In Robert Schumann's "Von fremden Ländern und Menschen" ("Of Strange Lands and People"), he composed parallel fifths in measure 13, highlighted in red in the below illustration. They give no hint of the jarring sound parallel fifths can have, nor do they interfere with the independence of the voices.

Is there anything specific to the compositional context that mitigates the otherwise expected bad effects of parallel fifths? That is, does theory offer an explanation of why the fifths work here? Or is this simply an exceptional case exploited by a skillful composer?

Reproduction of Op. 15 No. 1 m. 13


In addition to the parallel fifths, Schumann also has parallel octaves in the piece, at mm. 7 and 13.

<sarcasm>The only possible conclusion, obviously, is that Schumann was a terrible composer, and all of his music should be burned.</sarcasm>

  • 3
    Are these parallel fifths? None of the notes are being played in parallel, and they don't move at the same time. You go from holding down CGC on the last note of the first triplet to playing CD on the first note. I was never taught that the rule against parallel fifths applied to arpeggiation.
    – trlkly
    May 8, 2022 at 3:37
  • @trlkly The kind of answer I’m looking for would be just that – that the rule of parallels doesn’t apply when the are within arpeggios – with a citation from a reliable source.
    – Aaron
    May 8, 2022 at 3:42
  • @trlkly the obvious harmonic harmonic reduction using standard analysis would be reducing this to a (c3-g3-c4-e4) to (d3-a3-d4-f#4) with a pedal tone of c3, where the parallel fifth would be clear. Since each corresponding note in the two chords of the reduction line up metrically in the original arpeggiation, it will be heard as parallel fifth.
    – Divide1918
    May 8, 2022 at 5:24
  • It's simple, this is not counterpoint. You will find a lot of parallel fifths and octaves even in Bach when it is not counterpoint. E.g., he might go through triadic arpeggiation or figuration of the diatonic chords sequentially. What ultimately matters is that it sounds good and generally speaking certain parallel voicing patterns sound weak. Usually there are better moves. E.g., in chess some moves are weak(like moving into a capture for no reason) and so the goal is to make better moves. Generally speaking parallel's only count to the adjacent accents but ultimately it depends.
    – Gupta
    May 8, 2022 at 5:59
  • @Gupta I've played a lot of Bach, and I don't recall any arpeggiated parallel fifths. If you can find some, they would make a part of a good answer.
    – Aaron
    May 8, 2022 at 6:00

4 Answers 4


I think the mitigating factors are:

  • the perfect fifths involve the inner voices.
  • the D3 is just an octave doubling, if you eliminate it, you still have the same chords
  • Parallel harmony while rare is not verboten in all common practice music.

Parallel first inversion triads is pretty well understood, but Tymoczko's system of parallel triads (page 5, paragraph D in the PDF) is where I first read about parallel 6/3 chords used for descending movement, but parallel root postition triads used in ascending movements.

Now I take notice of parallel harmony, and his point about direction and inversion, seems to be true. I do see parallel root position triads in classical style. It's rare, but when I do see it, it doesn't seem to be accidental. It does seem like it happens in connecting or extending passages, in the same places where you might find harmonic sequences. You might also compare its frequency of use and placement to passages in unison/octaves. Like in a string quartet. Most of the texture is typical four-part writing, but then there are highlights of unison/octave playing. Most of the texture is four-part, but there can be high lights of parallel harmony.

Anyway, if the C3 was held rather than moving to D3 the chords would be the same and the parallel fifths avoided, so it doesn't seem to make much difference to have the D3 in an inner voice, that only doubles at the octave, and adds nothing else to the harmony, except perhaps the "trembling" sonority of a major second in a low register.

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Parallel root position triads, two examples:

L. Mozart, Nannerl Notebook, No. 34

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Dabney, Twelve Minuets and Twelve Dances

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The first being a very famous pedagogical source - not where I imagine finding a harmonic faux pas - and the other a run-of-the-mill set of dances. Actually, some other examples of parallel fifth occur in the dances sets I've collected, and they always interrupt my sight reading... because I think I made a reading mistake!

  • Could you add a page reference for the Tymoczko?
    – Aaron
    May 10, 2022 at 19:00
  • Do you mean footnote style? May 10, 2022 at 19:00
  • I just mean so I can go right to his discussion of parallels. The document is pretty long.
    – Aaron
    May 10, 2022 at 19:01
  • 1
    Got it, I added a note after the hyperlink. May 10, 2022 at 19:37

The reason that parallel fifths are bad is that the 5ths end up sounding like overtones of the roots, rather than individual notes of their own.

In four-part harmony, this is undesirable, because two of the four voices end up collapsing into a single voice. But in a lot of piano music, where the number of voices is not controlled, it doesn't matter.

In this case it wouldn't matter anyways, because when you arpeggiate the chord in this way the notes don't really sound conflated.


They're OK because Schumann isn't composing in the style of a 17th century four-voice chorale. It's basically a C triad then a D triad, both over a C pedal. Even if not arpeggiated, this would be a perfectly acceptable pianistic texture.


Two things: First of all Schumann is not writing a strict polyphonic chorale, but a piano piece where any amount of notes can come up and go. Still parallel structures bear the danger of sounding a bit weird and weak. Suppose you’d take way the bass. Then you’d just have a C-major chord that is shifted up in parallel into D-major. But this still works as the D-major has the 7th in the bass, giving the chord a lot of tension and at the same time implying some notion of counter motion resolution (the 7th in the bass implies a strong downward resolution).

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