What is the proper practice for preparing chordal sevenths in dominant, diminished and other chords in classical 4-part harmony? In The Complete Musician (4th ed.) by Stephen Laitz, he states on page 199 that:

For V7, the approach to the dissonance (its preparation) can occur in different ways

What are the different ways that one can prepare the chordal 7th of the V7 chord, and are there different methods of doing so for other types of chord, such as the vii fully diminished or ii minor 7? If there are different methods, must the chordal seventh be resolved in a different manner?

  • 1
    In my experience the way that one leads into a V7 in 4 part harmony is determined by the melody. Using only I, IV, V, and V7 as a starting point one can have I-->V7, IV-->V7 etc. Following all the other rules of harmony ensures close movement from one chord to another. Is this along the lines of what you are asking?
    – user50691
    Jul 24 '19 at 11:02
  • Not really. I'm asking about the specific voice-leading approach to the 7th of the dominant 7th chord from its previous chord, whatever that may be. For example, does it follow the usual rule for dissonances; i.e must that note be included as a consonance in the previous chord, or can the chordal 7th function as a neighbouring or passing tone as well?
    – october
    Jul 24 '19 at 11:10
  • I get it. In some sense I think they are related as the rules of classical harmony theory are designed to create smooth transitions from one chord to the next. I am not sure that a consonance MUST lead to a dissonance and vice verse (hence no answer). In jazz we often treat the chord we are going to as a temporary I and lead into it by a V7 (creating a string of cadences). You might be interested in reading Modulation by Max Reger.
    – user50691
    Jul 24 '19 at 11:29
  • No offence, but I'm not sure you understand the theoretical context of my question. In common practice 4-part harmony, there are specific rules regarding how certain chord tones and dissonances must be prepared and resolved. The chordal 7th is a notorious one of these, and in my question I'm trying to nail down the exact manner that it must be treated in all variations of chords common in CPE harmony.
    – october
    Jul 24 '19 at 11:49
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    There are specific rules for many things in common-practice theory, yes, but not for everything. And I think this is really a case where there's a lot of freedom: the point of a dominant is that it builds up directionality. You are somewhere, you want to go somewhere (anywhere) else, how do you do it? – well, by setting up the dominant that will lead you there. That resolution to the tonic has strict rules, but that's in part to make it possible to have lots of freedom before the dominant and still get a satisfying conclusion. Jul 24 '19 at 12:31

Three patterns come to mind:

  • degree ^5 moves to ^4 over a dominant chord, so the double chord root moves to the chord seventh, then resolves to ^3 - the third of the tonic chord, the basic idea is the dissonant seventh can be viewed as a passing tone not an essential chord tone.
  • the degree that is the chord seventh is a chord tone of a simple triad in the previous chord - by necessity this is a common tone between the two chords, two common progressions: ii6 V7 and I ii6/5, the idea is the dissonant seventh is not reached by movement of the voice forming the seventh, it is held while the other voices move, then the dissonance resolves by move to a triadic chord tone in the next chord.
  • the degree that is the chord seventh is held and becomes a chord tone (the third) in the next seventh chord, the idea is the dissonant seventh isn't resolved by moving the voice to a new tone, but the held tone become a consonance in the next chord by the movement of the other voices.

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I used ties to highlight the held/common tones.

I think these patterns also illustrate typical seventh chord appearance in common practice. V7 and ii7 and their inversions are surely the most common seventh chords. Seventh chords in other roots are less common and often result from non-chord tone movement or sequential harmony.

Notice how in all cases some aspect of holding tones is used to smooth out the transition between dissonances and consonances.

Also, it seems worth noting how contrapuntal these patterns are. It's about movement of voices. "Classical" (common practice) harmony is really rooted in counterpoint. When the harmonic style shifts into a more purely chord based music - and the sense of contrapuntal voices is abandoned - you don't have the same sense of propriety about handling dissonant intervals.

Diminished seventh chords seem like a different case to me. Here are two examples from J.S. Bach...

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enter image description here

Contrapuntally the raised ^7 moves up to the tonic and lowered ^6 moves down to the dominant. Of course the diminished seventh is the ^6 above the ^7 which is the root. In both cases the approach to the diminished seventh is by step. Functionally the diminished seventh chord is usually a dominant harmony built on a leading tone.


