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

Voice-leading in Bach chorales: Leaps

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What's wrong with leaping?

Although there are plenty of leaps in Bach's chorales, he always is careful not to lose the sense of melodic line. The bass part tends to leap a bit more than the alto and tenor, which are as straightforward and stepwise as possible. The inner parts anchor the texture and make the progression of chords sound smooth and coherent. The bass line (like the soprano) tends to have a slightly more interesting melody. If your parts are awkward to sing, then you have probably got too many leaps.

What do I have to remember?

The following guidelines will help you write parts that are typical of Bach's chorale style. They are not really rules, but they should steer you in the right direction. Learning how to balance leaps and steps in a chorale in order to create an effective texture will be excellent for your composing and arranging skills as well as showing you how the apparently effortless textures in Classical music take great skill and care to achieve.

Bass line

  • Bach's bass lines usually have more steps than leaps
  • They often consist of several stepwise progressions separated by leaps
  • Cadences usually involve leaping
  • A leap will often be balanced by stepwise motion in the opposite direction
  • Bass lines hardly ever repeat a note consecutively
  • Don't leap more than a fifth (with the exception of an octave)
  • Avoid leaping twice in the same direction (unless you are going up or down the notes of a triad)
  • This last point also applies to non-fingerprint cadences - if you are leaping twice into the cadence, try to ensure that it is in opposite direction

Inner parts (alto and tenor)

  • Inner parts anchor the texture and should therefore leap much less than the bass - boring is good!
  • Consecutively repeated notes are preferred - Where there is a common tone between two chords, keep it in the same voice
  • The last four rules above also apply to the inner parts

The following has example has typical bass and inner parts that follow the above guidelines:

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© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst