G minor or D minor? (Sonata No. 1 by Bach)

August 15, 2005 at 05:13 AM · Take out that long-lost copy of Bach's Sonata's and Partitas for Solo Violin. Open to the very first page...the first sonata...don't look at the table of contents or anything, and tell me...

What key is it in? D minor or G minor? And, please explain your answer.

(Note: I know the answer to a small degree, so I can explain it to some extent, but if you know more than I do, please give us a nice explanation about it. Thanks!)

PS My teacher suggested I bring this up for discussion, so here this is dedicated to her. :)

Replies (67)

August 15, 2005 at 07:21 AM · Well, it's in G minor. The question is why the key signature. My best guess is he did it to minimize the number of accidentals he'd have to write for what he had in mind. The flat 6th isn't used in the ascending melodic minor scale. It may not be used in some tonalities he plans to use. Count the number of accidentals, then change the key signature and count them again :)

August 15, 2005 at 08:22 AM · It's gotta have something to do with the 6th of the melodic minor. I can't believe I didn't notice this before. Take a look at all the places where the E is left natural, and it just seems as though it's supposed to be natural. I don't even feel inclined to play it flat. It's gotta be the melodic minor factor.

August 15, 2005 at 12:41 PM · The jazzer would say it is based on the mode of G dorian. So, it IS G minor, but the particular G min is the dorian mode of F major (which is where the idea of D min comes from).


August 15, 2005 at 01:29 PM · This was written at the transitional period between the modal period and the acceptance of equal temperament and the key system. Therefore, it is not at all uncommon to see works written at this time with modal (in this case, a dorian mode) key signatures. This is obviously purely academic and should in no way influence its performance (ie. in terms of intonation). Had it been written later, Bach would probably have used the G minor key signature.

August 15, 2005 at 06:56 PM · That makes technical sense, and it might sound dorian in spots. I was taught to associate the sound of that mode with Scarborough Fair.

August 15, 2005 at 07:32 PM · Yeah, but the seventh waffles a bit. It's undorianly sharp sometimes, and then it's not. Suddenly, this piece just got a whole lot more interesting.

August 15, 2005 at 08:12 PM · I will ask him. Let me get my ouija board.

August 15, 2005 at 08:35 PM · For those who are superinterested in this sonata, Joel Lester's book, Bach's Works for Solo Violin, has an in-depth analysis of every movement of the sonata. It is a very good book.

August 15, 2005 at 09:17 PM · I noticed that too, it started as g min and mutates to d min by the 4th line, more specifically there is evidence of g harmonic minor before the end of the third line, just before the second half of the sonata is a trill with the d harm min note but actually the d harmonic min note appears before that trill in the 4th line... how inventive!

August 15, 2005 at 09:37 PM · "undorianly"...I like that word, Emily!

August 16, 2005 at 05:19 AM · It's also possible (and I've heard this from some) that some of the melodies he used may have come from other sources, most likely ones in the dorian mode. It certainly has its times when it sounds dorian and times when it sounds tonal. Then there are some of those sequences in the fugue that just don't fit into anything except for general "Bach-iness". A lot of the harmonizations he did of hymns were modal because the hymn itself (the melody that is) was a modal chant or something like that. Bach was very old-fashioned. It could be that he prefered to write that way, although why he wrote that way in the g minor but not the others is certainly interesting.

August 16, 2005 at 04:05 PM · This was a very interesting conversation. I agree that it has something to do with modes, and thus, is written in Dorian mode, but called "G Minor". Thanks for all the responses, guys...it was informative.

August 16, 2005 at 07:38 PM · Could it have any connection with the fact that this fugue was also played on organ with a pedal on D?

August 16, 2005 at 08:01 PM · What's the BWV number of the organ fugue?

August 16, 2005 at 09:48 PM · I made a mistake there is a trill at the end of the 7th bar (end of the third line) this tril includes c# - this is the d harmonic minor note...

The first 10 notes of the sonata includes f# implying g harmonic minor

To clarify things a little, you will notice neither f# nor c# have anything to do whatsoever with a g melodic minor nor dorian, it does imply (in my mind) g harmonic minor with a key change to d harmonic minor

August 16, 2005 at 09:50 PM · f# is the leading tone in ascending g melodic minor.

August 17, 2005 at 12:04 AM · I'd just like to point out that there is no ascending melodic minor, or an descending melodic minor. It is purely convention (and examination rulings) that mean we play it the way we do. However, in real music it can be played either way.

