The other day, I was watching a scrolling score of Pachelbel's (in)famous Canon in D on Youtube, when I noticed something interesting. In the excerpt below, shouldn't the the circled notes in the 1st violin part be considered an example of parallel fifths (against the bass line)?

If not, why not? I wouldn't expect the intervening rests to break up the effect of parallel motion (at least not until it's repeated 2 bars later in the 2nd violin, at which point the 1st is playing an "offbeat" pattern that effectively breaks up the effect). But is there a special exception in some counterpoint treatise that permits parallel motion to be broken up like that?

Or is Canon in D just a bad example of counterpoint? :-P

FWIW, I notice that this occurs in an inner voice (effectively the tenor at that point). I believe that makes it less severe than it would be if it were in the top-most voice. But isn't it still wrong?

Exceprt: Pachelbel's Canon in D

  • Rules were made to be broken :-) . I think you're right that this is an example of notes which happen to be parallel but the actual chords and voicings build differently. Sorta like a full orchestra can have parallel octaves in a forte tune passage so long as that's not forming the harmony. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 12:15
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    Some historical texts about counterpoint state that small errors are more permissible in a strict canon, since the canonic relationship puts so many additional restrictions on the movement of the parts. As well as being in an inner voice and separated by rests, the fifths are also partially covered up by all the rhythmic activity in the other parts.
    – user1449
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 20:38

3 Answers 3


The point of counterpoint is to make voices have harmonic dependence while having rhythmic and contour independence. i.e. The voices are independent, but all function harmonically. There are parallel 5ths between the bass and the first violin, but the bass and the violin are very dependent on each other at this point so they move together as one unit instead of two separate voices so counterpoint doesn't apply.

Counterpoint is for independence, not dependence so any time two or more parts move together as a unit, you have to treat them as a unit and not as independent voices.


shouldn't the the circled notes in the 1st violin part be considered an example of parallel fifths?

Not 'considered' parallel fifths. The are parallel fifths.

is there a special exception...?

In this style parallel thirds and sixth would be the norm, but occasionally parallel fifths and octaves were used.

I wouldn't want to hazard even a guess at what percentage of movement was in parallel fifths and octave during an entire era of music, but as little as 1% would seem to be a fair guess how infrequent is was.

But, what seem more important to me that the infrequency is the obvious and deliberate use when they do occur. In the examples I have seen it's obvious the composer knew the parallel fifths/octaves where there.

Was the composer breaking a rule, or writing bad music?

Those seem like silly questions.

What rules: rules of thumb, rules for students? I don't know what treatises Pachelbel would have used, but Fux's Gradus was published after he died. Surely whatever treatises he had they would have been for a different style, the earlier style like Palestrina. Knowledge of such does not necessarily mean application in new styles. I suppose this could be considered breaking the rules of Renaissance music, but not of the Baroque or Classical.

And of course the music isn't bad. We're studying it hundreds of years after it was written!

The only thing that seem important is if you are making music and want it to be authentic for this style use passages in parallel fifths/octaves very sparingly. Typically limited to the 'skeletal' voice leading outline. Don't do it accidentally, because you don't know what the typical voice leading conventions, and then pull out the unusual example like this one the justify bad style.


This just seems like what I'm assuming is the cello is playing the root note of each chord and whatever instrument is playing that soprano part is playing the fifth. It just looks like a motif to me.

Chamber music has to have clear harmony and having the root and fifth notes played like this should just be seen as a way to make the harmony clear.

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