Process Begins with Bach

J.S. Bach

Yes, that Bach. Johann Sebastian. There were others, his children primarily. In many ways, western music is influenced by him more than anyone else in history, including (I can hear the collective gasp) the Beatles.

I’m not going to review his impact on music though, but his impact on the beginnings of my IT career.

What does Bach have to do with “process”

In college, I was a double major in Applied Mathematics and Music. The Music major was much the harder of the two. And Dr. Hall was the most challenging professor of all. I will admit to never getting over a C+ in any of her required classes. Although I liked her as a professor, I thankfully only had her for two courses needed for my major.

It was Spring term of my senior year when I took Baroque music history, a requirement for the major. And the most significant figure of that period was, of course, Bach. And as usual, my research papers were insufficient to get a B, but I did improve significantly by changing my approach to the material.

Instead of reading tons of materials from various musicologist (the term that is given to music historians), only to choose the wrong sources, I did my own thing. I dissected one of his works, “The Easter Oratorio.” And by dissection, I mean the basis of my paper was a discussion of a chart I constructed which looks more like a Work Breakdown Structure than it does a piece of music. That brilliant shift got me up to an impressive C+ in her course.

By the way, my overall GPA was 3.3. And I was the highest-ranking music major in my graduating class. Well, I was the only music major in my graduating class. It was a small school.

The Discovery

The approach I took toward this paper is one that dovetails nicely into my eventual profession in Information Technology. I’m not going to rehash the paper but will show several of the elements Bach commonly used. By identifying all of the source material used in the piece, I was able to document the musical equivalent of a transformation process, both on a thematic and structural level.

That transformation is illustrated in various ways. Thematic transformation can be analogous to data transformation in systems. When looking at thematic transformations, you can see where the themes started and how they were changed along the way to a finished product. Common transformation processes include truncation, key changes, inversion (the theme basically upside down), retrograde (backward), and various repetitions with other themes creating a counterpoint or counter melody.

But another discovery is the structural transformation, which is more in line with process analysis. Bach is notorious for structural frameworks. Often involving numerological symbolism, these structures are part of the story of each composition.

Later generations would settle on the simple ABA “song” or “sonata” form. Often Bach would use a ABACADACABA form. Yes, that is exponentially more complex. Although this work is considered short, lasting about 45 minutes, each of those sections did have some time to develop. All those “A” sections are repetitive in style, not content. In his compositions, the central “D” section would be the point of highest tension. This is called a chiastic structure, which Bach used as symbolic of the cross, which is the subject of Easter.

Often the central section would feature intervals of an augmented 4th, called “the devil in music” partly because of its extreme dissonance, and partly because of its difficulty to sing that interval. In the Easter Oratorio, he did something different. He changed keys, adding a sharp to the key signature. That sharp also symbolically represents the cross.

The musical themes, the lyrics, and the structure of the piece all tell the story.

Relation to Information Technology

With the thematic and the structural transformations, Bach addresses the subject in both a personal and an overarching global sense. I find that mirrors much of what we do with systems.

In the same way, as a Business Analyst, I use tools and techniques to communicate the desired transformation. We transform individual elements through data manipulations and global structural elements through process redesign. This transformation is of processes and data. The tools I use augment the desired changes, highlighting specific functionalities. They break down the elements of a feature the same way Bach segments his themes. They move to the critical point of decision in a way similar to how the conflict redeems the theme and propels it to its final destination.

I would not realize how important this paper, and a couple of others, would be to my eventual career. I got started in IT because of my Math degree. But I understood it so much more because of my Music major.

While cleaning out a storage unit, I found my old Music History folders. And there it was. The orange notebook I used for the Baroque Music History class. And inside was the paper called “The Symbolism, Form, and Rhetoric of the Easter Oratorio by J. S. Bach.”

As I reviewed this paper, I was reminded that there is a language the composer used to tell a story — the techniques used in the composition highlight the transformations. And like Bach, I have a language, a set of tools, which I use to tell a story of transformation.

Additionally, I saw how it mirrors communications among multiple stakeholder groups. If A were the shared understanding, the other sections are enhancements from other groups. As a CBAP, I have experienced enough to communicate on multiple levels. It is the difference between ABA and ABACADACABA forms.

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