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Staccato

Why are parallel fifths/eights so dreaded?

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Since I've never officially learnt composition, I'm unfamiliar with the 'no 5ths/8ths' doctrine. I just happened to come across it a number of times on Sibeliusmusic. Could anyone please explain it to me?

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The rule comes from Bach's point-counterpoint constructions. If I remember correctly from my theory class, the voices *harmonizing* the melody can't have parallel 5th or 8ths. Actually, all parallel constructions, no matter what intervals, are frowned upon. That doesn't mean the melody can't be played with parallel 5ths or octaves.

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Actually, it's a practice older than Bach. It comes from vocal music of the Renaissance era. Anyway, when two voices sing either in fifths or octaves, when before they were singing other intervals, it seems to the listener as though one voice "disappears" momentarily into the other, and the texture seems to suddenly thin out.

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I'm sure I've heard parallel fifths in very early music! Quite deliberate too!

And I must confess that I don't remember being taught about parallel eigths. It's a new one to me.

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scott is quite right. it is a rule of good part writing. parallel fifths and octaves don't sound good (asthetics). while these laws must be learned, frequently they can not always be followed. composers use parallel fourths, fifths and octaves for effect in writing.

[This message has been edited by Bobby (edited 04-18-2002).]

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More modern composers like Debussy used them. I don't think it's something modern composers need to worry about. If you are writing in the style of Bach then that's a different matter...

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First of all this isn't a "law". Styleistically in some music these are avoided. However "parallel organum" as it is called usually at the third or sixth but also at the fourth, fifth, and octave was used.

In my own studies I have found parallel fifths and octaves in Bach's music. It is the exception not the rule. What Bach was more concerned with was doing that which made musical sense and contributed to the flow of the melodic or harmonic line.

You have to realize that all these composers, though they may have studied the music of their predecessors furthered the art of music with their own contributions.

If you want an example of 18th century counterpoint or style which more closely follows the "rules" I suggest you study Handel. He was very clever and inventive coloring within the lines, whereas Bach threw most of the lines away and did amazing things.

Now in contemporary composition you need to consider that any sound or silence may preceed or follow any other sound or silence. Rather you should think about how music flows. All good compositions do one thing, they flow like water. Music is an art in time. The music happens in the motion, it is not just a collection of vertical harmonies rather it is linear.

Also pattern is important. Think of a tree. A tree works from the premise of simple structures combining to form a branching pattern.

If you build your basic motivic shapes then combine them they turn to branches which grow and form an overall coherent shape. All this happens in time.

The inherent problem with parallel fifths and fourths (their inversion) is that they are very powerful and can easily overpower any other event happening. (Parallel octaves are quite useful especially when orchestrating.) When used sparingly they can be profoundly effective and make a powerful statement. Too much though is like putting a whole bulb of garlic in the soup, you can taste nothing else but the garlic. It is fine if you intend to make garlic soup, it will not have universal appeal though.

Personally I love garlic and it is great for your heart, but that is another discussion.

Sorry to ramble so, I hope I said something which made some sense.

Regards,

Don Crandall

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Strange Fact: In Ein Heldenleben, Richard Strauss uses parallel fifths to portray Dehring (as in "only an idiot like him would be stupid enough to use parallel fifths").

Parallel thirds are quite common, though.

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My composition prof explained it this way: "If you want parallel fifths in your music, move to China an you'll fit right it. If you want to drown out the harmonies, put in octaves everywhere you can."

Sounds simple enough to me!

Ava

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My theory professor had a response to any questions regarding these "inconsistencies"

"Rules are meant to be broken. But you have to learn the rules before you can break them."

BTW, he said Mozart started writing Bach counterpoints when he was 8. He did this religiously like playing scales on a violin. No wonder he was prolific composer. smile.gif

[This message has been edited by Pennstater (edited 04-18-2002).]

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Thanks everyone. I just went through some of my (very amateurish) compositions and found them to be teeming with parallel fifths and octaves.(Yikes!) Maybe trimming them well will be a lesson in harmony.

quote:

Originally posted by MrWoof:

All good compositions do one thing, they flow like water. Music is an art in time. The music happens in the motion, it is not just a collection of vertical harmonies rather it is linear.

