Dylan Shapiro is a contributing guest writer for CelebrityTypes. While at the time of this writing, Bach is not yet added to the site, Shapiro here states his case for why Bach is ISTJ. Hence this article does not reflect the views of the site admins, but Shapiro’s own insights and assessments, which are not necessarily the same as those of the site.
“Bach is a Colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.” – Charles Gounod
“Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder.” – Robert Schumann
By Dylan Shapiro
As the introductory quotes suggest, Johann Sebastian Bach’s reputation as a groundbreaker is well-deserved; his musical style was seminal, advancing the world of composition into a more modern paradigm from which all future music has grown. On the subject of his Jungian type, there appears to be no default assessment. However, it is likely that he was some sort of introverted type; as Manfred F. Bukofzer writes, “Bach [belonged] to the introvert type … [he] assimilated the various influences with his own personal style and thus arrived at a fusion of national styles in which the single elements are inseparable.” This is not merely behavioral introversion (i.e. reserve and quietness) but Jungian introversion, in which a subjective filter exists as a buffer between the individual and the real world. That Bach was a Jungian introvert is fairly clear, but his specific Jungian type is more difficult to discern.
From afar, one might assume that Bach’s groundbreaking oeuvre suggests that his Intuition function was high in his consciousness. But to assume so would be an error, as both N and S types have the capacity to make seminal, genius contributions. In fact, upon close inspection of Bach’s character, creative processes, and lifestyle, I will argue that his Intuition function was not high in his consciousness at all; that it was in fact inferior.
On the Bias Against ISJs and Artistic Creativity
Before defending this assessment, however, it is important to clarify a misconception about Ne, ISJs, and creativity that is prevalent in the field of Jungian typology. Many contend that, since ISJs have inferior Ne, they are inherently unimaginative individuals closed off to novelty and new ideas. This is an error. There is nothing inherent to the processes of dominant Si and inferior Ne that necessitates lack of creativity. Any type can be creative; the functions, a priori, serve only to differentiate the manner in which each type is creative.
Inferior Ne manifests in ISJs merely as a need to cautiously sift through, examine, archive and compare new ideas to the individual’s own sense impressions, like a librarian examining new books then placing them in their proper place on the library shelves. This gives most ISJs a practical, meticulous, thorough demeanor, traits which have mischaracterized them as necessarily prosaic. But this stereotype does their inner worlds a disservice. In Psychological Types, Carl Jung explains:
“If there were present a capacity and readiness for expression in any way commensurate with the strength of sensation, the irrationality of this type would be extremely evident. This is the case, for instance, when the individual is a creative artist. But, since this is the exception, it usually happens that the characteristic introverted difficulty of expression also conceals his irrationality. On the contrary, he may actually stand out by the very calmness and passivity of his demeanor, or by his rational self-control.”
Thus, to characterize all ISJs as prosaic is to wrongly equate the ISJ inner world with its outward demeanor, and thereby misconstrue the true nature of Si as a Perceiving function. According to Jung, nothing precludes an ISJ from being a creative artist. The fact that most ISJs do not pursue artistic career paths cannot be used as an argument against Bach (or other artists) being ISJs. It is only a statistic, and thus cannot be applied to specific individuals or to the definitions of the functions themselves.
All that said, the fact that an ISJ can be creative does not in itself constitute any sort of argument in favor of Bach being ISJ. All that is clear about his type without further analysis is that he was an introvert; any specific type assessment requires more justification.
Bach’s Feeling Function: Fi or Fe?
To hone in on Bach’s Jungian type, let us first discern the orientation of his Feeling function. All else being equal, people who prefer Extraverted Feeling (Fe) have a cognitive bias toward viewing people as cut from the same cloth, while people who prefer Introverted Feeling (Fi) have a cognitive bias toward viewing people as completely unique. While this does not necessarily translate to a person’s worldview, as there certainly are Fi types who believe people are essentially the same deep down and Fe types who do not, it does translate to the nature of a person’s interactions with others. For the Fe type a person’s underlying, innate nature is incidental, while for the Fi type it is essential. Thus the Fe type is more willing to sacrifice some of his (or others’) personal authenticity in order to maintain interpersonal harmony, while the reverse is true for Fi types.
