Reading the Bach chorales


Pablo Casals, c. 1915

If you’ve ever wondered how there can be 1126 works in Wolfgang Schmieder’s Bach Werke Verzeichnis, it’s because the first 224 are cantatas and Nos. 250–438 are chorale harmonizations. The chorales are little worlds unto themselves, well worth studying and playing for pleasure. In his memoir, Joys and Sorrows, Pablo Casals writes that he would begin every morning with Bach at the piano. “A blessing on the house,” he called it. In pandemic time, one of my projects has been improving my score-reading. The time-honored way to do that is by reading the Bach chorales in open score at the piano.

I bought an iPad specifically for this purpose. It enables me to download a pdf from the Petrucci library (IMSLP), carry it to the piano and mark it up to my eye’s content. An Apple Pencil is helpful here, and it makes the exercise more fun.

C-clefs in Open Score

One goal of the exercise is to become more fluent with the C-clefs. A clef is literally a “key,” a key that unlocks a door, in this case a door that opens onto the staff with a new perspective. The C-clef always hugs middle C.

These clefs were once commonplace, a way to notate vocal parts so they don’t run off the staff. In Bach’s time they were a part of elementary music education. Soprano clef is no longer in common use. But the alto clef is still the standard for viola, sometimes trombone. Prokofiev uses it for horns, a logical but idiosyncratic practice. Cello and bass read tenor clef in altissimo, as do bassoon and trombone.

Score-reading is now considered a skill reserved for conductors and coaches. But it’s essential for composers, too. The benefits of practicing score-reading at the piano are apparent: the eye is trained to keep moving and to notice things like skips, passing notes and accidentals. The hands are trained to parse the notes of the setting while keeping the parts clearly voiced.

To use the chorales as score-reading exercises, choose an edition with the voices notated on four staves with the vocal C-clefs. C.P.E. Bach made such an edition of his father’s chorales.

Download 185 Chorales here.

  • Begin by singing the chorale tune, in a comfortable register.
  • Then add the bass, played by the left hand. Sing and play together. A good exercise for singing in tune!
  • Add the alto in the right hand, playing two parts on the keyboard while singing the tune.
  • Add intermediate steps as necessary. For example, playing the alto and tenor with separate hands, or singing the tenor while playing soprano and bass, etc.
  • When you’re ready, VERY SLOWLY—as slowly as necessary, but in tempo—put all four parts together.


As I go, I make several types of marks, all of which are purely personal.

  • Circle in green the unisons between parts. This aids learning the clefs and moving between them.
  • Indicate with els the distribution of the parts to the hands in the alto and tenor voices.
  • Mark in blue the suspensions. It’s common to indicate preparation-suspension-resolution (p-s-r) but I modify that, making the ties explicit and writing in the suspended note as necessary, then figuring the bass.
  • Red is used for marking part-writing details like octave doublings, accented passing notes and voice-crossings.
  • Yellow-highlight an expressive harmony.

bach chorale annotated

Of course, you’ll also want to understand the text of the chorale, so flip over to GooTran (Google Translate) as necessary. Since my concern here is with score-reading, I don’t get too bound up with harmonic analysis, though that’s a worthy activity.

The clefs are also an aid in transposition:

  • Soprano clef for instruments in A, like the clarinet, or to transpose up a third.
  • Alto clef for any instrument in D, like trumpet or horn, or to transpose up a second.
  • Tenor clef for any instrument in B-flat, like trumpet or horn, or to transpose down a second.
  • Bass clef for any E-flat instrument, like horn or trumpet, or to transpose up a third.

I find that after a chorale session I’m ready to start my day with energy and a buoyant spirit. You may find, writes R.O. Morris “that in failing to master all the intricacies of a Wagner score, [you] have unwittingly acquired the ability to read any string quartet with ease. And that in itself is no mean reward.”

Bless this house.