I was wondering if composing by staggering 5ths was a good way to avoid parallel 5ths and if any famous classical composers actually did this on purpose to avoid consecutive parallel 5ths.

EDIT By staggering I mean playing the 5ths on the upbeats instead of as harmonic intervals.

  • 1
    Can you clarify what you mean by "staggering" here?
    – Richard
    Jun 3 '21 at 15:55
  • Absolutely, this is an extremely common technique. Jun 4 '21 at 7:25

If by "staggering 5ths" you mean alternating between a perfect fifth and another interval to break up their consecutive nature, then composers absolutely do this!

One of the most common examples is in an ascending sequence. These sequences often move (for example) I–vi–ii–V, but by placing every second chord in first inversion, we end up staggering these perfect fifths with some intervening sixths:

enter image description here

In some more strict styles, these so-called "downbeat parallels" would be considered errors, but I can't imagine anyone would consider this "wrong" today.

  • 1
    So the same effect can be achieved even with regular parallel fifths, if the players or singers just have really bad timing? ;) Jun 4 '21 at 6:59

Yes, and this is my favorite example...

enter image description here

...Leopold Mozart, from the Nannerl Notebook, no.30 or 34, depending on the edition.

I think the idea is the down stroke of each beat is a third, so on a basic voice leading skeleton, the passage is just ascending parallel thirds. The fifths formed by the last sixteenth note of each beat "don't count."

But notice how that equivocates with how to treat a harmonic reduction. On the one hand we can reduce it to parallel thirds, but on the other hand no one could reasonably say the passage isn't an elaboration of parallel root position chords.

Another example is sequential harmony, similar to Richard's example, like this...

| I V6 | ii V6/ii | iii V6/iii |

The intervening chords of the sixth certainly dodge the parallel fifth prohibition, but ascending root position harmony of I ii iii is perfectly clear.

Here is my take on it: most common practice music adhered to the voice leading "rules" of the "old" contrapuntal style, the rules of Church music, but as secular forms of music developed those bonds to the Church style lessened. I imagine the parallel root position harmony was not actually offensive to anyone's ears (at least not for those musicians who would have thought themselves innovators) but they still had a sense of propriety and "disguised" the parallel fifths, sort of a musical fig leaf on the offensive bits. Eventually, about two or three generations later, composer's used parallel harmony freely.

What I'm trying to get at is I don't think an example like the L. Mozart one above is about avoiding parallel harmony. In fact I feel the opposite. The strong parallel root position chords are perfectly clear and make powerful line. If Mozart really wanted to not have parallel fifths, he was completely capable of writing that way. He could have easily written the passage to start on a root position chord and then ascending in 6/3 chord. He chose to write parallel harmony, but in deference to the old style, he disguised them.

The point I'm trying to make may be subtle, but it's the difference between "avoiding" meaning can't write with good voice leading so cover up the problems, and "avoiding" meaning a clever way to have the parallel harmony you want while appeasing the critics.

For a student of counterpoint and harmony, or when emulating common practice style, the difference should be clearly recognized.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.