One more Bach Sonata question

May 7, 2007 at 08:25 PM · This is something that no one has ever been able to answer: In the G-minor Sonata, the piece is clearly in...G minor. Which would have, let me do the calculations...2 flats in the key signature.

Why would Bach have put in 1 flat, and added all the E flats? this makes no sense at all. Why wouldn't he have just put both flats in the key signature?

Replies (24)

May 7, 2007 at 08:34 PM · Hi,

The answer is simple. Bach was thinking modally not tonally hence the key signature (in this case, probably the Dorian mode transposed to G).

Hope this answers your question.


May 7, 2007 at 10:26 PM · Yeah--keys weren't entirely standardized yet at that time. People actually waged massive manifesto-wars over issues of tuning, key signatures, the old church modes etc.

May 7, 2007 at 10:50 PM · From what I remember, it was actually fairly standard to add one sharp when writing in minor keys. I think it had something to do with the melodic scale.

G harmonic minor: G A Bb C D Eb F# G

G Melodic Minor: G A Bb C D E (or Eb) F (or F#) G

I don't think Bach was thinking in the dorian mode... because the dorian scale would be:

G A Bb C D E F G

But you can see in the opening bar of the Adagio that he has a scale that is clearly in G minor, using the Eb and later changing to an E natural and a F#.

May 8, 2007 at 12:21 AM · I always figured the dorian minor has a #7 in ascending scale and a b7 in descending scale, but who knows.

May 8, 2007 at 01:20 AM · I don't think that the first scale having an eb implies non-dorian. The reason I think that is it's no less logical to have an eb in a first measure of g dorian than it is to have an eb in the first measure of g minor but not in the key signature :)

May 8, 2007 at 04:50 AM · Yes, I asked a college professor this question in 1986, and he also said that Bach was thinking modally. Personally, I just don't buy it.

If it were modal--something that had gone out of style decades before--Bach would not have used leading tones. Bach was obviously thinking tonally. The accompanied sonatas show no such omissions, and date from around the same period. Wouldn't it have just plain more efficient to use a flat in the key sig?

May 8, 2007 at 05:01 AM · obviously bach wanted to show the world that he was such a pimp that he could use one flat for g minor and get away with it. i'm convinced that is also why there are sometimes parallel octaves and fifths in the chorales. just because he's bach and he can.

actually, in all seriousness, i have no idea.

May 8, 2007 at 10:30 AM · Church modes!

May 8, 2007 at 03:51 PM · Wikipedia says it's just a notational convention.

"The first sonata is in G minor, although its key signature lacks one flat. Such a notational convention in the baroque period occurs likewise with the key of D minor, and should not necessarily suggest that the piece is in the Dorian mode."

May 8, 2007 at 04:01 PM · Artistic freedom?

May 8, 2007 at 08:05 PM · Tommy Atkinson wrote: " bach wanted to show the world that he was such a pimp "

I believe that one could comb through many volumes of musicology books before stumbling upon this unique insight.

May 8, 2007 at 08:31 PM · haha, i'm glad SOMEBODY responded to the joke! otherwise, this might have been just an interesting, non-humorous musical discussion.

and who wants that?!

May 8, 2007 at 11:55 PM · Eugene, the info in the wiki entry comes from about this time last year, I think after the first discussion here about this. Where he calls it just a convention, I'd like to see that footnoted before I'd give it any credence. Whoever wrote that is evasive about it instead.

May 9, 2007 at 01:07 AM · Bach wasn't a pimp. He was a player. There is a big difference.

May 9, 2007 at 06:10 AM · Greetings,

consider his organ works,



May 9, 2007 at 12:23 PM · "[T]he info in the wiki entry comes from about this time last year, I think after the first discussion here about this. Where he calls it just a convention, I'd like to see that footnoted before I'd give it any credence."

For the skeptics, here's a reference to another authority. Grove Music Online, under the heading "Key Signature" states that the association of a signature with a definite key is a late 18th-century development. Before this, according to the same article, pieces were often written with, in minor keys, one flat fewer (e.g. Bach’s ‘Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue bwv538), or, in major keys, one sharp fewer (e.g. Handel’s Suite in E, Set 1 no.5 for harpsichord), than would be used in the modern system.

May 9, 2007 at 01:49 PM · Oh, his organ worked all right. He had seventeen kids!

May 9, 2007 at 03:35 PM · 20 kids, of which 7 survived to adulthood.

May 9, 2007 at 07:12 PM · Thanks, Bill. The first thing I notice though is that they cite the 'Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue. So maybe we don't really go anyplace with that.

Tom, yes and the male linage died out. I used to know a guy who's a descendent of one of his daughters. He looked so much like him it was weird. I messed up by not making Bach babies with his sister.

May 9, 2007 at 07:30 PM · I read that his entire lineage died out in 1871. Are you sure your friend was not a collateral relative?

May 9, 2007 at 07:42 PM · Nope, the daughters'descendents are still around. Your source must have meant his male linage.

May 9, 2007 at 09:26 PM · "The first thing I notice though is that they cite the 'Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue. So maybe we don't really go anyplace with that."

I think that the organ composition is called the "Dorian" Toccata and Fugue not because it's in the Dorian mode, but because, similar to the First Sonata, it's in d minor but the key signature has no flats (or sharps). I don't think Bach gave it the name "Dorian" -- I think later people who weren't familiar with the key signature conventions of Bach's era gave it that name because of what seemed to them an odd signature.

Grove Music Online again, under the heading "Dorian," specifically states that as late as the 18th century, works in the tonal minor mode were notated as if in the polyphonic Dorian mode, with one fewer flat in the key signature and the flattened sixth degree treated as an accidental (e.g. Bach's solo Violin Sonata in G minor bwv1001--they specifically cite this example).

I suppose you could either write the key signature for a composition in g minor with two flats and write a natural sign every time e natural occurred, or write the key signature with just one flat and write a flat sign every time e flat occurred. After all, e natural occurs in compositions in g minor quite frequently, sometimes perhaps more often than e flat. One way to look at it is that the key of g minor includes both e flat and e natural (and both f and f sharp).

May 9, 2007 at 10:45 PM · Bill, I suspect the only reason they specifically cite this example is because there are damn few others that it fits. Their argument seems to be based on its being "frequent." So, not much of an argument.

May 10, 2007 at 04:46 AM · twenty? good lord! maybe bach *was* a pimp after all.

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