Teaching Two-Part Inventions with Notation Software

By James Frankel


I know that I am preaching to the crowd, but technology affords music educators opportunities that might have been thought of unfeasible in the past.  So many aspects of music education are so much more interesting to learn (and to teach) utilizing technology.  In my own teaching situation I have seen a dramatic increase in student interest in all aspects of my music curriculum, specifically in 8th grade general music.  Considered by some as the bane of a music teachersÕ existence, I happen to love teaching 8th grade general music because of the impact technology has on my instruction.  I teach a 10-week course on the history of western music.  While there is a great deal that I need to skip to get through 900 years of music history, the concepts that I focus on are greatly enhanced using technology.  When I teach my unit on the Baroque period, I focus on J.S. Bach.  Each unit has a compositional aspect, and in the Baroque Period, what better material than the Two-Part Inventions of J.S. Bach?  They are simple but beautiful examples of a canon with a coda, although some would argue that they are really inventions.  Either way, the following is a lesson that I have used successfully for the past few years.  Please feel free to use it in itÕs entirety, or to adapt it and make it fit your needs and situation. 


Objective:        Students will demonstrate their understanding of the canon form and BachÕs Two-Part Inventions by composing an aesthetically pleasing left-hand part after being given only the right hand part to J.S. BachÕs Invention No. 8 in F Major.


Materials:        1) A piano score to J.S. BachÕs Invention No. 8 in F Major.

                        2) A computer with appropriate notation software and MIDI interface (a lab setup would be optimal).

                        3) A multi-timbral, General MIDI synthesizer.

                        4) Teacher-created notation file with only the right hand part to BachÕs Invention No. 8 in F Major.  This file must either be preloaded onto each individual workstation, or it can be placed on an accessible file server.


                        5) LCD projector.

                        6) Networked computers with a file server.


Procedure:       1) Teacher introduces students to the concept of a canon as a short composition in which the parts imitate each other exactly which sometimes may include a coda section so that the parts can finish together.

                        2) Teacher introduces J.S. BachÕs Invention No. 8 to the students by displaying it using the projector (optional) or by handing out teacher-created copies of the piece.  Teacher explains how the right hand and left hand parts relate to each other and the definition of a canon.  Teacher then plays the piece using the notation software as a playback device.  (If a recording is available, by all means use it).

                        3) Students listen to, analyze, and describe the piece in regard to the definition of a canon and how it applies to this specific piece with the class.  Students can do this in one of two ways.  First they can use their own workstations with the teacher example either preloaded or by retrieving it from a file server, or they can use the teacher example that is being displayed for the class (I prefer this option for classroom management purposes).

                        4) After sufficient discussion, teacher then displays the Invention without the left hand part (either with a projector or on another teacher-created handout), and asks students to write the left hand part.  Teacher should explain to students how to use the cut and paste function to copy the right hand part into the left hand, as well as how to transpose the entire part down an octave. (Be sure to take away the complete version!).

                        5) Teacher asks students to play the example as is, and to determine where Bach had to make adjustments in the left hand part to be able to finish the piece together (third beat of measure 7).  Students now must use their own workstations to complete this task.  (If a lab is not available, they can complete the exercise as a class using the teacher computer/LCD projector).

                        6) After the students determine where Bach altered the left hand part, they are instructed to complete the left hand so that it ÒfitsÓ with the right hand part, making sure that the two parts end together.  Students are given ample time (perhaps two class sessions) to complete the assignment.  I recommend allowing the students to work in groups of two.  The students should try to make their left hand sound like Bach. 

                        7) After the students have completed their assignments, they perform their compositions for the class.  This can be done by having the students play their composition using their workstation through an amplification system, or by having them save their file onto the file server and having the teacher play it through their amplification system. 

                        8) After each performance, students discuss the success of their work and compare and contrast it to the work of other students. 

                        9) After all of the compositions have been played, the original version is played again and the students compare and contrast their work to the work of J.S. Bach.


Extension:       Have the students create their own original two-part inventions in the style of J.S. Bach.



            I hope that this lesson works as well for you as it has for me over the past few years.  I think that the students get a real kick out of Òmessing withÓ BachÕs music.  Using primary documents (original works) gives the students a wonderful opportunity to actually touch history.  For your convenience, I have included both the complete version of the Invention No. 8 in F Major, and the Òright hand onlyÓ version.  Please feel free to email me at if you have any questions about any aspect of this lesson.  Good luck!