Bach's Musical Signature

Question: How do I calculate Bach’s musical signature?

– Alfi M.

Albert’s reply: Bach often wrote his name in musical notation, sometimes hiding it in his works. In German, the note B-flat is called B, and B natural is called H. Thus, B-A-C-H in German is played B-flat, A, C, B natural:

Usually the B-A-C-H motive is written in that order, though sometimes Bach rearranged the notes, as in the ascending (A-B-H-C) and descending (C-H-B-A) examples you posted.

A particularly meaningful motive for Bach is the cross motive, of which the B-A-C-H is an example:

 This motive always consists of four notes, and the outer notes are on the same line or space. One of the middle notes is above that line or space and the other middle note is below. Using the notes B-A-C-H, the cross motive could be expressed in several ways, such as the following:

Other composers often pay tribute to Bach by using the B-A-C-H motive. Sometimes they call direct attention to this motive in their titles, such as Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H for organ or Schumann’s 6 Fugues on the Name Bach.

More often, however, the B-A-C-H motive is a hidden secret. A little-known example I once discovered is in the opening of the very first piece of Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood:


As it’s in the accompaniment and not melodic, this is an example of a musical detail that should remain the performer’s secret. Even if the notes spell B-A-C-H, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to spell it out to our audience!

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