Also, I remember hearing that in some baroque pieces, it was common for a sharp or flat to be added (can't remember which) if it was in a minor mode. If so, I think a flat was added.

Also, I don't think that Bach would've used a different key signature to avoid accidentals - seeing as he modulated quite regularly (I haven't looked at this piece, but if you look at the chorales, he will modulate after each phrase. 4-8 modulations in a short hymn tune).

August 17, 2005 at 12:09 AM · I don't think he would have used a certain key to avoid accidentals, either. Something to do with writing alphabetically.

August 17, 2005 at 12:12 AM · Since when is there no ascending melodic minor? What time is it? How long did I sleep?

August 17, 2005 at 06:33 AM · He wrote it in Gm with only one flat, quite common in those and earlier days, and yes, it came from the church keys.

August 17, 2005 at 06:52 AM · He did it because it was common. Next question please.

August 17, 2005 at 07:50 PM · The Biber Passacaglia is also in g min. with only one flat at the key. It was commun, but I don't think it is only that.

About modes...have you observed that the theme is frigian?

August 18, 2005 at 07:01 PM · Jim was right all along

I failed to notice 2 accidentals (not just 1) right next to each other within the first 15 notes: e as emily said and f# - this is melodic minor - I forgot melodic minor has a major 7th - it has been so long since I played that scale I had forgotten, you will nottice the first 10 notes is a straight g min chord with a pure natural minor scale - with no sharps or flats, this is g aeolean or natural minor, the key signature does indicate g natural minor as the key signature... my text is marked with 2 flats, maybe yours is different than mine

After that in bar 7 you have another 2 accidentals next to each other: b and c# - this is d melodic minor

so what you really have is g natural minor mutating to g melodic minor in the second octave mutating to d melodic minor

August 18, 2005 at 07:27 PM · I don't want to be right. I want a better explanation than anything I said :)

August 18, 2005 at 08:18 PM · Jim, since Buri left I now pronounce you the new John Madden of the violin

ps does anyone know where buri is?



August 18, 2005 at 11:57 PM · If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve. God help you for even thinking that. I don't know if Buri could play violin, but I definitely don't.

The job must go to Emily, or perhaps Mathias, who is his godson I believe, or perhaps Laurie herself. Or better yet, our good friends Miss Baeva or Miss Leurs, if they're interested.

August 18, 2005 at 08:38 PM · maybe it would help to spell some scales?

g natural minor

G A Bb C D Eb f

(this is the first 10 notes or so desceding from the first chord)

g melodic minor

G A Bb C D E F#

(2 accidentals in the second descending octave)

g harmonic minor

G A Bb C D Eb F#

g Dorian

G A Bb C D E F

g Phyrigian

G Ab Bb C D Eb F

d melodic minor

D E F G A B C# D

(this is found is bar 7)

August 18, 2005 at 08:52 PM · in the baroque period often they left out one of teh flats in the key signature, b/c the key was supposed to be "the devil" and so was considered unsuitable. I've seen that in some of telemann's music too


August 18, 2005 at 09:08 PM · Yes, I think the answer is going to be an historical one.

August 18, 2005 at 10:35 PM · Sheila, exactly how was that particular flat from the devil? I'm trying to figure out the reason, and it hasn't come to me yet.

August 19, 2005 at 02:45 AM · well i used it as an analogy but they didn't like certain sounds at the time and so that was one of them. I believe that is also the reason in functional harmony we avoid perfect fifths and octaves, that's what bach did too

August 19, 2005 at 07:10 AM · You know, I'm surprised that they were allowed to play the violin at all, with that logic.

August 19, 2005 at 04:04 AM · they were trying to get away from teh medieval sounds which were mostly parrelal fifths and octaves and it sounded really tinney, so they avoided them. From what I learned from my history class, they really did believe that certian intervals or keys would be like inviting the deveil into your life. Sounds absurd today, but believeable for the time. People didn't know as much and culture and religion was very very prevalent in their society.

August 19, 2005 at 03:54 PM · I think that the major/minor system as we know it had not yet solidified at the time of writing this piece. Not all tonal music stands up to every kind of analysis. Bach was known to "get modal" now and then. So, bottom line, this piece isn't going to agree with later analytical systems at all times.

