In my readings on partimento theory (mainly the books by Sanguinetti and IJzerman) I have so far only encountered rules for harmonizing a bass melody. This is to be expected of course, because learning how to properly harmonize bass melodies is the whole point of partimento theory to begin with.

Nonetheless, I was wondering what kind of approach the Italian partimento masters would have used in teaching how to harmonize non-bass melodies. Would it be possible, for example, to derive from the Rule of the Octave a guideline on how to accompany a given melody with a scalar bass line?

Any insights warmly appreciated!


1 Answer 1


Robert Gjerdingen used to have a website called monuments of Solfeggi.

While it seems that website is no longer maintained the Achieve-It service has a saved copy... https://wayback.archive-it.org/org-1018/20170928202641/http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/music/gjerdingen/solfeggi/aboutSolfe/histOverview.htm

If I follow the overview, solfeggi include a bass part with the melody. The website links to collections from 9 composers. 8 of the 9 collections include bass parts.

If solfeggi were mostly for instruments that couldn't play chords - voice, violin, flute, etc. - then it makes sense there wasn't a focus on improvising an additional part. I think the idea was to sing/play the exemplar melody and hear it in context with a good bass. I suppose a big part of it was to learn by doing things like resolving leaps or non-chord tones, tasteful ornamentation, etc.

I can see one obvious problem trying to work backward from the rule of the octave and applying it to the treble instead of the bass. While from the bass there is basically one chord type per scale degree, from the treble there are several chord choices...

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The only repeated chord choice above the bass is the tonic repeating at the octave.

But look at the chord choices for the treble tone DO, there are four different chords.

Notice also that linear direction alone doesn't clarify the melody choice as it does for the bass. Example, how to harmonize FA in the bass. The linear direction between FA and MI in the bass determines the harmony, MI to FA is I6 IV and FA to MI is V4/2 I6. Compare that to how to harmonize DO in the treble. DO to TI ascending and descending can be harmonized two ways.

I don't mean the rule can't be applied to the treble. Only that the choice are more complicated than compared to the bass.


I played from this solfeggi set this morning...

...and I can't get over feeling that the two part part writing between treble and bass was a major focus of solfeggi. At least a certain type of solfeggi. The bass was there as an exemplar, and the counterpoint was meant to be studied.

When considering both partimenti and solfeggi the bass and treble parts were given in the lesson. Of course partimenti lacked the treble (exluding partimenti fugue) and apparently some solfeggi didn't give the basses. But when it comes to improvising harmony, it seems to me, that part was the filler of inner voices not the proper bass or treble.

I suppose a bass can be improvised for a solfeggi without a bass, but it would be a different category of part: a proper bass versus inner voices.

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