How Bach’s anatomy may have handed him greatness

A German anatomist analyzed a photograph of Bach’s skeleton, to calculate the composer’s impressive reach at the keyboard.

This story appears in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It would seem that musical genius has many dimensions. In the case of composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), an anatomical endowment may have enhanced his virtuosity. In a study published in a German scientific journal, anatomist and musician Andreas Otte deduced that Bach—a gifted organist and harpsichordist—had an exceptional reach at the keyboard.

Using a photo of what historians believe to be Bach’s skeleton, Otte calculated the hand’s size—nearly 8½ inches from wrist to fingertips—and its reach, as much as 10¼ inches from thumb to last finger with the hand open wide. Using those measurements, Otte figured that Bach could play what’s called a 12th: a position bridging 12 white keys. That reach is uncommon even today, when humans generally are larger than in Bach’s time.

“We cannot judge exactly how relevant the span of the hand is for the art of a musician,” Otte says. And he insists that his research not be interpreted as conditioning Bach’s musical prowess on his reach: “That would be a sacrilege.”

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