Prelude: Numbers?

May 06, 2023
pink and green numbers overlappind in a pile

This issue is all about numbers. Musicians use numbers all the time, such as for time signatures, bar numbers, page numbers, intervals, top-40 charts, to name a few. And I’m sure if you’ve worked in any denomination long enough, you memorized many of the hymn numbers.

There are even songs about numbers—pieces like the “The Twelve Days of Christmas” or “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” in which each stanza builds numerically. This helps us remember order and lyrics.

Some theorists talk about the golden ratio in music. In many compositions, the climax often comes around the golden ratio point, which is about two-thirds of the way through the piece. Whether a composer intends to use the golden ratio or not, it’s often where the climax of a piece feels right. There is a natural balance in the music.

Many music scholars have explored number symbolism in music. J.S. Bach, who, according to some, was obsessed with numerology, sometimes used his name represented in numbers to create a motif in his music. Supposedly, he accomplished this by adding up the alphabetic placement of the letters in his surname and came up with the “Bach number” of 14. BACH: B-flat (2) + A (1) + C (3) + B-natural (i.e., H in German; 8) = 14. And if you include Bach’s initials (J.S.), it comes out to 41, which is 14 reversed. Apparently, the practice of assigning numeric values to words and phrases, also called gematria, was common in Bach’s time, as were musical puzzles. In Bach’s music there are many places where his numbers can be found. In the Prelude of the first cello suite, there are 41 measures. The Art of the Fugue has 14 fugues and the unfinished work stops where Bach was writing his name in musical notes. There are 14 canons in the Goldberg Variations.

It is thought that Bach also loved the number three—as it represents the Trinity. Several of his epic works are in three flats. The Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major has three flats, but the prelude also has three sections. There are many sixes throughout the Bach oeuvre as well, which might represent creation. There are six Schübler Chorales, six organ trio sonatas, six cello suites, six partitas. Intrigued? There are many books that discuss the possible numerology in Bach’s works.

Scientists say that there is a correlation between math and music. I know that I was never good at math, but I sure appreciate numbers in music!

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, Music Editor