Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach

Discover one of the most important masterpieces by Johann Sebastian Bach.

In this video, Robert tackles the famous Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach, composed of 48 preludes and fugues, in all keys. Even if you already know what it is, this video will give you interesting and not-often heard insights about it.

Released on November 26, 2014

Post a Comment   |   Video problems? Contact Us!
DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, and welcome to and with a great subject for you. What is The Well-Tempered Clavier? You may have heard of The Well-Tempered Clavier of Johann Sebastian Bach. It's just an amazing body of work. Well, what is it?

Many of you may have heard the preludes and fugues of Bach which are The Well-Tempered Clavier. For example, the very first prelude is in C major and sounds like this. [plays piano] That might be familiar to a lot of you. What is The Well-Tempered Clavier? We're going to talk about that today. It's a remarkable body of work by Johann Sebastian Bach.

To understand what The Well-Tempered Clavier is, first, you have to understand what is meant by well-tempered. You see, a long time ago, keyboard instruments were actually tuned in different keys, depending upon the piece that you were playing on them. That's right. If you were playing a piece in G major, the keyboard would be tuned in G major and it would sound absolutely pure and perfect in G major. However, if you played it in other keys, it would be less perfect. D major would be very close, A major pretty good. But if you went to E flat or some distantly related key, it would sound horrendous.

Little by little, tuning got better. They figured out how to make tunings that were not perfect in any one key but could accommodate many keys. Eventually, it got to the point where it was well-tempered. The temperament, which is the system used to set the tuning of the whole instrument, was made such that it was usable in all keys.

Now here's an interesting fact for you, and we'll get back to The Well-Tempered Clavier in a minute. I want to mentioned that although Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier, which is a body of work of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys In fact, it wasn't a perfect tuning system like we have today, which is a perfect compromise of tuning, which you can read about in another blog of mine, "Why a Piano is Never in Tune, But It's Equally Out of Tune in All Keys." This was not the case during Bach's life, but it was close enough that he was able to write in all the keys.

What he did was he wrote preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys. You heard the first prelude in C major. Then, there is one in C minor. The C minor prelude starts like this. [plays piano] Then, the fugue, which is a counterpoint with a certain form that we can discuss later in a future video, in the C minor starts off like this.[plays piano]

He wrote preludes and fugues in every one of the major and minor keys. That would give you 12 major and 12 minor for a total of 24, but he didn't stop there. He wrote two complete books of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys for a body of work of 48 preludes and fugues. It's an amazing collection of music that, if you're not familiar with, you should listen to more of them. They're all stupendous writing.

This is just a brief introduction for you. I encourage all of you to get familiar with all of the preludes and fugues or as many as you can. There's a great body of work there. Each one has something unique to say. It's possible that the differences in tuning at that time inspired different music, because not all the keys sounded the same back then as they do today, other than the pitch and the sonority of the instrument.

That's the long and short of what The Well-Tempered Clavier of Johann Sebastian Bach is. Go explore it for yourself and you'll be richly rewarded. Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at and
Post a comment, question or special request:
You may: Login  or  
Otherwise, fill the form below to post your comment:
Add your name below:

Add your email below: (to receive replies, will not be displayed or shared)

For verification purposes, please enter the word MUSIC in the field below

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Simon Greenwood on December 1, 2014 @2:37 pm PST
Always wondered what was meant by 'well tempered'!. Thanks
Questions? Problems? Contact Us.