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

Voice-leading in Bach Chorales

[Download Double SLAP and Harmonic DOs and DON'Ts (PDF)]

Composers have always paid careful attention to way in which their melodic lines work with each other, as well as to the individual shapes of the lines themselves. The way in which the voices lead from one note to the next is called voice-leading.

The texture of chorales is very simple, with all four voices are moving together, so anything awkward stands out very obviously. Bach is therefore particularly careful with the voice-leading in chorales, although the same basic principles are followed in virtually all tonal music. Whatever style of music you are composing or arranging in, you need to pay at least as much attention to voice-leading as to harmony, which is one reason why Bach chorales provide such good training for musicians.

The list below provides a handy way of remembering things that you need to check for in your chorales, which I have arranged in the form of a mnemonic. The Double SLAP is so called because your teacher might slap you on the wrist for making these mistakes (if corporal punishment were not considered bad practice these days). It is a double slap because there are two voice-leading problems for each letter. Click in the table below for a full explanation of each of these common problems and how to avoid them. Harmonic guidelines are discussed separately in the DOs and DON'Ts section and the Bach chorale method outlines a suggested way of working.

Double Doubling
S Spacing Suspensions
L Leaps Leading notes
A Accidentals Augmented and diminshed intervals
P Parallels Passing sevenths

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© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst