I'm really not sure of a better way to phrase my question. If the tenor and alto voices are both on a B, and the tenor voice moves down to A, does it count as parallel octaves if the soprano voice moves down to an A on the next downbeat? (I've attached a screenshot of the measures in question.)

Parallel octaves?

  • Yes. What matters, I think, is that it sounds like parallel octaves. There are also parallel octaves - soprano and bass - on the first and second chords. Dec 18, 2019 at 22:04
  • I’m interested in this passage. 1. Could you show more bares? 2. Is this a given tune to harmonize? 3. Is this an existing passage of a song or a task? 4. Is the bass or the soprano given? Can we choose/change the chord progression? Dec 18, 2019 at 22:47
  • @OldBrixtonian you might think that the answer is "yes," but there are plenty of examples "out in the wild" of part writing that does this.
    – phoog
    Dec 18, 2019 at 23:49
  • @AlbrechtHügli this was a small portion of a harmonization I'm working on for a melody. It's intended to be part of a larger piece eventually.... Dec 19, 2019 at 0:07
  • 1
    Athanasius gave you the answer. But, if you are trying to learn common practice voice leading (Bach, Mozart, etc.) I think it's better to learn what good voice leading and harmony is rather than a list of prohibitions. Dec 19, 2019 at 0:51

3 Answers 3


Well, it depends on your classification system. The aural result in this case would definitely sound a bit like parallel octaves, even though the octaves only occur by the confluence of bits from three different voices.

This occurs in this particular example because there's a voice overlap in soprano and alto, where the soprano leaps below the last alto note. That's generally not good voice-leading in four-part chorale style (though it may be acceptable in other stylistic contexts).

There also is what's known as direct fifths or hidden fifths between the soprano and tenor, where they both move in the same direction toward an octave, which will accent the octave a bit. But they are generally not considered a serious problem unless between outer voices.

So, basically, you have the combined problems of voice overlap in S-A with the direct fifths in S-T, which end up also creating parallel octaves within the texture as a whole. Whether or not you want to call these truly "parallel octaves" (which often has the implication of two specific voices moving in parallel), there are enough voice-leading problems to make some changes here.

  • Interesting--I hadn't heard of direct fifths before. I'm fairly new to composition in general (and voice leading, specifically), but I'll see how I can rethink the chord structures. Dec 19, 2019 at 0:05

This sort of thing is the reason for the "rule" that voices should not overlap. In the particular example, the treble A is lower than the preceding alto B.

The fix here is easy enough - just change the alto from B to G, which gives you a better voicing of that chord anyway.


Do parallel octaves “count” across multiple voices?


Parallel motion is between two voices.

But it isn't clear what you mean by "count."

By definition the movement in question is not parallel octaves and in that sense it doesn't "count."

If "count" means "something to avoid," then the question is about style. For that concern you need to both identify the motion type properly and understand what motion is considered good in a particular style.

From Kostka, Tonal Harmony an example of misidentified parallel fifths which would be acceptable for 18th century style voice leading...

enter image description here

So, the movement you asked about is not parallel octaves, but there are other problems with voice leading in your example:

  • parallel octaves between bass and soprano in the first two chords
  • unbalanced/incomplete chord tones in the second chord
  • crossed voices between soprano and alto
  • direct fifths in outer voices to the D major chord

It's a drag to write something, then proof it against of voice leading prohibitions. I suggest getting a few harmony or counterpoint textbooks and review the part writing procedures. Better books (for me that was Piston's Harmony first edition) will what you should do and why rather than list prohibitions. Procedures like...

  • voice chord completely
  • hold common tones
  • move voices by step, etc.

Combine that with a review of the rule of the octave (an old method of teaching harmony, short and simple but goes a long way for understanding) and you should get a handle on 18th century voice leading and harmony.

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