Upon examining Bach’s personal demeanor and lifestyle, it becomes clear that he held his own personal ego and values above and distinct from group-wide sentiment and harmony. In Bach: Music In the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner notes that while Bach was generally “peaceful, quiet, and even-tempered,” he was also “irascible and prickly whenever he felt his own authority as a musician … was being challenged,” or “when … anyone slighted art, which was sacred to him.” In other words, whenever the interpersonal situation clashed with the values his own ego held dear, he would unfailingly stand with his personal ideals even if it gave him a reputation of “constitutional truculence” as Gardiner calls it.
In addition, despite his peaceful day-to-day disposition, there is no evidence that Bach ever sought to build bridges between his own disposition and that of others’, but there is ample evidence that he was unfailingly sincere. Indeed, he once said, “If I decide to be an idiot, then I’ll be an idiot on my own accord”: A testament to his commitment to personal integrity, perhaps, even in situations where it would be inappropriate.
However, such attitudes are not beyond Fe types with Narcissistic traits. Upon examining Bach’s character, however, one finds little evidence of Narcissistic traits at all; in fact, he was quite modest in proportion to his immense talent. On his talent at playing an instrument, Bach remarked, “There is nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time, and the instrument plays itself.” And on the topic of his own success and creativity, Bach said, “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious would succeed equally well.” This modesty is completely antithetical to the “Expressively Haughty” and “Admirable Self-Image” facets of the Narcissistic personality style, which foster in the individual an exaggerated sense of self-worth that they are continuously inclined to express.
Thus, one can assume Bach’s argumentativeness and non-conformity were genuine attitudes ingrained in his inner character rather than behavioral flourishes caused by the Narcissistic personality style. Similarly, one can assume Bach’s generally peaceful default disposition was simply a facet of his own nature and thus subject to his own emotional fluctuations; it was not a disposition borne of attempts to foster relational harmony. Thus, Bach’s Feeling function was introverted, which places him on the Te/Fi axis. Given that Bach was an introvert, we are thus left with four types: ISTJ, INTJ, INFP, or ISFP.
Why Bach Is Si, Not Ni
To further narrow down his type, let us examine Bach’s Perceiving (Intuition/Sensing) axis. If he had an Ni/Se axis, he would have been either INTJ or ISFP, and if he rested on the Ne/Si axis, he was either ISTJ or INFP. All else being equal, people who rest on the Ni/Se axis tend to express narrower, more singular viewpoints or insights which tend to yield the most intense manifestation of the idea or object in the here and now. By contrast, those who rest on the Ne/Si axis tend to express broader, more multifarious viewpoints or insights, eschewing intensity for nuance.
As Bach’s reputation attests, his musical oeuvre was regarded by posterity as comprehensive and all-encompassing, like “an encyclopedia of historical styles and idioms” filtered through his own personal style. But though this tremendous breadth and comprehensiveness could suggest the multifaceted nature of the Ne/Si axis over the singular nature of the Ni/Se axis, nothing precludes an Ni/Se type from creating something comprehensive. In fact, because Bach was a genius, we can assume that he would be a seminal, comprehensive figure in the field of music regardless of his type.
To discern which aspects of Bach’s music relate to his Jungian type and which aspects simply relate to his genius or compositional methods, I have contrasted him with another musical genius who demonstrably rests on the Ni/Se axis: Johannes Brahms, whom I have assessed to be INTJ. Though the two composers are from different musical eras and thus will of course have differences between them not related to their types, the comparison remains apt. Brahms cited Bach as one of his most profound influences, saying, “Study Bach. There you will find everything.” And for good reason: Both Bach and Brahms were masters of counterpoint, the rule-bound style that provides much of Bach’s music’s intricacy and nuance. Thus, the two composers can be compared.