I must add this to my list of quotable quotes. smile.gif

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Melody overrides the rules.

Maybe that can be a rule too.

It's an advanced concept, I'm beginning to see now, but I didn't study it in depth when at school, as a child. (I spent 2 years in a special music school).

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quote:

Originally posted by Staccato:

Thanks everyone. I just went through some of my (very amateurish) compositions and found them to be teeming with parallel fifths and octaves.(Yikes!) Maybe trimming them well will be a lesson in harmony.

I must add this to my list of quotable quotes.
smile.gif

<blushing> Geez did I say that! Well heck yeah you can quote me, but be warned I have been correct in my assumptions occaisionally.

LOL

Don Crandall

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quote:

Originally posted by Tropicalfruitmom:

My composition prof explained it this way: "If you want parallel fifths in your music, move to China an you'll fit right it. If you want to drown out the harmonies, put in octaves everywhere you can."

Sounds simple enough to me!

Ava

It is simple, too simple in fact. Rather than learn how to use these dramatically his advice has the effect of preventing you from experimenting to see how they can augment your composition.

Imagine coming to a point in a piece where the tension is building and you begin with the strings ascending with parallel fifths, then the woodwinds double this and also add a fourth, timpany begins rising in a tremolo till finally a gong sounds and the horns begin a descent in fifths joined in like manner with the other brass while the strings and woodwinds continue softly shimmering on the last and highest pitch they played. This all dissapates till nothing but the violas are shimmering on a C. A piccolo begins a light bird trill like melody which is picked up in the oboe. Underneath the violins and cello begin a pizz. harmony using major and minor seconds.

Neat huh, it is an idea which could yield something good.

Would that be "wrong" or drown out the melody? I think not, rather I think that the audience would be transfixed. You have to think outside the box into the world of motion and shape. From that you can generate a profoundly beautiful melodic line.

Begin by watching how a river carves it's path through the land or how the lightning branches through the sky. The music is all around us, nature has given us marvelous models to copy, we just need to give them voice.

Pax and good luck,

Don Crandall

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don, i have to hand it to you. you took us on a journey through your discription! (whoops on my brief post, btw blush.gif. should have written more clearly.) thanks don.

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I arrived a bit late to this thread. However, I still don't find the actual answer to the question, which is:

In certain types of Organum (12th, 13th century) parallel fifths and octaves were used to "harmonize" the melody. It is easy to understand that this merely involves a vertical expansion of the melody, and that there is no independence of voice parts.

When counterpoint proper developed (that is, multiple voices melodically independent of each other), the two main intervals of parallel organum, namely fifths and octaves, came to be forbidden as consecutive intervals in order to emphasize the difference between counterpoint and organum. It is of course impossible to avoid consecutives of any description at all, and parallel thirds and sixths (about the only consonances left after fifhts and octaves) were certainly never prohibited or avoided.

It is therefore important to understand that the prohibition of consecutive fifths and octaves originated as a stylistic and academic matter, not one of aesthetics. I have always found it hard to believe that anyboday can find these sounding "bad". In a certain context (most 14th to 19th century music) it may sound "wrong" to some educated musicians, for sure, but this is simply because it is stylistically out of context.

Students of counterpoint and harmony have to follow the constraints of a given style. If you harmonize a chorale melody, you avoid consecutive fifts and octaves as a matter of stylistic and academic discipline. On the other hand, if you do the same with an exercise in the style of Cesar Franck or Debussy, for instance, you would be found equally wanting if you applied the same stylistic rule of avoiding them.

It may also be useful to understand why the two above-mentioned composers, amongst others, used these consecutives. In the case of Franck, his written compositions apparently closely resemble his improvisations (he was an organist). For obvious reasons, it is neither as easy to avoid nor as easy to recognise these consecutives in improvised music (most people I know can see such consecutives much easier in a written score than they can recognize them aurally in a dense musical texture. Franck's relaxed attitude to consecutives is in any case a bit of an aberration for this period.

In the case of Debussy, who had a keenly developed sense of counterpoint, consecutive fifhts and octaves are used much the same way as in early organum, namely as vertical expansions of the melody. His style of contrapuntal "chords" rather than "voices" is sometimes labelled "layer counterpoint".

