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ChoraleGUIDE: writing four-part harmony in the style of Bach

Harmonic DOs and DON'Ts

A brief list of things to aim for and to avoid in terms of chords and harmonic progressions.

Do Don't

  • Keep most of the harmony simple by starting from stage one and only harmonic changes that are necessary in order to improve the bassline

  • Use characteristic progressions from Bach's own chorales as often as you can

  • Ib and VI are the best approach chords to IIb7 in the run up to a cadence

  • All other things being equal, it is a good idea to keep a root position I on the first strong beat of a chorale or its upbeat (in fact, this is not a bad rule of thumb for all phrases)

  • Root progressions using falling thirds (e.g. VI to IV and I to VI) are much better than those using rising thirds

  • If you use the same chord twice in a row, make sure that one is in root position and one is in first inversion

  • Don't use second inversions other than IC in IC - V - I

  • Avoid progressions using II other than as an approach chord to V

  • Don't use II in root position in minor keys (it is a diminished chord)

  • Don't use III other than as an approach to VI and avoid in minor keys altogether

  • Avoid progressions between IV and V unless the melody is going in the opposite direction to the root progression of the two chords (same goes for V and VI)

  • Only use VI in root position (but VI is otherwise the most flexible secondary chord - it can progress effectively to IV, V and

  • Don't use VII other than as VIIb resolving either to I or Ib ii7b)

  • Don't repeat the bass note (except from the upbeat to the downbeat in an anacrusic first phrase and in IC-V or V4-3)

  • Donít use passing notes in inner voices (except for at cadences) unless you are sure you know what you are doing (rising sixths and falling sevenths work best)

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© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst