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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Writing (about) Music


When I’m listening to Bach—one of my favorite composers—how do I describe it? I have often told friends that the opening of “Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme” always makes me smile and quickens my step. The dotted rhythms, the upward sweep of the alternating scalar passages of strings and oboes, the rising triads and long tones at the entry of the choir soaring over the repetitive rhythmic motion of the orchestra, the ornate melodic turns and quirky harmonic shifts all work together to shift my mood and my body rhythms. These are descriptions of instrumentation, and of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic details that I respond to, but this doesn’t necessarily convey to a lay reader what I’m trying to get across. It certainly doesn’t convey what the piece actually sounds like, and it relies on knowledge of music terminology, if not a previous knowledge of Bach, to make sense of it. The words convey so much less of the music and my experience of listening to it, than a simple visual observation of the change in my physicality while listening to it would convey. I think about this when I watch people on the subway listening to music through earphones. I get more of a sense of the music they are listening to by their body responses than references to genre, instrumentation or rhythmic and melodic details would give me.

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