The bottom line is, consecutive fifths and octaves have never been freely accepted in ANY style of counterpoint. Therefore, when you see them, look for these reasons (other that a simple "mistake"): "layer (chordal)counterpoint"; an improvisatory and mainly chordal style; special effects (imitating exotic music, etc.).

[This message has been edited by Jacob (edited 04-21-2002).]

[This message has been edited by Jacob (edited 04-21-2002).]

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quote:

Originally posted by Jacob:

I arrived a bit late to this thread. However, I still don't find the actual answer to the question, which is:

In certain types of Organum (12th, 13th century) parallel fifths and octaves were used to "harmonize" the melody. It is easy to understand that this merely involves a vertical expansion of the melody, and that there is no independence of voice parts.

When counterpoint proper developed (that is, multiple voices melodically independent of each other), the two main intervals of parallel organum, namely fifths and octaves, came to be forbidden as consecutive intervals in order to emphasize the difference between counterpoint and organum. It is of course impossible to avoid consecutives of any description at all, and parallel thirds and sixths (about the only consonances left after fifhts and octaves) were certainly never prohibited or avoided.

It is therefore important to understand that the prohibition of consecutive fifths and octaves originated as a stylistic and academic matter, not one of aesthetics. I have always found it hard to believe that anyboday can find these sounding "bad". In a certain context (most 14th to 19th century music) it may sound "wrong" to some educated musicians, for sure, but this is simply because it is stylistically out of context.

Students of counterpoint and harmony have to follow the constraints of a given style. If you harmonize a chorale melody, you avoid consecutive fifts and octaves as a matter of stylistic and academic discipline. On the other hand, if you do the same with an exercise in the style of Cesar Franck or Debussy, for instance, you would be found equally wanting if you applied the same stylistic rule of avoiding them.

It may also be useful to understand why the two above-mentioned composers, amongst others, used these consecutives. In the case of Franck, his written compositions apparently closely resemble his improvisations (he was an organist). For obvious reasons, it is neither as easy to avoid nor as easy to recognise these consecutives in improvised music (most people I know can see such consecutives much easier in a written score than they can recognize them aurally in a dense musical texture. Franck's relaxed attitude to consecutives is in any case a bit of an aberration for this period.

In the case of Debussy, who had a keenly developed sense of counterpoint, consecutive fifhts and octaves are used much the same way as in early organum, namely as vertical expansions of the melody. His style of contrapuntal "chords" rather than "voices" is sometimes labelled "layer counterpoint".

The bottom line is, consecutive fifths and octaves have never been freely accepted in ANY style of counterpoint. Therefore, when you see them, look for these reasons (other that a simple "mistake"): "layer (chordal)counterpoint"; an improvisatory and mainly chordal style; special effects (imitating exotic music, etc.).

[This message has been edited by Jacob (edited 04-21-2002).]

[This message has been edited by Jacob (edited 04-21-2002).]

I agree that Debussy was a musical genius, and I am awestruck by his work, but I do not find his music contrapuntal at all. Could you please cite the examples of his counterpoint. His music is lush, beautiful, and harmonically rich, but I am not aware of examples of his contrapuntal writing.

If anything his music is layered and often crystaline in its beauty.

Bach was and remains the high master of contrapuntal writing. None have done it better in his time or since.

Regards,

Don Crandall

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quote:

Originally posted by MrWoof:

I agree that Debussy was a musical genius, and I am awestruck by his work, but I do not find his music contrapuntal at all. Could you please cite the examples of his counterpoint. His music is lush, beautiful, and harmonically rich, but I am not aware of examples of his contrapuntal writing.

If anything his music is layered and often crystaline in its beauty.

Bach was and remains the high master of contrapuntal writing. None have done it better in his time or since.

Hi Don

I'm not sure I could find a piece by Debussy WITHOUT any element of counterpoint in it. The orchestral and vocal works (Pelleas et Melisande, La Mer, etc) are perhaps more obviously contrapuntal than the piano works. However, it is not that difficult to discern the layered contrapuntal element in even some of the most overtly "chordal" pieces, such as when two chordal "voices", both consisting of parallel chords, can without too much effort be recognised as each representing a single contrapuntal (horizontal) element, hence the term "layered counterpoint".

