Apologies if this should be obvious (there's a related discussion here) But, I've only recently taken the plunge into learning music theory and an instrument. I've been reading up on harmony and voice-leading and then studying arrangements of my favorite hymns and carols to try and see how these ideas are put into practice. However, I'm finding a lot of disconnects...

Everything that I've read concerning voice-leading (and harmony) seems tailored specifically for common practice polyphonic music (as I understand it) and the hymn arrangements seem to be "breaking the rules" all over the place. Of course, hymns seem to be a hybrid of homophony and polyphony. Rhythmically, they're predominantly homophonic. However, they seem to consistently avoid parallel fifths, open fifths, and parallel octaves. However, unisons between inner voices are not uncommon and, specifically, open octaves/fifteenths/etc are everywhere! I run across chords all the time where the root or the fifth appears in three of the four voices (so, not even a chord by some people's narrow definition, since there are only two distinct notes).

Are there any good resources (books, etc.) that deal specifically with the voice leading rules for hymns? I want to understand why things sound good so I can learn how to make interesting arrangements, but applying the basic discussions of voice-leading that I've read so far just looks like "rules" are being broken all over the place. (I understand that I need to look more into functional harmony, but it seems like voice-leading is really what dictates the form of the chords - e.g., why one would double the third when that's supposed to be discouraged, or why an open interval has the root in three voices, etc.)

EDIT To clarify, I'm referring to traditional protestant hymns (1700s-late 1800s is an off-the-cuff time estimate) as opposed to modern worship-band or gospel style songs.

  • Take a step backwards from your question. Did the people who made the arrangements you are looking at break the rules intentionally, or because they didn't even know there were any rules?
    – user19146
    Feb 21, 2017 at 21:10
  • These are typical/traditional arrangements from the 1700s-early 1900s, and clearly avoid open fifths, parallel fifths, parallel octaves, etc. So, it feels like they are intentionally following some/much of the traditional voice leading rules. But it's not clear to me why they seem to strictly follow some rules and not others. I'm assuming there is standard voice leading practice for hymnody (of the 18th-19th centuries), but I haven't found anything describing/analyzing it (if such a description/analysis exists).
    – S. Burt
    Feb 21, 2017 at 22:28
  • It would be better to edit at least the first part of your comment into the question, to define what type of "hymn" you are asking about. (Comments soon get deleted.) The original question could have been about anything from the 16th century to Christian Rock! Even "1700 to early 1900" is pretty broad - you are including everybody from Bach and his contemporaries, through self-educated composers like Billings in the USA, down to the likes of Moody and Sankey (who certainly didn't spend much time following any "rules" of voice leading!)
    – user19146
    Feb 22, 2017 at 0:04

2 Answers 2


Traditional Theory (in the sense that subject is taught in music school theory classes), is the study of the so-called Rules of Bach. (So-called because Bach had nothing to do with them. They were developed by disciples of Mendelssohn many years after Bach died.)

The four-part chorales that Bach wrote for his weekly cantatas were all based on existing hymn tunes and they were early examples of what we now call four-part hymns. The supposed rules were an attempt to extrapolate after the fact what principles Bach was following in constructing them. Hymn writers in general fell under that influence and composed hymns mostly according to those 'rules,' though Bach himself often broke them. And, yes, individual voice leading in each part had been important ever since the Counterpoint Theories of Fuchs, a couple of hundred years earlier. Some composers were more successful than others in following those principles, and some didn't particularly try. But for a long time it was held by many musicians that you couldn't call your work a 'hymn' unless you followed those rules. That's why in the early 1800s when people started writing religious songs that clearly made no attempt to follow the rules, they invented a different title for them. They were called Gospel Songs, not hymns.

Any good Traditional Theory text will give you the 'rules' with examples of how to follow them, many such examples drawn from Bach himself. But if you really want to understand where all this come from I recommend reading the Fuchs texts themselves, and studying the Bach chorales themselves, not people writing about them. That's the pure stuff.


Yes, hymn tunes don't always stick to 4-voice harmony. Sometimes for deliberate effect. For instance, though this is probably not characteristic of Bach's chorale settings, it's obviously deliberate, and perfectly in style. (Except for the 'cop-out' lower note for the altos in bar 2. That's just silly rule-following regarding vocal ranges. I bet the altos all go for the higher C in performance!)

Perhaps it would be more useful if you posted a hymn setting that you felt broke the rules for our discussion?

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