Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/music theory


QUESTION: When taking music theory class at school you will learn to avoid consecutive fifhts and consecutive octaves in your four-part writing/voicing. Why is that? Is it due to the fact that music theory has a lot to do with the baroque era?
In music theory class there is a lot of four-part voicing (SATB). Is SATB used in class since it is good for learning about chords and inversion? I mean, much of Bach's keyboard music isn't writen with SATB, eg BWV 772.

ANSWER: Hi Hank!

Thanks very much for your email. That's a very interesting question. In fact, you have almost answered it yourself. For the last three hundred years music (since around 1720) theory books have been very conservative and in some ways old-fashioned. Most of the books on harmony refer to "rules" in much the same way that language grammar books do. These rules actually developed out of seventeenth century (and earlier) conventions. In the case of consecutive fifths and octaves, these were avoided for hundreds of years on the grounds that they were considered ugly or a sign of lazy writing. Of course, now they appears everywhere and some composers (e.g. the English Vaughan Williams) used consecutive fifths frequently. Strangely enough, during the thirteenth century and earlier, singing in consecutive fifths was common practice in folk music and religious chants.

Actually it is good practice to writing harmony by using these conventions of avoiding consecutive fifths and octaves as a mental exercise. In normal practice in choral writing its better avoid them unless you especially want that kind of medieval sound in the music.

Writing SATB is generally considered a good way to learn the basics of harmony and most music theory examinations require candidates to write some form of SATB passage. As to inversions, it's possibly the most effective way of understanding them because there are only four parts to consider. So basically there's nothing wrong it learning this way although it might seem a bit old-fashioned. Actually, I had to write an SATB vocal arrangement of a national anthem a few days ago for a concert performance. And yes, I avoided consecutive fifths! SATB is most often associated with voices - soprano, alto, tenor and bass - but it can also be used for instruments, and often is.

Bach was a working composer and wrote music for what voices or instruments were available. Some of his choral pieces are in two or three parts, not four. As to BWV772, these are keyboard pieces which were intended as instructional exercises and written in two (and later three) independent parts.

I hope this helps. If not, feel free to get back to me!

Best wishes


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Let's say you would like to analyse a classical piano/keyboard concerto. Should you then analyse the keyboard part separately, i.e. not including other instrumental parts in the analysis. You analyse them later?
Or let's say you have keyboard part and a voice part. In order to do a correct analysis should you analyse the parts separately or together?

Hi Hank,

Thanks for your email. Your two questions are quite closely related. A piano concerto (to take your first example) is a single entity and should be analyzed as such. There are several reasons for this. The piano part and the orchestral part will obviously share melodic ideas. These ideas might undergo development during the piece and so it makes sense to analyze both at the same time otherwise there would probably a great deal of repetition. There might even be interplay between the piano and orchestra, exchanging fragments of melody. If you were to analyze separately it would be very difficult to describe this. I can think of other reasons but I am sure you get my point. In the first movement, a classical concerto will almost certainly use a structure known as sonata form which has three broad sections. It makes much more sense to start the analysis at the beginning for all instruments then work your way through.

The same applies to a song with a keyboard and voice part, for much the same reasoning. The composer will have almost certainly written the two parts at the same time and not one after the other. The two are so closely intertwined that it would make no sense to analyze them separately unless of course you were asked to do so in an examination question. Even so, if you were required to analyze the keyboard part alone (for example) it would make little sense unless you also referred to the vocal part.

I hope this helps!

Best wishes


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Dr Colin


I can answer questions from students of "classical" composing, arranging, notation problems and music theory, writing for instruments and voice and writing music for education. I can answer questions about orchestration but I do not cover questions about pop or rock music, pop song writing or electronic music.

I taught for many years in UK up to "A" level theory and composition. I have spent many years in music education, initially (like everyone else) as a teacher. Then I moved on to advisory work (teaching teachers!) and also lectured, giving many workshops for teachers in developing music education skills and techniques. For a time I worked as a teacher-lecturer at London University's Institute of Education and eventually worked full-time as a Music Education Adviser to schools in part of London, offering advice on music education and curriculum development.


I started composing music at the age 14 (it was mostly rubbish, since you asked) and now have a large number of compositions to credit as well as many publications, especially for instrumental music and choral music. I have also written several acclaimed works for large orchestra and choir. My work has been published particularly in the UK (under different names)(notably by Boosey & Hawkes, Novello, and Schott) but also in the USA and the Netherlands.

My music for elementary players (several publications) has been performed and broadcast worldwide. I am now retired from my previous job as Music Education Adviser. These days I spend most of my time composing and arranging. I am currently working on instrumental arrangements of world national anthems for my National Anthems website and also completing a suite of very easy piano solos and duets for elementary players. For many years I have used the music program "Finale" for all my music writing activities.

International Society for Music Education; Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

"The Times" Educational Supplement; "Hi-Fi News and Record Review". For several years, I used to write for many of the state music education periodicals in the US and I also wrote several influential articles on instrumental music teaching for "Music Teacher" magazine in the UK. (UK).

PhD(Hons); MA(Hons); FLCM (compositon) ARCM, LMusTCL,(music diplomas)

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