Week 114: “Orchestral Suite #3 in D, Air” by Johann Sebastian Bach

This is one of those pieces of music that everybody knows. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, owned an album of “Relaxation Music”, or watched footage of hot-air balloons, you have heard this song. But no matter how many times you’ve heard it, this one deserves a close listen.

The first time I really listened to this song was in university, while taking a course called, and I’m not joking here, “Listening to Music”. You can imagine how a course with a name like that might appeal to a 20-year-old with a severe allergy to hard work. There was no textbook to purchase, just a set of 6 CDs that contained all the music deemed worthy of analysis. I took home the stack of digitized course material, put on some headphones, sat on my ratty old couch, and listened, skipping straight to Bach.

I remember coming to the conclusion, then and there, that this piece was the most beautiful, most perfect combination of notes ever assembled, and that Bach was the uncontested champion of musical genius. Years later, it’s still a conclusion I find difficult to dispute, and it’s still a piece I love to hear.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s impossible to get it wrong. In 1902, this became the first piece of Bach’s music to ever be recorded, and in the 110 years since, it must have been recorded literally thousands of times…and yet I have never heard a bad recording of it, no matter what the instrumentation, the tempo, or sublte variations in performance. It’s as if the notes won’t let themselves be played badly.

2. The way each phrase slowly builds and subsides, like a boat bobbing on the ocean.

3. The way some notes are held for just a bit longer than expected, creating just the slightest bit of tension between the different instruments.

Recommended listening activity:

Imagining yourself rolling down a mountain of pillows in slow-motion.

Buy it here.