Perhaps you and I don't think of the same thing when the term "counterpoint" is used in an academic or musicological context - maybe it would help if I advanced "part-writing" as a synonymn for "counterpoint" for the limited purpose of this post. I have always found the teaching of counterpoint less difficult than getting an understanding of the term across. The incredulous faces of first-year college students when I talk about the contrapuntal element in Bach's chorale harmonizations is a case in point. This is mostly easily clarified by a comparison between the part-writing in a Bach chorale and just about any other four-part harmoization of a chorale or hymn.

I hope I am not conveying the impression that I find the sophistication and relative importance of contrapuntal writing between Debussy and Bach on a par - that is not my intention. All I am saying is what I've learned from every writer on Western European music who has addressed this matter, and what is observable from the music itself, which is that counterpoint is always present to some extent in this tradition, and that the lack of this element (or a lack of skill in applying it) is very often a reliable indicator of the regard in which the composer is held. The reason for this is also fairly self-evident - counterpoint is the only method by which a style which is basically harmonic (as opposed to monodic) can be meaningfully controlled and organized. Without that, from an aesthetic point of view all that you would have would be merely a harmonically expanded type of organum (which is what the harmonizations of less diligent first-year students in fact often resemble). Again, I am not saying that contrapuntal skill alone determines the eminence of a composer - it's just that every composer categorized as "great" seemed to have had a developed sense of and skill in applying counterpoint within the style of his period.

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Dear Don

I agree with you that the appreciation and perception of music is a personal matter.

On the other hand, it would be foolish for me as a University lecturer of musicology to advance my own definition of counterpoint different to that universally understood and accepted (that is, in an academic or musicological context). This is the point where our views on the matter would seem to start diverging. It might be a useful exercise to see if you could find any "expert" agreeing with your definition that "Counterpoint is the art of manipulating a motivic or melodic idea into new forms and harmony".

One does not need experts to tell one what one should like or not. However, since musical composition is unquestionably an art as well as a science (the latter is what the term "musicology" refers to), I fail to understand how one can deny the valid role of analytical "experts" in this field any more than one can do so in any other form of art or science, be it medicine, architecture, music performance or violin making. These musicological "experts" are certainly not prescribing what Debussy (or any other composer) "should be" - they are helping us to understand what his music "is".

My comment about the contrapuntal skills of composers having a bearing on their eminence is (albeit with the help of many "experts") simply an observation of a consistent historical pattern.

"Counterpoint" is not a swear word, nor does it imply some sort of unfathomable mysticismn. A certain subject of musical study is called "Harmony and Counterpoint" for the very simple reason that the two can in fact not meaningfully exist without each other in the process of music composition. They are two elements of a single process which can be studied separately, but, in the tradition of Western European music, cannot really be separated during the course of the creative process. To put it plainly, the creation of a piece of music consisting of only the one element or the other is not possible in this tradition (a "real" piece of music, not a nonsense excercise).

In my experience your reaction to me accusing Debussy of indulging himself in this most indispensable tool of musical compostion is very common, whether the culprit pointed out is Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Shoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok or Shostakovich.

I am personally not about to start disliking pizza just because I found out that cheese is processed rotten milk mixed with all sorts of dangerous bacteria. My personal favourite to start off the day is of course Von Suppe, or sometimes, Johann Strauss II (they also could not desist from indulging in counterpoint).

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I think that we define counterpoint differently.

Counterpoint is the art of manipulating a motivic or melodic idea into new forms and harmony.

Though Debussy uses lots of parallel constructions I do not define these as counterpoint. Rather they are a very rich harmonic language which he created to give sonic substance to moods and feelings.

Both men were geniuses and approached composition quite differently. There music should be appreciated, studied, and enjoyed for the brilliant works of art they are not not what you, I, or any other dozen experts or musicologists say they should be.

Call Debussy contrapuntal if you like, I don't agree, but in the end it doesn't matter. All that does matter is that it works, and does that very well.

Regards,

Don Crandall

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Hmmm, when I write a piece I usually figure out what it is I am trying to say first, then the mechanics of saying it seem to just flow. All those rules I learned in harmony and in my studies seem to just happen when I do this successfully.

I am curious as to your process when you compose something.

This has been a good discussion so far.

Regards,

Don Crandall

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