Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/musical analysis


I just analyzed BWV 846.
In school I learned SATB (figured bass) analysis. Is this something you could use when analysing this piece even though it contains 5 voices instead of 4 and is not written for choir?
Is a academic analysis like those done in school really that practical for a pianist who just want to understand what he's playing?

Hello Andrew - good to hear from you again.

Your terminology is a little muddled, so let's clear that up.  Harmonic analysis means looking at a sequence of chords and identifying how they relate to each other within the key.  Chords are always constructed from the bottom up, so regardless of whether the music is for piano, string quartet or full orchestra plus choir, the harmonic sequence is described in the same way.  So, if we look at the first four bars of our Prelude, we know from the key signature that we're in C major, so our sequence is:

Tonic, supertonic with added 7th third inversion, dominant seventh first inversion, back to tonic.

The "shorthand" way of writing this is I II7d V7b I.  If we're given the harmonic sequence, we should be able to write it (I'd expect my pupils to play it) in any key, major and minor.  Generally it doesn't matter how the chords are laid out provided they're correct.  SATB harmony is a special case - because you're writing for four parts (which are called "voices" regardless of whether they're being sung), there are rules (oh boy, are there rules!) regarding the movement of each of the four parts and how the notes of each chord are divided between them - but the method of analysis is exactly the same.

Figured bass (which used to be called "thoroughbass") is a more complicated form of musical shorthand in which the numbers indicate the notes of the chord but not its harmonic analysis - the performer was expected to supply that for themselves thanks to their comprehensive understanding of harmony, and improvise a fully-"realised" accompaniment from a single bass line and figures.  So, going back to the first four bars of our Prelude, we could figure them (bear in mind the figures should be written stacked on top of each other, but I can't do that here):

[5/3] 4/2 6/5 [5/3] (you wouldn't write the figures in square brackets as they're assumed to be the default).

For an advanced harmony student all this should be enthralling.  For an elementary pianist learning to play the thing, it's no help.  Music derives its emotional intensity from the constant build-up and release of tensions, either overtly by sounding and resolving discords or subliminally by moving away from, and returning to, a firmly-established home key through modulation (a series of swift modulations is exhilarating; a gradual drawn-out return to the home key brings a real feeling of relief when you get there).  So your task as the performer is to guide your audience through the piece - here's our home key established, now we're moving away to somewhere close, now we've got further away from home and the mood has changed, now we're on the way home, are we ever going to get there, oh good we're there at last but we haven't quite finished yet, now we have.

It would be so much easier if I could demonstrate on the piano for you, but talking will have to do, so here goes.  The first four bars establish our home key.  Then the new dominant 7th in bar 6 tells us we're moving, modulating to the dominant, and in bar 11 we get there.  Then we're not certain where we're heading in bars 12-13, but in bars 14-15 it's clear we're going home, and in bar 19 we've arrived.  Then we're on the move again and the two diminished chords in bars 22 and 23 darken the mood, but from bar 24 it's alright, we know we're going home. If you can't feel the crescendo from bar 24 and the relief of the climax in bar 29 before we arrive home at last in bar 32, you're no musician.  We're home, but we haven't quite done yet - we pass through the subdominant before finally coming to rest.

Hope this helps, and thanks for being patient.  

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Clare Redfarn


All aspects of the academic/theoretical side of music, including harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, history, harmonic analysis, aural training, sightreading - the lot! Please note I'm not primarily a composer so I can't help with composition beyond what's required for Grade 8 theory or A'level. And don't ask me about psychoacoustics or music psychology as I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, either subject.


58 years as pianist (soloist and accompanist); 43 years as harpsichordist (soloist and continuist); 10 years as violinist and 6 years as bassoonist (youth orchestras/chamber groups); 46 years as piano teacher, coach in performance/interpretation (all ages, instruments and levels) and private tutor (mainly the old O'level, Grade VI+ ABRSM theory/practical musicianship, A'level and undergraduates); 21 years as ballet pianist (Cecchetti syllabus).

Member of Musicians' Union in Britain 1978-1989 and 1991-2009.

I've been writing professionally since I was 20 - too many programme notes to count over the years and a number of articles. Additionally, from 1996-2000 I was a Music Assessor for London Arts and as such regularly wrote critiques of concerts given by recipients of Arts Council funding.

MA in European Cultural Policy & Administration (Warwick University, 1994)
B Mus with Honours (London University, 1977)
Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Administration (City University, 1982)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Piano Teaching (1976)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Harpsichord Teaching (1978)

Studied RAM Junior School (1966-74), then as full-time student (1974-78).

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