Method: Bach‘s ‘Invention No. 1’ Offers a Glimpse into Baroque Style and Ornamentation


Invention No. 1, by J.S. Bach (1685–1750), is a short keyboard piece which makes for an excellent entry into Bach’s music. This lesson will explore keeping time, playing in a duo, melodic variations, and ornamentation.


Invention No. 1 was probably first composed around 1722–1723 in Cöthen, Germany. The piece arose out of a very simple need: Bach was trying to teach his second child, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–1784), the family trade—music. He compiled a book of the basics, which included clef and note names, ornaments, and a selection of his “simple” pieces from a variety of sources, such as the French Suites and Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, to systematically teach composition and the clavichord. Included within it was a set of new creations, 15 two-part Praeambula and 15 three-part Fantasias. Bach obviously thought highly of them, since he re-ordered, re-wrote, and re-packaged them with the express intention of using them to teach.

Today, we know these works as the Inventions and Sinfonias, and they have been greatly expanded through scholarly research. Added to the two autograph scores are the notes Bach made; his students’ own copies of the works (a requirement of the time); and his commentary and ornaments. Together, for the modern musician, these form a practical resource with which to learn and absorb Bach’s methods for composition, while also offering an authentic look into how he realized his ornamentation and improvisation. These pieces are parallel to The Well-Tempered Clavier and are eminently more approachable on our instrument. Bach made it clear on the Inventions title page that the main objective is to develop “eine Cantable Art,” or a singing style of playing.

Invention No. 1 is a two-voice keyboard work in the key of C major. Its creative seed is a single idea (motif) contained in the first bar. There are two versions of this piece, as Bach elaborated on the autograph score at a later date, adding in triplet runs. Its “simple” two parts enable you to concentrate on Bach’s music, while still performing with another guitar.


The majority of the musical material is comprised of scales, broken up by thirds. Micro Study 1 will help with coordinating the hands, and then the guitar parts. Guitar 1 will be utilizing i m to play, with attention to angle of attack, on wound bass strings—think Segovia-style RH. Guitar 2 uses the thumb (p) switching to i m on the nylon strings. Coordination of both fingers and parts are required to effectively perform it. The aim is two-fold: first, learn your part securely; and second, synchronize with the other guitar. Listening to the other guitar will be key here. Then, for fun, exchange parts to get a better understanding of both voices. Once learned, this approach should be applied to the whole piece. It will also help when you begin to learn Bach’s other contrapuntal works.


This is a single-form piece, which is structured around the opening motif, bar 1, and its contrapuntal variants: inversion, augmentation, transposition, etc. Micro Study 2 begins with the opening motif in bar 1, then varies it on the succeeding bars. And, with the exception of the transposition motif, they have all been standardized into C major for clarity. Bach makes it way more interesting in Invention No. 1, as each one of these variations can be found in some sort of guise in this piece. The fun is in finding them and working out why Bach placed them where he did, and the harmony he chose. When playing with another guitar, strive to keep clear of the other guitar’s timbre, unless it is a musical decision to become one voice. This slightly discordant micro study is perfect for testing out tone separation and clarity of parts.


Micro Study 3 uses a motif (bar 7) to practice that 16th-note up-beat entrance. Key to getting this in the groove is to keep time. In other words, do not anticipate the beat. The tempo must be internalized and your entrance confident. That means not relying on the other guitar part to keep your time; it should be shared. Practice with a metronome on slow quarter-notes to begin with, then switch it to half-notes, so you “keep” beats 2 and 4 while the metronome keeps beats 1 and 3. This will develop your internal clock. Once all that is secure, switch the notes ’round so that you “keep” beats 1 and 3 and the metronome is on beats 2 and 4. This is a great exercise to really solidify the pulse, and your internal time keeper.


Micro Study 4 utilizes a mordent and a trillo; ornaments which Bach defined in Wilhelm Friedemann’s book, to embellish bars 5 and 6. Today, they are known as lower and upper mordents, and are performed differently. The guitar parts are the same—Guitar 1 is the original; while Guitar 2 is the florid Italianate triplet version of Invention No. 1, which lends a more improvisatory feel to the music. A modern interpretation would use a range of ornaments, especially trills on the cadences. However, I suspect that as it was the first piece of the set, Bach kept everything simple, as compared to later more heavily ornamented Inventions such as 10, 11, and 12—thus making this a great piece to begin learning Baroque-style ornamentation and improvisation.


Music this old has by now been through many editions, so choose carefully when selecting any for the guitar, especially if they have TAB. It is difficult enough to read two staves, not to mention any editorial interference. The best advice is to head for a good modern source of the originals. With that in mind, the ABRSM keyboard edition, edited and annotated by Richard Jones, is highly recommended. There is a wealth of extra information relating to the material, with stylistic considerations and context added. And you have the added bonus of making your own duo arrangements or using it for extra sight-reading practice.


Invention No. 1 is a fantastic, simple resource to commence the journey of studying Bach’s music. “The unique balance of heart and mind in Bach’s music needs to be faithfully reproduced in performance.” That excellent advice, from Richard Jones, should inform any approach to this music. Learning to perform it with passion, while developing a strong sense of musicality, takes time. The Inventions and Sinfonias are a gateway into understanding more intricate Bach pieces.