Assuming the 4th edition is the same as the 3rd at this point (though the page numbers are not quite the same) you have separated the first half of what the book says from the second half.

Taken together, they just mean "the 7th note of the chord can be preceded by anything, but must be followed by the note a semitone or tone lower" (in major or minor keys respectively).

He then claims that some preceding notes are more common (and "better" in some undefined sense) than others.

There are two self-consistent ways to write about common practice harmony. One is to observe what composers wrote historically, and attempt to extract general principles from it.

The other is to assume there is some Platonic musical ideal called "common practice harmony" and prescribe the rules for writing it.

The trouble with many books (including Laitz) is that they conflate the two things, and state dogma as if it were fact. It is quite reasonable for a student who wants to learn (as compared with one who wants to get a good grade in an exam) to question almost every pronouncement in a book like Laitz, and not find a convincing answer in the book itself - because there isn't any answer except "historically, composers wrote this more often than that."

In this specific case, it is easy enough to find common practice harmonic progressions which don't follow Laitz's dogma - for example where one dominant 7th chord resolves onto another one, in a progression like this:

enter image description here


In using 7th chords, it is important to consider the movement of the scale degrees. 7 likes to lead to 8, 4 likes to move down to 3, etc. When resolving a 7th chord it is preferred that these types of movements are used. Pay attention to semi-tone movement in 7th chords that are not dominant-sevens so that you can see what notes from one chord might move most nicely to the next.

So, in preparation of the 7th chord, consider how to move a voice to notes in the 7th chord based on how they will resolve so that you will have the smoothest lines possible.

Some voices will dictate their path, like the melody. In the bass, inversions matter less in 7th chords because all four notes will be sung. There are fewer rules to keep in mind regarding bass notes, and voice doubling is irrelevant. However, it is a good idea to still watch for places where the interval between the bass and tenor is a P4 and the draw on the traditional usages of 6/4 chords in those instances.

Voice leading is the primary key. The smoother the line, the easier it is to convincingly go wherever you want, including borrowed chords, secondary sevenths, etc.

  • Smoothest isn't always best. That's a commonly stated "rule," but breaking it judiciously is one key to writing interesting inner parts (and melodies, for that matter). Also, when the melody's cadence is ^2 ^1, the tenor or alto will often move ^7 ^5 to avoid having a tripled root in the final chord.
    – phoog
    Jul 25 '19 at 15:21
  • I am not sure that this is special to the dom 7 chord, as per my comment to the OP. It seems that in classical harmony texts there are several rules of thumb that apply to ALL possible chord movements. One of these is keep movement as small as possible when going from one chord to the next (with the exception of the bass). The OP is looking for V7 special rules and imo they standard rules "prepare" the V7 just fine. Can you explain the difference?
    – user50691
    Jul 25 '19 at 17:20
  • @Phoog Writing interesting inner parts or melodies is beyond the scope of the OPs question. Also, I would disagree that the move from the ^7 to ^5 at the final cadence happens "often." It does happen, but it is merely a matter of personal preference as the ^5 is not necessary for the tonal quality of the final chord. A tripled root is not something to avoid. The ^5 is there for added color, if desired. Many composers would prefer to satisfy the pull of the ^7 to the tonic rather than leave it hanging in order to hear the ^5 in the last chord. Again, totally about preference.
    – Heather S.
    Jul 25 '19 at 17:20
  • The other exception is when you have repeated chords, they you are free to jump around from one inversion to the next. This helps create smooth transitions between chords that do not have many notes close together.
    – user50691
    Jul 25 '19 at 17:21
  • @ggcg, I agree that there is not a lot of change in how to approach part-writing when it comes to using 7th chords. However, that being said, secondary 7ths and fully diminshed 7ths will contain non-diatonic tones which need some special care. And I'm going to stick to smoothest is best in those cases, in a classical style.
    – Heather S.
    Jul 25 '19 at 17:25

The basic rule is 'don't jump to or from a dissonance'. Approach and resolve it by step movement, or by no movement at all.

This, particularly the approach part, only applies to Bach-style SATB writing. Smooth part-writing is one thing. Dramatic leaps are also good - today or 400 years ago! Maybe more so TO a 7th than from it.

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