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When we listen to music, as with all listening, we are hearing a number of layered elements that come together.

When we hear a person’s story, we primarily listen to their words. But, implicit in the telling, is their body language, their tone of voice, and their emotional response to us and to their own words. Music is a combination of instruments, voices, sound production (for recorded music), and the acoustics of the performance venue. But behind (or under, or before) the performance of music, is the composer’s creative use of voice. The instrument used to carry the melody is a fundamental compositional choice.

The creative process of taking music from one’s imagination to the written page is a combination of voicing, counter point, and orchestration. Each of these individual elements plays a significant role in how the work sounds when it is performed. Whether a composer voices the primary melody with a soprano singer, or a flute, or an electric guitar, the melody is the same, but the effect is entirely different. Sometimes, musicians love a particular work so much, that they want to make it available to play on their own instrument. When a work is changed in this way, it is called a transcription. Today there are many transcriptions of Bach’s works. Not only did Bach transcribe his own compositions for different contexts, but his pieces were used to teach counterpoint and orchestration in studios and conservatories across Europe. Mozart, Liszt, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, Stravinski, and even the Swingle Singers have all created transcriptions of Bach’s music: changing the voicings, but not the melodies. 

This week’s music highlights different kinds of voicing – the choice of primary “instrument” to carry the melody. As you listen, consider how the music changes, depending on the composer’s decision about who carries the primary melody line.


  1. S. Bach, Partita #3 BWV 1006

Hilary Hahn

Rachmaninoff plays his own transcription of

  1. S. Bach, Partita #3  BWV 1006


Rachmaninoff, Vocalise – a work that has been transcribed and arranged thousands of times, and each one has a distinctive flavour.

Anna Moffo, voice

Mstislav Rostropovich, cello

Evgeny Kissin, piano


Robert Schumann, Ich Grolle Nicht from Dichterliebe

Ian Bostridge, tenor (the original version was written for tenor)

Lois Marshall, soprano (Ich Grolle Nicht is #7m at 8:59’)