I miss Buri. He was absolutely one of the best things about this site...still a great site, though. Wherever you are, Buri, I hope you're happy and doing well.

August 19, 2005 at 05:56 PM · Yuo cna have his old job. Just takl about prunes and tpe like this :)

August 19, 2005 at 06:51 PM · Jim -- you have it down pat. You are the new Buri.

August 19, 2005 at 10:58 PM · I knew this would get beyond me...

August 20, 2005 at 08:10 PM · Hi,

This sonata is in G minor, but acutally has the modal key signature of G Dorian (or Dorian transposed to G). It is actually a cross between modal thinking and tonal voice-leading hence the key signature.


August 20, 2005 at 09:06 PM · Ok, here's what's going on. It's dorian transposed to the key of F, or in other words dorian relative to the key of F rather than the key of C. Dorian mode transposed to F gives a minor scale (a scale with a flat third) beginning and ending on G.

The key signature is therefore simply the key signature for F. The fact that it looks like the key signature for G minor missing a flat is a misleading coincidence. The editions shouldn't call it G minor. It's actually dorian mode in F.

This piece of code is now debugged.

August 20, 2005 at 10:00 PM · My edition of Bach has the Adagio from Sonata No. 1 in the actual key of G minor.

And it sounds like most of you have this issue solved, but I don't think another suggestion will hurt.

I haven't played Sonata No. 1, but I have played other Sonatas and Partitas.

My teacher makes me name for her the key changes and how they are related.

And while I was going through the Grave from Sonata No. 2 in A minor, I found a few things in the key of B, so I assumed Bach was going to the major second, so I asked my teacher about it at lessons, and she told me no.

She asked me what the two most common key changes are to, and I said to the dominant and to the sub-dominant. And she told me that bach sometimes goes to the dominant of the dominant. In my case, from a to e to b, but he skipped the e part.

So, would it make sense if Bach was going to the fith of the fifth of g? from g to d to a, and an a arpeggio has an e natural in it.

August 20, 2005 at 10:19 PM · Hi,

Jim, actually, the Dorian mode is originally built on D with a half-step between the 6th and 7th degrees and a minor third. It resembles the minor scale, without the raised 7th.

So, when transposed to G, you need to add a B-flat. Therefore, it is in G dorian, not F dorian. F dorian would have an A-flat, B-flat and E-flat.


August 20, 2005 at 11:01 PM · Christian,

Relative to the key of C, dorian is built on D. Therefore in F, dorian is built on G. Nothing besides the Bb from the key sig of F is needed. If you want to call it G dorian because it's built on G, that's saying the same thing a different way.

The important thing is to realize why the key signature is F.

Charlie, yes but eventual modulations aren't shown by an inital key signature.

August 20, 2005 at 11:41 PM · Hi Jim,

You are absolutely right. I was actually thinking of it in a different sense with the starting note as the definition, but yours makes more sense since it includes all modal transpositions.

Thanks for the correction and cheers!

August 20, 2005 at 11:48 PM · You're right too. A jazz cat would call it G dorian I think and he'd know it has one flat.

August 20, 2005 at 11:53 PM · But this piece is still called the G Minor. Does it need renamed?

August 21, 2005 at 01:05 AM · I hereby hypnotically command Emily to accuse me of changing my posts, and to say they're innocent changes, apparently showing me trying to express myself better.

August 21, 2005 at 12:46 AM · You keep changing your posts, Jim. It's fun, because I get to try on so many ideas to see how they fit.

August 21, 2005 at 01:06 AM · Emily, you forgot the second part.

August 21, 2005 at 01:13 AM · This is Emily providing a disclaimer for the response to the previous post, as changes may have been made since response was posted.

Innocent? Verdict's still out on that one.

August 21, 2005 at 02:07 AM · I do what the aliens make me do. I have no choice.

August 21, 2005 at 04:53 PM · Hello Jim,cop yer whack for this.

It's my ex-girlfriend's birthday today and she,apart from once being a cow to me,hated Bach,so,I'm thinking of printing all your thoughts,coherent or otherwise and sending them to her to see what the bitch was missing!

Spare a thought for Scottish fiddle players doing bagpipe music where they don't have ANY key sigs. or accidentals.

Plus they sound a semi-tone higher.

Great fun sight reading.

Power to the modes.


August 22, 2005 at 12:27 AM · Do you have a new "cow bitch" yet? Plenty down here.