Despite the rigid, venerable nature of both of their musical styles, Bach’s underlying creative processes could not be more different than Brahms’s. On the topic of Bach’s creative processes, John Eliot Gardiner writes:
“Bach’s [method] was the classic method. First you study your models – transcribe them, add layers of preface or commentary to them, and then assimilate them so fully into your creative processes that, at a stroke, you have a vocabulary with a multiplicity of techniques and styles at your fingertips, all in the cause of being as comprehensive and all-encompassing as you possibly can.”
Such a method is reminiscent of the cautious, librarian-like dominant Si/inferior Ne approach delineated earlier. For Bach’s creative processes to work at their highest efficiency, he felt a need to sift through and internalize all the details and methods to be used, for with that knowledge at hand, he had a complete musical “vocabulary” and thus could compose with certainty and order. A specific instance of this methodology at work was in Bach’s “Mass in B Minor,” regarded by many as the apex of Bach’s career. On Bach’s composition process while writing the Mass, Gardiner writes:
“His twin aspirations in completing [the Mass in B Minor are] to encompass within a single work an encyclopedic survey of all the styles he most cherished in the music of his own and of earlier times, and to achieve perfection in the execution of that work. … His preparations were meticulous, characteristic of the exercises he deliberately undertook every time he committed himself to formulating a definite statement … First came considerations of basic structure, logistics, and style … The next stage was to refer back to his earlier compositions, both sacred and secular. It is extraordinary how unerringly Bach’s memory store seems to have guided him to the perfect choice from pre-existing movements.”
Bach’s creative processes here once again fit the expected mental processes of dominant Si with their meticulous, cautious, comprehensive approach. Fascinatingly, they also provide a clue into his own artistic ambition: He wanted to fill the Mass with an “encyclopedic survey” of all his personal influences. In other words, one of Bach’s primary goals when writing the Mass in B Minor was to use the Mass to externalize and express his own sense impressions that pertained to the music he loved. This goal fits with what Jung might expect an Si-dominant creative artist’s artistic ambition to be: To “express” the individual’s “strength of sensation” (and thus his inner world). Additionally, the Mass in B Minor perfectly encapsulates Bukofzer’s description of Bach’s introverted musical style. When Bukofzer is taken together with Gardiner, therefore, Bach emerges as an example of an Si-dominant creative artist.
In addition, contrast Bach’s creative process with Brahms’s, which I will here use as an example of Introverted Intuition (Ni). When asked to describe his own creativity, Brahms explained:
“When I feel the [creative] urge I begin by … asking the three most important questions pertaining to our life here in this world – whence, wherefore, whither? I immediately feel vibrations that thrill my whole being. … In this exalted state, I see clearly what is obscure in my ordinary moods … those vibrations assume the forms of distinct mental images, [and] the ideas flow in upon me … and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies and orchestration. Measure by measure, the finished product is revealed to me … [but] the ideas … came in instantaneous flashes and quickly faded away again, unless I fixed them on paper. … I felt that I was, for the moment, in tune with the Infinite, and there is no thrill like it.”
Brahms’s creative approach has two crucial differences from Bach’s: Its manner and its source of inspiration. In terms of manner, Bach’s approach is careful, cautious, and scrupulous: Slow and steady, undergirded with a great deal of conscious thought and memory. Brahms’s approach lacks Bach’s detail-oriented meticulousness, and is instead more exalted and revelatory, catching a glimpse of the indissoluble, total composition “clothed in the right orchestration” and then writing it down in whirling leaps and bounds. This is exactly the contrast one might expect between an Si-dominant type and an Ni-dominant type. Though both composers employ similarly rigid compositional methods, their underlying creative processes are not at all alike.
