Four-part Har­mony

Bridget Mer­mikides ex­plains the prin­ci­ples and prac­tice of four-part har­mony, and how un­der­stand­ing it can make you a more rounded mu­si­cian and more knowl­edgable gui­tarist.

Guitar Techniques - - Play: Theory -

The his­tory of four-part har­mony, based on the sim­ple idea of four voices sing­ing in har­mony, is the cor­ner­stone of Western mu­sic and its in­flu­ence can be heard across the cen­turies, from Bach to The Bea­tles and far be­yond. It can be found in count­less chorales, piano pieces, brass, wind or string quar­tets, songs and even in the ba­sic con­cept of chords them­selves. A com­plete study of four-part har­mony would take years to com­plete, but look­ing at its main prin­ci­ples is a fas­ci­nat­ing and ex­tremely worth­while thing to do.

First of all, most cour­ses on four-part har­mony – aka four-part writ­ing, SATB (So­prano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) etc – might seem like a se­ries of rules to mem­o­rise and strictly fol­low, in order to avoid ‘do­ing it wrong’. The re­al­ity is that these ‘rules’ ac­tu­ally emerged from the pur­suit of mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion rather than the other way around. Once you un­der­stand the ba­sic aims and prin­ci­ples of four-part har­mony, it be­comes eas­ier to ab­sorb and ap­pre­ci­ate these ‘rules’ not as ab­stract ideas, but as evolv­ing from core mu­si­cal prin­ci­ples. These prin­ci­ples might be sum­marised as…

Singa­bil­ity: Ev­ery part must be singable by a hu­man, and this has im­pli­ca­tions on the range and con­tour of each of the four voices. This means that the range of each voice is well de­fined and most melodies are con­fined to same-note, step-wise (scale) mo­tion or well-con­sid­ered leaps (chord tones).

In­de­pen­dence: Each voice should have its own in­de­pen­dent melody. The won­der­ful ef­fect of good four-part writ­ing is that har­mony emerges from mul­ti­ple si­mul­ta­ne­ous melodies rather than as ba­sic block chords. When two or more voices move to­gether with too much sim­i­lar­ity, this jeop­ar­dises that ef­fect.

Mu­si­cal logic and bal­ance: In­her­ent in the craft of four-part har­mony is a beau­ti­ful mu­si­cal logic, and a sense of ten­sion and re­lease that the lis­tener can ap­pre­ci­ate. This can be found ‘ver­ti­cally’, in that the chords pro­duced have a bal­anced use of dis­so­nance and con­so­nance. Tense chords will have a ten­dency to re­solve to chords that sound more ‘seated’ – these gen­er­ally start and end mu­si­cal phrases. Each chord will be nei­ther bland, nor too es­o­teric for the style. Each voice will also have a ‘hor­i­zon­tal’ logic (which

The re­al­ity is that the rules of har­mony emerged from the pur­suit of mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion, rather than the other way around.

ac­tu­ally helps them be singable), in that cer­tain tones will have a ten­dency to re­solve in cer­tain di­rec­tions, and leaps are bal­anced, in that you won’t hear too many con­sec­u­tive leaps up or down.

These three ba­sic prin­ci­ples ex­plain all the ‘rules’ or guide­lines you might hear. You might, for ex­am­ple, have heard of the avoid­ance of par­al­lel oc­taves in four-part writ­ing. Why would this be a prob­lem? Be­cause two voices that move to­gether in oc­taves sound like one mu­si­cal line, thus jeop­ar­dis­ing the in­de­pen­dence of the voices in the mu­si­cal pas­sage.

You might also hear that you should never dou­ble the 7th note of the key (known as a lead­ing tone). Why? Be­cause a lead­ing tone has a strong ten­dency to re­solve up to the tonic, and so each voice sing­ing a lead­ing tone will ei­ther move to­gether (mak­ing them no longer in­de­pen­dent) or if they don’t, then one of the voices is likely to not sound log­i­cal. And that’s why such things as par­al­lel oc­taves and dou­bled lead­ing tones are rare – be­cause they are likely to jeopardise a mu­si­cal prin­ci­ple (and not sound good), not be­cause they vi­o­late some ar­bi­trary ‘rule’. That said, there are ex­am­ples – even from such mas­ters of four-part har­mony as J S Bach – of ‘for­bid­den’ par­al­lel mo­tion and the like. Why? Be­cause, at that mo­ment, other mu­si­cal im­per­a­tives of melody and nar­ra­tive were more im­por­tant than the three prin­ci­ples. It’s mu­sic first, and the ‘rules’ should be un­der­stood for what they are – merely stylis­tic guide­lines.

Now let’s fo­cus on some tech­niques of four-part writ­ing through a num­ber of ex­am­ples ar­ranged for the guitar, which will help you un­der­stand, ar­range and compose a wide range of mu­sic. We’ll en­counter some ‘rules’ on the way, but they will all be in the ser­vice of ‘singa­bil­ity, in­de­pen­dence and mu­si­cal logic’. You’ll get the most from these if, for each ex­am­ple, you learn to sing along each part (if you can reach it) or, bet­ter still, do so with other peo­ple.

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