In thorough bass (where the bass line is written first) there are simple "rules" for ascending and descending scales with different inversions and other rules in "partimenti". They are all based on the view from the bassline. I am looking for something similar from the point of view of the melody (to use when harmonizing melody).

  • There are no rules for melody as it relates to octaves other than if you write a "song" intended to be sung (definition of a song) then your melody must take the singers range into account. Therefore there is a limit to how many octaves a melody can span and still be possible to sing. If it's not a song, but just an instrumental piece, there need be no restrictions on how many octaves the melody should span. But I am a little unclear exactly what you are asking. If you could edit the question with more detail on what you want to know and how you will apply that knowledge, that would help. May 23, 2016 at 17:07
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    @RockinCowboy, he's talking about partimenti - late Baroque exercises for voice leading and harmonisation, usually over a bass. The Rule of the Octave is one of rules (a principal one) for harmonisation. See faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/music/gjerdingen/partimenti/….
    – user16935
    May 23, 2016 at 17:33
  • @Patrx2 Ahhhh - I got it. If you have time, you would be qualified to provide a useful and informative answer. It's beyond my expertise so I'm not going to attempt. May 23, 2016 at 21:33

4 Answers 4


I believe that I understand what you have been looking for, as I also have been looking for it. If I understand you correctly, what you are looking for is a kind of auto-harmonisation procedure for a melody. After all, this is essentially what the Rule of the Octave does for the bass: for each note that could occur in the bass line, there is a prescribed chord that, when used together, almost always creates a highly typical chord progression.

Unfortunately, there is no such rule for melody from a comparable time period (18th century, give or take a bit) or in a comparable style, probably because melodies tend to be less formulaic than bass lines. Even for the Rule of the Octave, there are plenty of poor possibilities that could occur between one bass note and the next, which are not a problem because bass lines tend to be more formulaic than melodies, and those combinations are not typically found in the bass lines that you would expect to use the Rule of the Octave with (a good example would be skipping from scale degree 7^ to scale degree 4^, which would mean skipping from viio6 or V6/5 to ii6 or ii6/5, which is poor harmony, but the bass line would not likely put you in this situation - the Rule of the Octave works best with stepwise bass lines).

There are, however, sets of rules for harmonising melodies like this from earlier time periods, which you might want to experiment with. Depending on the language of the country that the variant comes from, it might be called "faburdern", "fauxbourdon", or "falsobordone". Of these, falsobordone is the closest to modern harmonies, and might be satisfactory to your ear; however, like the Rule of the Octave, it is a product of its time (16th century) and will produce the most satisfactory results with melodies comparable to those for which it was intended (originally chant-like melodies, though I have heard it used to good effect on other kinds of melodies from slightly later). You can see a good example of this here:

You should be aware, though, that the sound you will get is likely to sound very Renaissance-ish. This is, though, the only system that I know of that is a melodic analog to the Rule of the Octave.

Hope that helps!


This is a great question! I'm not sure I can help exactly, because I'm not certain what you're looking for exists, but hopefully I can at least give some good information in this area.

Regole are model structures of basic musical elements like cadences and sequence.

Solfeggi are "style exercises" for a voice and basso continuo.

Involature are keyboard pieces that provide sample textures and figurations.

The knowledge gained from these three 'traditions' are the building blocks to creating partimenti. You're right that partimenti are typically basses, but Sanguinetti's 2012 book The Art of Partimento suggests that they weren't always basses (though not everyone agrees with this). Perhaps you can check that out for a start?

Check out also the Spring 2007 issue (51/1) of Journal of Music Theory, which is devoted to partimenti.


Not strictly figured bass or partimenti, but you could take a look at the rules for harmonising Bach chorales, where you are given a chorale melody and fill out the parts for SATB choir, starting with the Bass line.

  1. Identify the degree of the scale of each note in the melody
  2. Identify cadences (there are cadence 'templates' based on melodic patterns are the ends of phrases e.g. 2-2-1 can be harmonised by ii7b-V-I amongst others)
  3. Identify chords which fit the melody using Roman numerals
  4. Use common chord progressions where possible
  5. Fill in other parts, adding passing notes, suspensions, other decorations
  6. Proof-reading, check for parallel fifths/octaves etc.

I use the chorale example because there are many online resources (Tom Pankhurst's Chorale Guide being one) as this has been part of the UK A-level Music exam (and undoubtedly in other countries and exams) syllabus for a long time! However you might also consider the rules set out in Eric Taylor's excellent The AB Guide to Music Theory Part II, which deals with counterpoint (and possibly chorales, but I don't have the book to hand to check).

Finally, it seems that there are exercises in harmonising melodies by James Lyon from 1912. He also wrote an accompanying book, The Elements of Harmony, in which he suggests the steps for harmonising a melody which are similar to those above but include the following tips:

(i.) Find the cadences.

(ii.) Sketch a simple hymn-tune-like bass, treating as many notes as possible in the given theme) as unessential notes

(iii.) Use as few chords as is convenient in each bar.

(iv.) Sketch in the parts to be added. (Elaborate later.)

(v.) Contrast the rhythms of the added parts

(vi.) Make the harmonies complete even in three parts

(vii.) In writing for strings, carefully " bow " each part,

(viii.) Make each part interesting in itself.

So slightly different to Bach's chorales where you change chord every note.


Whether the top line of notes are given or the bass, the concepts of harmonisation stays the same. The melody line tends to be given more when advance harmony questions are asked, as it test the candidate's knowledge on how to approach inversions.

Whether you write the bass line or the top line your outside voices have to be written in the style of a melody. What does this mean? Your outside voice has to have a pleasant line. It is also good to aim for a compass of around an octave and at the very least one of a sixth.

Remember your harmony exercises can have all the correct notes but if there is no real melody in the outside voice you write then it still will not get good marks.

The line of the outside has to have some sort of form. Does it go up and down like a pyramid, do you have waves? The line you write has to take what the given line does into consideration.

If the given line jumps a lot then it is good to have steps between notes or even stay still when you have consecutive chords that have notes in common.


You basic 1-3-4 progression is vital. That is to say choose chords that are either 4 steps forward from the previous one, one step forward from the previous one or three steps back from the previous one.

Cadential 6/4 progression are also something you are expected to know. That is to say a chord in second inversion before the tonic or dominant chords that are used as a decoration in a cadence.

Passing 6/4 chord progressions are also a must know. That is i(6)-vii(6/4)-I(6) and I(6)-V(6/4)-I(6) and the proper way they resolve. If you see notes that fit the bill of these chord progression you have to use them.

There is also the descending leading tone chord progression that most methods could also ask.


Use them sparingly and in a way that enhances the melody of your outer line. You can also use them to add seventh of chords which will lead to better marks as the fact is sevenths sound good.

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