August 22, 2005 at 10:47 AM · I think you are Cassius Clay in disguise Jim,or,Muhammed Ali as he likes to be known as now.

a.k.a.The Louisville Lip.

Answer is yes,and she's doing the Franck with Andrea Jacobs soon and all I hear is the rumbling second mov.,while trying to pick some winners so I can afford these new strings.

The modes await me.

The ex. was phrygian (sometimes).

August 22, 2005 at 04:56 PM · Muhammed Ali is one of my heros. I once heard a great song that portrayed him as a symbol for everything right, song and singer long gone now and no way to find them.

August 22, 2005 at 07:40 PM · Dougie, they make legal drugs now that help combat phrygianess.

Could you sing solfege in phrygian? What would the second note be called?

August 22, 2005 at 08:31 PM · While you're at it, check out the urtext for the double violin concerto. You'll come across the exact same thing... there seems to be no problem with the a minor concerto- after all, to follow the pattern, he'd have to put one sharp. hmm...

August 23, 2005 at 03:49 AM · The key sig for the double concerto is C major in the urtext, then?

August 23, 2005 at 07:48 AM · Yes now Emily,I do know it's quite cold up your neck of the woods,so,do you have a large supply of this wonder drug?

I think you're having me on.

The Cincinnati kid thought the same with Edward G.Robinson.

The horses won yesterday,they were on bute.

Corelli Alliance here I go.

August 23, 2005 at 07:56 AM · It's one gamble after another.

August 23, 2005 at 08:44 AM · Personally, I'm drug-free, Dougie. A simple change of modes might help.

August 25, 2005 at 09:40 AM · That's true,a change does often help unless it makes you take the wrong bus if you get my drift.

What about the Dubawian mode?

Or the Mamoolian?

Questions will be answered in October.

April 12, 2016 at 10:37 PM · You should see the traditional solfa version of the Scottish Metrical Psalms! The heading for "Martyrs" is "KEY D, DORIAN MODE. Ray is E". The printed tune then begins and ends on "r". Throws most precentors completely, so much easier to read modal music from staves!

"Martyrs" ("Old Martyrs" in Hymns A & M), by the way, is a noble stately tune, at least as listener friendy as the Agincourt Song, falling naturally into triple time with a couple of duple time bars - I have busked in front of evangelistic sketchboards with it on quite a number of occasions; but that's NOT how it's printed in the book. And poor young (He died very young) T.L.Hately's harmonization of it, treating it as a diatonic minor tune, keys to be modulated, just about kills it.

Back to Bach: I'm writing this shortly after reading Laurie's interview with Rachel Barton Pine about the Partitas. RBP suggests that Partitas 1, 2, and 3 represented, in Bach's time, the past, present and future of music. Could it be that in Sonata No 1, as in Partita No 1, Bach was deliberately evoking the past?

April 13, 2016 at 05:15 PM · When I was practicing the G minor Sonata in the 80s in college in preparation for a recital, I asked the chair of my small college music department why the work was notated with one flat yet with all the flats written in for G minor. He shrugged and said maybe Bach was thinking modally.

At the time, I thought his answer was bullsh!t.

And I still think so. The G minor Sonata is very clearly in G minor and not in Dorian or any other mode. Bach's consistent use of leading tones in whatever key he is in makes this very clear. His harmonic pattern in the fugue, starting on the dominant for the subject, is consistent with his other work before and after. Bach's consistency is the reason he is universally studied as the model for 4-part harmony and voice leading.

The truth is, the reason he fails to notate the E flat is a mystery. And it could have a simple and prosaic answer. Like maybe he made a composition student fill in the E-flats for punishment, or as an exercise for a violin student to stay in key.

But all of this exegesis about the psychology and gematria behind the sonatas does not impress me.

April 13, 2016 at 05:40 PM · Scott, I don't get a Dorian feel from this piece either.

Still, a mystery, you say? Well now, isn't that what doctoral dissertations are for?

April 13, 2016 at 05:43 PM ·

April 13, 2016 at 06:04 PM · No, it's what time machines were invented for, Paul Deck. ;-)

April 14, 2016 at 02:31 PM · One of Bartok's 44 Duos has only Bb and Db in the key signature, since Violin I only plays Bb, C, & Db. On my LP of AndrĂ© Gertler and Joseph Suk, Gertler seems to have assumed a misprint, for Bb & Eb, and plays D naturals! And Bertler knew Bartok well.

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