There has been some debate as to whether Bach actually wrote the piece at all. The only manuscript of the work that has survived to the present day was penned by Johannes Ringk, who attributes the piece to Bach; this copy also lacks a date, but is thought to have been written somewhere between 1730 and 1735. The work itself contains a number of stylistic anachronisms, such as the large lack of counterpoint in the toccata, the fugue utilizing subdominant rather than dominant answers, and wrapping up on a plagal cadence, among others. (Then again, the later styles had to draw their inspiration from somewhere — perhaps they drew their inspiration from this piece, and Bach actually started it all!) Another theory is that it was written down poorly by one of Bach's students. Another school of thought holds that it may have been originally written for solo violin (possibly by Bach but likely by another unknown composer), and then transcribed by Bach for the organ; several attempts to reconstruct the piece in this manner have been produced. Bach's most recent biographer Christoph Wolff believes that it's definitely by Bach, but that its stylistic oddities can be explained by its being an early work.
Note that Bach actually wrote two sets of pieces entitled Toccata and Fugue in D minor, but the second (BWV 538) is set apart by its toccata being in the Dorian mode (using a key signature usually used for A minor, i.e. no sharps or flats) for the majority of its duration, a component which gives BWV 538 the "Dorian" nickname in the music world. The fugue is, however, in the traditional natural minor scale (Aeolian mode). This piece is, of course, nowhere near as well-known as BWV 565.
Examples of works featuring the Toccata:
- In the original Sailor Moon anime, Eudial plays the opening chords after luring Sailors Uranus and Neptune into a church filled with traps.
- The cassette tape board game Shrieks & Creeks plays this in the background during the audio instructions.
- A fully orchestrated, but slightly truncated version serves as the centerpiece of Fantasia's first segment, set to increasingly trippy visuals.
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo has a pipe organ onboard the Nautilus, and plays the Toccata along with a good deal of improvisation.
- 1962's The Phantom of the Opera was the first adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel to add the music piece.
- The Great Race: Professor Fate has a pipe organ in his mansion, complete with the requisite rendition of the Toccata. Played with in that it's a player pipe organ all he does is pump the pedals.
- Got remixed in the soundtrack of Ocean's 8, although without the opening bars.
- In 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Dr. Lao presents "The Fall of the City" at his circus. The Toccata portion plays as the city is being destroyed by lava.
- Monty Python's The Meaning of Life: This music plays during the "Boys Vs. Masters" rugby match.
- In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Justice for All, the Toccata plays in Phoenix's nightmare sequence at the beginning (as well as its Dark Reprise near the end of the game, where he learns the truth about Matt Engarde). When he wakes up, he realizes it is the ringtone of a cell phone that was left with him for some reason and which ends up being a key piece of evidence in the first case: the phone in question belonged to the culprit, who took Phoenix's identical-looking phone by mistake when he beaned him upside the head and gave him amnesia with the intent of making him lose the case.
- Saints Row IV: The Toccata can be heard on the radio. The Big Bad Zinyak hates it when people call it "the Dracula song," to the point of executing anybody who does.
- Peggle plays the first three notes when you obtain the Spooky Ball powerup. The next six notes play when the powerup takes effect.
- Mutant League Hockey: Randomized snippets of the first few bars play during face-offs.
- Final Fantasy VI: In arguably the greatest piece of video game music of all time, the epic final boss theme "Dancing Mad", the third movement takes heavy inspiration from Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. And by "heavy inspiration" we mean "entire sections of the melody lifted directly from Bach."
- The Battle of Olympus plays it in the gods' temples.
- The NES Unlicensed Game Castle of Deceit uses the Fugue part for boss battles.
- In the American Dad! episode "Phantom of the Telethon", as part of Roger's Phantom of the Opera-style persona that he took on to sabotage Stan's telethon, he orders a pipe organ but ends up with just an electric keyboard that plays the Toccata in a ska style.
- In the Francophone world, it's known for being the theme song for the edutainment show Il était une fois... l'Homme (Once Upon a Time... Man), rendered by a MOOG synthesizer. Notwithstanding the educational purpose of the show, the intro fully embraces the tune's horror associations. The intro starts with a sequence of evolutions that come to create mankind and then it shows various cultures and eras mankind has experienced, giving the whole a chaotic and dramatic feel but nothing "bad" so far. In the final seconds, the intro makes a prediction that soon mankind will fall to chaos, will turn on each other, and will have to leave Earth as its destruction rapidly approaches. Only a few will survive.