Furthermore, where Bach stimulated himself to write new music through immersing himself in old compositions and the musical styles he loved, Brahms had an inclination toward the ideational and abstract. He stimulated his “Muse” through contemplation of philosophical ideas and ideals, and the music sprouted from that. His processes were not born of the object itself, but of the ideas and associations that the object conjured up.
If the reader will then agree that Bach was more likely to have had an Si/Ne axis, we can reduce our four possible types (ISTJ, INTJ, INFP, or ISFP) to only two: ISTJ and INFP.
Why Bach’s Te Was Superior to His Fi
If Bach were INFP, his inferior function would be Extraverted Thinking (Te) and his dominant function would be Fi. But though Bach’s personal values and integrity were important to him, and though much of his music evokes a sublime sense of feeling, in his actual personality Te seems to take precedence over Fi. Paul Nettl writes:
“Bach’s educational character may, in addition, be observed in his literary hand. His letters and applications, with their clear and distinct pen, reflect his magnificent sense for order and organization. These letters are, one might surmise, the counterpart of his fugues and ricercares, of his inventions in double counterpoint. Not the slightest clue towards uncontrolled emotionalism is seen in his hand. Everything is planned. What a contrast to Beethoven!”
This passage suggests that Bach’s Fi was subservient to his Te, since his letters eschewed unfiltered emotionality in favor of order, planning, and clarity. An Fi-dominant type, for whom personal values, feelings, and ideals are held in the highest esteem, would be likely to find this approach stifling and objectionable. By contrast Beethoven, whom I assess to be INFP, radiated passion, authenticity, and romanticism in his writing, very much at the expense of order. While Beethoven’s writings thus appear to exhibit the hallmarks of dominant Fi and inferior Te, Bach’s do not.
That said, many factors can influence an individual’s writing style, and thus that alone is not an especially strong argument. But in Bach’s case, the prioritization of order, planning, logic, and clarity over personal sentiment, empathy, and emotional truth is evident elsewhere in his life. For example, Bach’s teaching style emphasized competence and habit, and proficiency over creative freedom. According to Nettl, “Bach did not encourage his students to compose freely until they had reached a very high degree of proficiency … even in the case of his own children, Bach held off the teaching of composition until he was convinced that they could be classified as ‘near-genius.’” In other words, Bach refused to allow any of his students to compose until they met his objective standards for “worthiness” of learning the art. Whether or not the students were eager and passionate about learning composition or needed creative stimulation was irrelevant to Bach’s selection of composition students; all that mattered was that they met his standards of measurable proficiency. Once again, this attitude suggests that Bach’s Te supersedes his Fi, since he prioritizes the impersonal, measurable standards of competence and proficiency over the subjective, personal standards of passion and need for creative freedom.
Given the instances that I have here reviewed, it is unlikely that Bach’s Te function was inferior. On the contrary, it seems high in his consciousness, above his Fi. While his own personal values were important to him and while his own music could be emotionally powerful, those areas seem to comprise the extent of his Fi function’s influence in his own life.
I would therefore argue that Bach’s Te supersedes Fi in consciousness, thus making Bach ISTJ.
Bach and Inferior Ne
If we accept the ISTJ typing as valid, there exist two notable anomalies: First, that Bach was a skilled improviser, who according to Eric Barnhill “put improvisation skills at the center of his teaching”; and second, that Bach was regarded as a groundbreaker. One might assume, given this, that Bach’s Ne was not inferior because improvising goes against the cautious, librarian-like nature of inferior Ne, and that Bach’s Ne was not inferior because his musical system was so seminal.
