classical music baffled me when I first encountered, some thirty years ago, was the way it handled Melody.

I came from a background of Pop and Rock. I expected a full melody. One that would repeat. Something fairly substantial and memorable, that repeats itself.

Take “Hey Jude” for example. What is the melody? Well, right at the start we get a verse that lasts something like 25 seconds. That get’s repeated some four times throughout the song. The melody is pretty clear.


Brandenburg No 2, 1st Movement  

Classical music sounded so much more confusing.

Too many things were going on at the same time. It enjoyed the sound, but only in small doses. And when I listened to it, my ear would always tend to lean towards the moments where the melody stands out the clearest.


What I didn’t realise was how a piece like this WAS pouring out a repeating Melody all the time, only it was doing so in much shorter units. And more rapidly.

And simultaneously.

Classical music tends to take small units of melody – even just two or three notes – and then apply plenty of variation and transformation to these shorter ideas. It’s a lego-brick approach, with more simple units used to build larger constructions.

Yes, with classical music you can have long over-arching melodies lasting 30 seconds, or more. But often we’ll be listening for shorter musical ideas than we might at first expect.


Take for instance one of the main melodies of the entire piece, which comes with a distintive skipping rhythm:


It’s a simple skipping melody, just a few short notes. Far shorter than the melody for Hey Jude.

And yet this melody dominantes the entire piece, a constant used throughout the music.


In the start of the piece, the melody is really used to help define the orchestral tutti’s of the orchestra, those pillars of sound we discovered in the opening chapter.

So when everyone plays together, we hear our skipping melody. But when the soloists play their solo sections, they play a different melody:

0.00-1.13  First Minute  

0.00   The orchestra all play the melody twice (0.00 and 0.02)
0.10   Again twice (0.10 and 0.13)
0.21   (Solo violin playing something different)
0.26   Orchestra together as a tutti, playing our tune twice.
0.31   (solo Oboe)
0.36   Another tutti, although that trumpet makes it harder to hear our melody.
0.41   (solo flute)
0.47   Another tutti. Again, listen behind the trumpet to hear our skipping melody.
0.52   (trumpet solo)
1.02   Again, the whole orchestra (with the trumpet for the first time) present our melody clear as daylight.

The melody works each time as the supporting structure between the solo sections. Like layers of sponge in a cream cake.


That same melody returns a few seconds later, but this time ushering in a change of tone. That means the melody works like a hinge as the mood turns a little more sombre (and harmomnically minor):

1.17-1.27  First Minute  


This skipping figure continues right through the piece, and is used by soloists as well as the rest of the band. Take this short section in the middle of the piece, where the music starts to explore:

2.09-2.42  Development     

  • 0.03     Solo violinist plays it
  • 0.06     Solo Oboe
  • 0.09     Solo flute
  • 0.11     Solo Violin (really hard to hear this one with the trumpet so loud)
  • 0.14     Solo Oboe
  • 0.17     Solo trumpet (can’t miss that one!), which extends the melody towards the end of the section.


Or again, a similar development section right at the end of the piece:

4.40 – end    Development at end    

  • 0.03     Solo Violin
  • 0.06     Solo Oboe
  • 0.08     Solo Flute
  • 0.11     Solo Violin (so hard to hear again because of the trumpet!)
  • 0.14     Solo Oboe
  • 0.17     Solo Flute (trumpet helping though not according to my manuscript!)
  • 0.20     Solo trumpet takes us into the end….



An Instrumental Matter

We can take an even shorter phrase, and achieve even more melodic intensity! Take this short four note phrase that comes at 01.24 into our movement, and heralds one of the most beautiful sections of the entire piece.

It’s a very simple four note phrase – DA-DA-DA-DAAA:

1.24-1.43  Melodic High  

  • 00.00    The melody, proclaimed by the trumpet: a simple four note phrase, immediately answered by the oboe.
  • 00.02    A second time with the trumpet, with the oboe again responding.
  • 00.05    A third time, before the section is rounded off.



We’re now going to find this same melody at a different moment, this time played towards the end of the piece.

