Joe's Blog

Practice Technique 28: Using Registration To Bring Out One Voice of Several In Polyphonic Situations

April 22, 2017

Taking a cue from the organists (harpsichordists too) about bringing out one voice of several, in a polyphonic situation.

On an organ, it is trivial to link one of its several keyboard to several ‘ranks’ of pipes, some which sound in different octaves.  Even a single rank of pipes (E.G. “principal”) can be set up so that if you play, for example, middle C (c4), air is sent as well to the pipes for any combination of these C-s: c2 c3 (c4) c5 c6.

If, now, the organist chooses to play a two or three voice fugue, so that one of the voices, and only that voice, sound in several octaves at once, something amazing happens.  The voice that is “on top” can loose any advantage or special-ness due to being the highest of a group of simultaneously sounding notes.   Any voice, from the lowest to the highest, can, can attain the ‘status’ of being on top.  As a learning tool, to keep focused on just single voice among several,  sounding that voice either louder than the others or in more octaves at once than the other, makes that voice go from being just one in the mixture of the voices, to one that stands out clearly.

At my lessons, I am fortunately to have two “kissing” pianos.   If a student is learning a three voice Bach fugue, I will, during a series of run-throughs, choose one among the three voices and transpose either up or down a certain number of octaves.   In this way, the bottom voice can sound like the top voice (the original top voice being now in the middle), the top voice can sound like the bottom voice (usually the second easiest voice for the student to pick out with her ears), or I can ‘liberate’ the inner voice from being imprisoned between the obvious top voice and the second most obvious bottom voice.

Sometimes I will reverse the arrangement.  I will play the piece as written, and the student has to play along with me, in one octave or more than one octave, a single voice.  The ability simply to isolate with the eye, just one voice, and follow its continuity through the entire fugue, is almost a necessary ability for the Bach player.

The most surprising thing to most students is that, even when the voices are shuffled (with or even without octave doublings) the sound of the piece is strikingly similar to the original arrangement.   Just try to do this with reversing the hands of a Beethoven Sonata.  What results rarely sounds enough like the original for the student to consider it as the same piece and not some strangely mangled version.

This means that we can conclude certain things about Bach’s “Musical Space as against Beethoven’s musical space.

The next paragraph is a bit more theoretical and can be skipped.

First a word or two about what I mean by musical space.  I believe that music is the only art which is experienced by us, in its purest form, in time alone, and not in some combination of time and space.*  This despite the many space-like things involved in playing such as the instrument we are playing, the types of movements we make in space to play that instrument, etc..  If we can legitimately use the term “space” in regard to music, then it is a highly abstract, non tangible space.   The one in which “notes” have positions on a graph relative to a time-axis and a pitch-axis.   Even a “note”, though, is already an abstract term.  It is the result holding fairly constant, during a duration of time, three perceivable parameters of sound: namely pitch, loudness, and tone quality.  One might add duration, but duration is the very fabric of conscious time.

If we accept the use of space as part of the phrase ‘musical space’, then in Bach’s musical space, voices are transparent to each other.  We do not have to try to see through the opaque surface of the highest voice in order to see (sic) the other voices.  And if the voices are on transparent layers in this space, we can order the voices in any permutation we want, and the full effect of all the voices seen through each other’s transparency will remain the same.

But if we consider Beethoven.  His musical space has different geometric (sic) properties, such that things that are possible to do in Bach’s space may not be doable in Beethoven’s space.  What is ‘on top’ tends be more opaque to the other voices than with Bach.

* This is one of the central theses in my book: “The Spectrum of the Arts” (available for free, in summary and in full text, on line at: 


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