As to our first reservation, musical improvisation is not the same as colloquial improvisation. The latter relies exclusively on in-the-moment spontaneity and adaptability. Rather, musical improvisation requires a combination of knowledge, adaptability, and preparation. Though Bach was a talented musical improviser, the manner in which he improvised has been described by Barnhill as follows, “Most of [Bach’s] instructional manuals are how-to books in improvisation.” Bach excelled at improvisation due to knowledge and preparation at least as much as because of his ability to adapt. He felt the need to write manuals on the subject, clearly delineating the “rules of improvisation” in a manner that was instructive and rule-bound. Bach’s improvisations were specific and reliable without relying on any sort of free-flowing adaptability or on-the-fly caprices.
It also is an error to say that because Bach’s music was seminal and groundbreaking, he thus had non-inferior Ne. In fact, Jung regarded the creative process as entirely distinct from the functions themselves. He believed it to be a “Transcendent Process” that elevated all four functions into a higher state of efficiency and perceptiveness. It is my contention, though, that the Transcendent Process does not change the qualitative nature of the functions, but merely their strength. In other words, inferior Ne in the thrall of the Transcendent Process may be as powerful as dominant Ne, but will still exhibit the hallmark of the inferior function—that it is inextricably fused with the dominant function. If we view Bach’s oeuvre as a product of the Transcendent Process, a surprising conclusion becomes apparent: it is precisely because he had inferior Ne that his music was groundbreaking and comprehensive in the way it was.
Bach’s music was innovative and multifaceted, just as one would expect from a composer with highly conscious Ne. But while the Ne type would compose in flights of fancy that leap inventively from nuance to nuance, touching upon each only briefly, Bach composed in a rigorous, meticulous, painstaking manner in which every detail was sifted through and brought to perfect accordance with his own personal sense impressions. Indeed, for Bach innovation was not even a matter of conscious invention, but of uncovering all the hidden details. John Eliot Gardiner notes: “[Inventiveness] does not always appear to have come naturally or fluently to Bach himself. For him invention was an uncovering of possibilities that are already there, rather than something truly original.”
Like any Si type, Bach sought to “form a comprehensive mental archive of the facts that are known with certitude in order to achieve an impressive and masterful command of the intricacies of his world.” But since Bach was a composer, his “facts” were the nuances of specific musical styles and compositional techniques. And so Bach sought to discover and internalize these nuances and then convey his impressions of them perfectly in his music.
Gordon Getty once said, “I do not think that music keeps evolving. It evolved through Bach; since then, in my humble opinion, all the innovations added nothing.” Though this is an exaggeration, it points toward an interesting truth. Bach, as an ISTJ, did the Ne type’s work backward. Through its scrupulous, thorough uncovering of hidden possibilities, Bach’s dominant Si swept his inferior Ne along with it, and in his attempts to externalize his own sense impressions he was seminally inventive and broke immense new ground.
- Arrington: Imagining Function Axes (CelebrityTypes 2015)
- Bevir: The Psychological Aesthetics of INTJ (CelebrityTypes 2014)
- Bukofzer: Music in the Baroque Era (W. W. Norton & Company 1947)
- Gardiner: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Vintage 2013)
- Gregersen & Smith: Determining Function Axes 1 (CelebrityTypes 2012)
- Gregersen & Smith: On the Bias Against Sensation (CelebrityTypes 2013)
- Gregersen & Smith: The Transcendent Function in Artists and Musicians (CelebrityTypes 2013)
 In his essay “The Psychological Aesthetics of INTJ,” Lawrence Bevir makes an excellent case for Beethoven’s music being indicative of the common INTJ aesthetic. However, one cannot extrapolate from this conclusion that Beethoven himself was INTJ, since mental contents do not equal mental processes. Upon inspection of Beethoven’s personality, there are reasons to doubt the notion that he himself was an INTJ. First, as mentioned above, he prioritized personal sentiments and values over structure, logic, and order (which implies that his Fi superseded his Te). Secondly, his compositional process was based around step-by-step, free-flowing brainstorming and idea generation, without being bound to any indissoluble vision held from the start. This implies he preferred Ne, not Ni. Contrasting Beethoven’s creative process with Brahms’s makes this difference clear.