4.06-4.25  Melodic not-quite-so High 

Do you notice how different it sounds? How much less noticeable the melody is?


Here the two sections are again:

1.24-1.43  Melodic High  

 4.06-4.25  Melodic not-quite-so High  

Second time round, we’ve lost our melody. Why?


Official stamp of approval

Official stamp of approval

It’s of course an instruments issue.

The recorder (or flute) is now playing our melody, and that’s the quietest instrument of our quartet. Small wonder it’s harder to distinguish.

Add to that fact it is backed up the the violin, also a hard to discern instrument when the other strings are playing.

The trumpet and oboe paired together the first time around (1.24), so with the symmetry we expect from Bach, this time it’s the solo violin that backs up the recorder.

Why has Bach done that? Why has he rather hobbled his own fine melody with quieter instruments? It was a great moment first time round: why doesn’t Bach just repeat the trick with the trumpet?

The answer is all about structure.




Whole Track   

Listening to Bach’s music is like throwing open the door of some incredible timepiece and staring in wonder at so many different mechanical parts, all working together towards a single aim.

16th Century German astronomical clock

16th Century German astronomical clock

Every spring cog or lever may be fascinating in itself, but it makes no sense in itself without the other parts working alongside.


At moments of intense melody, Mozart or Beethoven instinctively use whichever instruments carry their melodies most effectively. Which is another way of saying Mozart or Beethoven’s music will give more emphasis to melody. That will give more individual expressiveness to the music.


Bach is more concerned with the structural order and integrity of his composition.

This is a concerto for violin and recorder, as well as trumpet and oboe. Each of these pairings will share equally their time. Many voices speaking in harmony: this is the polyphony for which Bach (and his Baroque Age) is famous.

To put it in a social context, Bach’s music often feels like it represents a group or community, rather than an individual. The sound of a congregation rather than a voice from the pulpit. More of that in chapter 5…






Point and Counterpoint 

Our Bach piece

Of course, there’s so much more happening at the same time these melodies are sounding out.

Take any bit of this piece, and you’ll hear at least two things going on at the same time. That’s a big part of the fun.


This is a process called counterpoint, and we’ve already encountered it in the opening Bach chapter. When we were listening to the violin playing behind the introduction of the oboe:

Oboe  0.31-0.36 

The violin is playing in counterpoint to the oboe.


And this is happening constantly. Take the section we looked at earlier:

4.40 – end    Development at end    

Listen to the flute at the start, playing a totally different melody until it plays that skipping melody (0.06). Or the section where the trumpet covers the violin (0.11), of course the trumpet is playing in counterpoint.

The adjective we would use to describe this is contrapuntal. Useful word for losing mates at parties.


But it happens constantly with classical music, and it’s happens even more constantly in the music of J.S.Bach. As I said earlier, dip into any part of this music and you’ll hear at least two different melodies going on at the same time:

Whole Track   


Counterpoint is one way of over-laying melody, but there are other techniques. You could also use the same melody, and run it under itself, only starting them at different times. This is known as fugue, and we’ll get more into that later in the course.

We are dealing with Polyphony, which means literally ‘many sounds’. These cross layerings of melody create Polyphonic music. And Bach is the supreme master of the technique.

Now to master polyphony, you actually need a different skill. In order to allow different melodic units into the same musical space at the same time, what you really need to control is Harmony. And Bach is the supreme master of Harmony.

And that’s a story for  next chapter.



  • Check out this version of Bach’s air on a G string, which comes helpfully with a visual aid as well as the actual music notation. Notice how the top violins carry the melody at first, but as the piece progresses, it becomes increasingly captured within the texture of the second violins (1.28) and the violas (2.07). Or, perhaps, it has actually been contained the whole time in the bass…? Wherever the melody is, it is never alone.
  • Melody also sings out clearly in Bach’s double violin concerto, particularly in this its slow movement. Again the youtube link has a useful visual aid. Keep an eye on the orange and red to follow the interweaving of the two violins.
  • To feel the free interplay of melody in Bach’s music, listen to how he gives the voice, the main melodic line to an instrument (the oboe) against the harmonies of a human chorus in his Cantata Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.