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I am currently harmonising a melody- the last three bars of the phrase are shown in the picture. The melody is in the alto part, and it finishes the phrase with a large leap down to G. I would like to harmonise the last bar as a V9 chord (G being the 9th), and have done so here, in a way which breaks as few rules as possible. However, in order to not break spacing rules, I have had to give the soprano part an F, which unfortunately breaks voice crossing rules, as the alto part moves to G a few bars before (not pictured). The alto G in the last bar here is also below the tenor A.

Ideally I would like the V9 chord to be in root position as we are at a cadence, but no matter what I do when I try to do this, I end up breaking at least one rule. Putting the chord in third inversion is the best solution I have come up with so far, although it is not perfect.

So, how do we handle large leaps like this in melody harmonisation? Interesting melodies often have leaps. Is there a way to harmonise them without breaking voice crossing/ spacing rules? Or is it simply a case of trying to break as few rules as possible?

The key is B flat M.

Thanks! enter image description here

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  • You might not have technically broken any rules, but I think the tenor will shoot you weird looks when told to sing D, then G at your I6/3 - IV chords.
    – Dekkadeci
    May 25, 2021 at 12:39
  • Why all notes as whole notes? If this isn’t a theoretical exercise I‘d set tenor and soprano moving in half notes. May 25, 2021 at 14:06
  • I don't understand, why you want to follow those rules, if the only point is not to violate them. It always depends on what kind of effect you'd like to achieve. When two voices cross each other, it can have a cool effect.
    – Fid Rewe
    May 25, 2021 at 14:29
  • Your whole approach to music seems to be off the point. It would have never occurred to me to alter a chord, just because it would break a "rule" in some music textbook. In music, rules are guidelines at best and creative self-imprisonment at worst. Notes should always be put so they make sense in our experience of music and rules can be derived from that, not the other way round.
    – Fid Rewe
    May 25, 2021 at 15:09
  • Also consider that you're not just writing a sequence of chords, but four melodies interacting with each other. If you just focus on the chords, the melodies as distinguishable by the ear of the listener will probably not make a lot of sense. By the way, as you've written it, I think this would not be a 9 chord, since the Eb forms tritones in there.
    – Fid Rewe
    May 25, 2021 at 15:27

3 Answers 3

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melody is in the alto part, and it finishes the phrase with a large leap down to G

I would like to harmonise the last bar as a V9 chord

I would like the V9 chord to be in root position as we are at a cadence

Those seem to be the real "requirements" you lay out.

The alto part plus bass required to end on root position would be...

enter image description here

Filling in only three part harmony is one way to flesh out the essentials of (hopefully) complete triads and at least the sevenths of any seventh chords. The last chord really needs the third and unless you want a note cluster in the bass staff, that means it should go to A4, keeping your bass ascent from D3 to Eb3, it seems the soprano should take Bb4 to complete the first chord, then G4 to provide the third on the next chord, which would be...

enter image description here

Starting the tenor on Bb3 seems a more even spacing, and holding that for the second chord puts the doubling on the tonic scale degree to reinforce the tonality, then it seems there is little choice for the third chord. If it's a dominant ninth chord, you should want the chord's seventh somewhere, and the tenor takes it...

enter image description here

The move to the third chord is where all the crossing and leap to dissonance trouble lies. I think you could mitigate that a bit with making the tenor first go up to Eb on the Eb chord, where it's a consonant chord tone, then hold it to be the seventh of the third chord...

enter image description here

...Interesting melodies often have leaps.

This is true, but keep in mind what you are working on: four part chorale style harmony. It isn't an aria or a violin sonata. You don't need to make giant leaps, and a sixth is pretty big, especially downward... additionally to a dissonance. Probably a good basic melodic model to follow with chorale style is that for a cantus firmus which you should be able to find in various species counterpoint books. Walter Piston give a nice rule of thumb in his book Harmony for voice leading, spacing, and leaps: first always move voices by smallest distance (steps or holding tones) then when range, crossing, monotony, etc. issues come up redistribute the voices within a chord. So, if you had bottleneck at a chord like C4 C4 E4 G4, play that chord, then redistribute to something like E3 C4 G4 C5, and then continue. That offers opportunities for more interesting lines (leaps) while avoiding any relative motion concerns. You mostly need only worry about range and doublings.

...trying to break as few rules as possible

I cannot claim to be a master of part writing, but I think I became much better when I focused on the positive models of what to do instead of what not to do. The voice redistribution idea above is a positive to do type. You can reframe most of the prohibitions. Instead of "no parallel fifths" think of it as "similar motion to imperfect consonances." "Prepare dissonances" and "double tonal degrees" are other positives rather than prohibitions.

I think part of the trouble you have with this harmonization example it you loaded up several requirements which seemed to run against the grain of typical voice leading and then got caught up in all the rules being broken by many attempts to move. If you let the music go where it "wants to" - in other words follow the positive norms - instead of forcing it to arbitrary places, it should be easier. Don't mistake that for a straight jacket on creativity. You can still have all dissonance, leaps, and chromaticism. But the point is to look for the opportunities the music presents to do interesting things instead of trying to force them when they don't really fit.

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  • I think you've missed the point that the melody in the alto part is a given. May 25, 2021 at 17:22
  • Ahh! I'll have to make an edit. :-) May 25, 2021 at 17:30
  • thanks for another fantastic answer Michael- I'm currently working on your suggestions. I will have to purchase Piston's book. I am writing this for string section, and I suppose it is more in the romantic style than chorale style. I understand that many of these rules were being broken anyway in the romantic era, but my weakness is I'm not sure which rules were being broken and which were still being adhered to. knowing this seems essential if you want to pull off the style. Any reading suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
    – EdB123
    May 28, 2021 at 11:00
  • (stupidly) I did not supply all of the melody notes, just the main chord notes of the melody. The alto leap to G is actually just a third from B flat (aux harmony). However, I did not think the inclusion of these decorative notes would remove the problems of crossing etc when harmonising the melody. 'you loaded up several requirements which seemed to run against the grain of typical voice leading''- would you suggest then not to worry about root position chords at cadences etc and always let the voice leading dictate?
    – EdB123
    May 28, 2021 at 11:22
  • This is a tricky business. If we're studying the "rules", I think the likes of Handel, Haydn, etc., and we don't pull out "Romantic" as justification for not sticking to the circumscribed harmony of the "Classical" and "Baroque" eras. If "Romantic" is synonymous with "rule breaker", then do we really need to find permission for breaking the rules in permitted ways? That isn't rule breaking, but I think I understand what you are trying to do. It may be good to select particular composers and then study their particular idiosyncrasies. For example, harmonically what makes Grieg sound like Grieg? May 28, 2021 at 17:39
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enter image description here

To give a full answer I would need more context - is that the end of the piece, what comes after that in terms of melody and harmonies?

Personally, I would harmonise differently here: Bb/D - cm7 (instead of Eb) - G7/Bb.

...provided the G7 (intermediate dominant to subdominant parallel) somewhat fits and you can resolve it again. This way you have the melody as the fundamental, a beautiful passage in the bass, no more voice crossings and only a minimum number of rules broken.

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You're already rather out of 'textbook SATB' territory with the doubled major 3rd in the first chord (why have you labelled B♭ and E♭ major triads as 'B♭m' and 'E♭m'?) and in having such a large melodic leap in an inner part. And in deciding to leap to a dissonant note.

What happens next? This (below) could work. I'm finding it hard to feel the third chord as the end of a phrase though.

Some might criticise the vocal lines. But I'd enjoy singing that bass line! Certainly just as much as I'd enjoy the alto one.

enter image description here

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