The passacaglia originated in early seventeenth-century Spain, initially as an interlude between dances or songs. By the 1620’s, Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi transformed it into a series of continuous variations over a bass. The chaconne is a similar form, but because early composers were indiscriminate in their use of the two words, it is unclear what the difference might be between them.

While no order to the set of variations is prescribed, typically there would be an increase in complexity as the piece progresses. A sample progression might include:

  • Statement of the theme alone
  • Addition of a second voice
  • Addition of a third voice
  • Addition of a fourth voice
  • Eighth note motion (for a theme originally in quarters and halves)
  • Triplets
  • Sixteenth notes
  • Suspensions
  • Arpeggios

Following the model of Johann Sebastian Bach, many passacaglias now conclude with a fugue based upon the initial bass line melody. Composers may also choose to treat the bass as a melody, adding other transformations and modulations to further develop the theme.

Pachelbel Canon:
Bach Passacaglia:

Also see La Folía.

Marcel Dupré – Improvisation: Passacaglia – Cologne Cathedral
Marcel Dupré – Improvised Passacaglia
Paul Kayser – Passacaglia over ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ – Dudelange, Luxembourg
Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard – Passacaille Improvisée sur un thème d’Escaich – Nantes, France
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: IV (Introduction and Passacaglia)
Martin Sturm – Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue on a theme of Marie-Claire Alain – Seligenporten (DE)

Becoming Grounded

One of the most magical musical experiences I ever had occurred when I was improvising a passacaglia once during communion at the Cathedral in Aix-en-Provence. Starting from a single soft pedal line, I steadily built a crescendo of sound and activity until I reached full organ before finally concluding softly. I remember feeling like I was having some sort of out of body experience as I turned to look over the railing to see how much longer I would need to play. I knew something special had happened at that moment because I was literally shaking at the end of the piece, and the priest thanked me for sharing such wonderful music when he made announcements. Perhaps the scariest part was that I knew I had to start playing again in just a moment for the Sortie!


While I have searched for years to return to that same mental state where the music just flowed out of me, I recently heard an interview with Steven Kotler (author of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance) where he identified some of the characteristics that help create this state which researchers now call “flow.” The first of the seventeen triggers that he identifies is focus. I believe as an improviser, one of the best ways to focus is to improvise over a ground bass or passacaglia. On that day in Aix, I had a bass line written out with figures above the notes to remind me of my intended harmonies. An easy place to start would be a short descending scale in major:

or minor:


The second trigger Steven Kotler identifies is to have clear goals, i.e. to know what we are doing and why. A passacaglia, not only gives us focus, it provides a clear definition of what we are to play. At Aix, I also had a reason to play that passacaglia: to provide music during the distribution of communion which would last 6-8 minutes. That was my larger goal, My shorter goal was each variation of the bass, and the immediate goal was what to play for the next chord.


The third trigger for flow is feedback. As an improviser, we receive immediate feedback on our results. This is not a test or other written assignment where we choose an answer or what to say and find out sometime later (if ever) whether we were correct or pleased the reader. Hopefully, our ear will let us know instantly if the notes we have chosen to play have met our goal or not. The other advantage of a passacaglia is the harmonic and rhythmic drive forward of the form. We use the feedback to move us forward, continuing with an idea that works, making changes to ideas that were not so successful.

Bored or anxious?

The final psychological trigger identified by Steven Kotler is the degree of difficulty of the task. If we are bored or otherwise unchallenged, we are not likely to get into flow. If the task is too daunting, we will most likely be nervous, and doubt will keep us from achieving our best performance. Flow lies somewhere in the middle where we have confidence in our skills and yet feel challenged by the task at hand. Perhaps the themes above are too simple for you. How about one of these more chromatic basses?


Regardless of the complexity of the theme, we can still challenge ourselves by increasing the harmonic complexity, increasing the tempo, increasing the rhythmic complexity, or setting other technical challenges for ourselves.

The Zone

Perhaps it’s simply because of that experience I had in Aix, but I have a special interest in passacaglias. I believe I’ve discovered part of the reason now through Steven Kotler’s seventeen triggers for flow. What forms do you improvise well? Are there any styles or processes that you use to create your best music? While I might not have told you how to improvise a passacaglia today, I hope I have given you some inspiration and reasons to do so. Hopefully this grounded form will keep you focused so that you too can enjoy that same out of this world experience that I had in Aix.

May all your improvisations be fabulous!

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Newsletter Issue 16 – 2014 08 18
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Salve Regina

Salve Regina - Solemn Tone

Salve Regina –
Solemn Tone

Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiae,
vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ,
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos
misericordes oculos ad nos converte;
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.

Salve Regina, also known as Hail Holy Queen, is one of four Marian chant antiphons sung at different seasons within the Christian liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. It is traditionally sung at compline in the time from the Saturday before Trinity Sunday until the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. It is also the final prayer of the rosary. There are two typical chant versions referred to as the solemn tone (above) and the simple tone (below). The solemn chant is in the Dorian mode while the simple chant is in the Lydian mode.

See a list of other popular chant themes here.

Salve Regina - Simple Tone

Salve Regina –
Simple Tone

Nigel Allcoat – Symphonie Improvisée on ‘Salve Regina’ – St Nicolas du Chardonnet, Paris
Wm. Glenn Osborne – Postlude on ‘Salve Regina’ – Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: I (Theme and Plein jeu)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: II (Scherzo)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: III (Meditation)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: IV (Introduction and Passacaglia)


Having served as the music of the Roman Catholic Church for hundreds of years, chant has been the subject of improvisations throughout many different stylistic periods and in many different forms.
Some popular chant themes include:

Gerre Hancock – Improvised versets on the Magnificat Solemn Tone – April 4, 2004 – St. Thomas
Otto Maria Krämer – Improvisation in Memoriam Marcel Dupré on “Ave maris stella”
Loïc Mallié Improvisation sur deux thèmes grégoriens
Olivier Messiaen – Puer Natus Est – La Trinité
Pierre Pincemaille – Conditor Alme Siderum – St. Denis
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: I (Theme and Plein jeu)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: II (Scherzo)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: III (Meditation)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: IV (Introduction and Passacaglia)