Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Late-night study music

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-10-16

Exam time approaching for many, I thought I’d do a service by writing about music specifically designed for hitting the books late at night:  Bach‘s "Goldberg Variations" (BWV988).

Once upon a time…

Around 1740, there was a Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony, one Count Herman Karl von Keyserlink, who was a music-loving, workaholic insomniac.

Every night he would sit down to his books, and ask his pet musician, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play some background music that would be not too boring, not too distracting, … but just right.

At a loss, they wrote to Goldberg’s old teacher, Bach, pleading for help.

In response, Bach penned an aria and 30 variations for solo harpsichord, now known as the Goldberg Variations.

Young Goldberg would play these, all night, night after night.  The Count would listen to the music while reading, thinking and writing, all night, night after night.

…and they all lived happily ever after to end of their days.

Well, that’s how the story goes.  While some historians raise their eyebrows, and details vary between recountings, few would argue against the music’s suitability for accompanying late-night study.

Just right for this purpose, perhaps they should be called the "Goldilocks Variations".

I’d add that it’s worth keeping the "BlackAdder" theme in mind as you listen to the start of each variation, and, to a slightly lesser extent, "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven’s Symphony Nr 9, now the "anthem" of the EU.

Enjoy, and best wishes for your swotting!

See Also:

    Free scores are available for download from the International Music Score Project.

  • You can download MIDI files for the Goldbergs (allowing you to change the orchestration, and even – if you have LilyPond – render it to PDF) from at no charge from this page
  • There are so many different recordings on harpsichord, piano and synthesizer you are almost guaranteed to find at least one even in small CD stores, but, for those on a tight budget, the Naxos edition (Chen Pi-hsien, piano) is quite reasonable, although Glenn Gould’s versions are brilliant (if you don’t mind him humming occasionally).  Keith Jarrett’s are also pretty good.
  • There’s probably a few mp3 versions freely and legally downloadable somewhere, but I haven’t gone looking hard, apart from finding some at ClassicCat.  If anyone knows another URL, please add a comment.
  • While I haven’t had to study for decades, I’ll often use the Goldbergs for late-night code-cutting.
  • The von Keyserlink family website discusses the story


3 Responses to “Late-night study music”

  1. Dean said

    I’m searching for it as I type.

    I’ll report back tomorrow!

  2. Dave Bath said

    Thanks Dean. I’ve got no use for the mp3s as I’ve got at least 5 versions on CD and vinyl, but I’ll incorporate anything you find into the body of the article (with attribution).

    I also wonder, have any other readers tried it as study music.

  3. […] "Late night study music" (2007-10-16) which recommends the Goldbergs […]

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