Getting Started with 4-part Harmony
Some of you have already written chord progressions in a previous theory class. However, it
is my experience that few students come to college with the ability to consistently whip off
progressions correctly. Thus, I would recommend that you take a careful look at the way Ive
organized things here. (If you have never done this before, relax! Its virtually painless, I
You can also compare this packet to Ottman pp. 83-88.
The basic setup - bass line + upper voices
When we write harmonic progressions in a 4-voice texture, one usually thinks in terms of
a bass line plus 3 upper voices.
It turns out that the two parts of the texture behave very differently. The upper voices tend to
move from chord to chord in the smoothest way possible. They are also carefully stacked so
that they create a homogenous, blended sound. (The way they must be arranged is called
spacing, and you will need to learn the spacing rules as explained below.) The bass line, on
the other hand, will leap around a bit more, and it is exempt from the spacing rules. It will
often wander away quite far from the upper voices. (I like to say that it is a free agent.)
The bass line is very easy to write, since it is spelled out for you in the requested chord
progression. For now, we will write with all chords in root position - this means that the bass
line will always cover the root of each harmony.
Three possible bass lines for the same progression
©2004 Dave Smey. Reproduction and classroom use freely permitted.
The upper voices will cover all three tones of the triad. Thus one of the tones ends up being
doubled, since it appears in both the upper voices and the bass line. In the beginning, that
note should always be the root. There are other possibilities, but well worry about them later.
Its important to start off being 100% consistent, so, once again:
1) Always cover all three tones
in the upper voices.
2) Always double the root.
Keyboard Style vs. SATB
There are actually two different ways you can arrange your 4-voice music on the staff, which
are commonly called the keyboard and SATB styles.
In keyboard style, the bass line is by itself on the bass clef, and the upper three parts are on the
treble staff. One usually beams the upper voices together like a single chord. Up to this point
all of my examples have been drawn in keyboard style.
SATB style helps you think of the progression as though it was choral music. SATB stands,
of course, for the standard division of choral parts - soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. In this style
you put the soprano and alto parts on the top staff and the tenor and bass on the bottom. You
will usually stem each part seperately, so that soprano stems always point up, alto stems down,
and so on. (See my example.)
Many of you have already been taught to write in SATB style all of the time. I would strongly
recommend giving keyboard style a try -- it is much easier to conceive, to read, and to play
than SATB. It will help you to learn faster and make fewer mistakes.
Open vs. Closed Voicings
So far in this packet Ive written everything in closed voicings. (Also called close voicings.)
The triads in the upper voices are stacked as tightly as possible. The opposite of this would
be open voicings, in which one leaves extra space in between the upper voices.
It turns out that open voicings are easy to screw up -- if you are not careful you will violate
the spacing and doubling rules. However, Ive got a little trick that will help you make proper
open voicings every time, by thinking of open voicings as a transformation of closed voicings.
Start by thinking of your progression in closed voicings. Then, take the alto part and send it
down an octave, into the tenor part. Voila, instant open voicings! (Eventually you will forego
the step of actually composing the closed voicing first -- but you should continue to mentally
doublecheck your open voicings in this way.)
A properly spaced and doubled open voicing will skip over one chord tone from S to A and
from A to T. Notice how the result is nice and evenly spaced (just like a closed voicing only
more spread out.)
The Spacing Rule
Not following the skip
pattern causes spacing and
no triad tones
Your spacing is wrong when
there is more than an octave
between any adjacent pair of
upper voices. (So more than
an octave between S & A, or
A & T.)
The proper spacing pattern is
also intimately related to
spacing error here
too many tones
bad doubling 2 roots, 2 fifths, no third!
The Relationship Between Style and Spacing
It turns out that keyboard style goes well with close voicings, and SATB style goes well with
open. Dont confuse the two concepts, though - they are seperate! You can write close voicings
in SATB, or open in keyboard style if you want to.
close voicing, keyboard style
open voicing, SATB style
close voicing, SATB style
open voicing, keyboard style
Switching Between the Styles
In general it is not advisable to flip-flop between open and closed voicings, nor is it smart to
move frequently between the two styles -- better to pick one and stick to it. If you do have a
desire to change from keyboard style to SATB, however, you can do it as long as you draw a
little line to show where the tenor part crosses over.
Practice Exercises (for in-class completion)
A. Making Close Voicings
For each of these chords Ill provide the roman numeral and a soprano note. Fill in the alto
& tenor voices directly below the soprano (making a close voicing) and provide a bass note
in the lower clef.
B. Converting closed to open AND keyboard to SATB
Take these little progressions which are written in close voicings, keyboard style, and convert
them to open voicings, SATB. All you really have to do it copy the alto part down an octave.
C. Error Finding
Assign a letter to each one of these excerpts.
Good closed voicing
Good open voicing
D. Making Open Voicings
Make an open voicing for each chord. You can use either SATB or keyboard style.
I - V - I Progressions
We are going to carefully build up a vocabulary of chord progressions. Each stop on the way
will introduce both a new harmonic function and new voice-leading requirements (i.e. new
things you need to remember when you connect the chords).
The first unit focuses on the V chord, though it turns out the voice-leading procedures apply
to any chords related by a fourth or fifth.
The V chord is the most important harmony in the tonal universe besides I. In the near future
we will look at how the V-I progression punctuates most phrases in Classical music.
To get started writing V-I progressions in 4 voices, there are 2 procedures you need to learn.
If you follow these formulas you will automatically avoid making the common errors of fourvoice writing (like parallel 5ths, etc.) Thus, we can starting writing without worrying too much
about rules (which will come soon enough.)
The Common-Tone Procedure
( = Ottmans First Procedure p. 92)
The absolute smoothest and simplest way to connect chords related by fourth or fifth is to take
a common tone. Its easy. Lets start by making a I-V-I progression in C major.
a) Build your first chord with good spacing
and doublings. (Here we will build a I in
b) Figure out which note belongs to both
the I and the V chord. (This is the common
tone.) If you are not yet confident with
your diatonic triads you should spell out
both triads above the staff.
c) Hold the common tone over in whatever
voice it happens to be in.
d) Connect the other 2 upper voices to tones
in the V chord. Both will slide either up
or down by step. Make the bass cover V
and you are done.
The Next-Closest V-Chord
( = Ottmans Second Procedure p. 92)
So youve probably figured out by now that when you write out the upper three voices of the
triad there are a few different positions (or rotations) of the chord that you can choose from.
I chord in three positions
So when you connect your I to a V, youve got to choose a good position for that five chord.
Lets say the the position of the V that would hold over the common tone is the closest, since
it requires the least amount of movement to get there.
There are occasions, though, that you might not want to go to that particular version of the V
chord. (Perhaps it does not make the soprano line you are looking for.) Among the possible
connections to the V chord there is a second viable option - the next-closest.
option makes a
How do you know youve found the next-closest V chord? All the voices will move by a
third or less.
So ultimately I think this procedure involves putting down a V voicing and inspecting it
carefully to see that it meets this requirement.
The next-next closest = wrong.
If you choose a connection in which one of the voices moves more than a third (namely a fourth
or fifth), its going to make a bad parallels with the bass (parallel 5ths or 8ves) or badness by
contrary motion (5ths by contrary, 8ves by contrary.) Well talk more about these rules later,
but in the meantime you should just avoid letting the upper voices move by 4th or 5th.
badness by contrary
Other Progressions by 4th or 5th
You can also apply these procedures to I-IV-I progressions, and circle-of-fifths progressions.
I-IV-I with common tone
circle-of-fifths progression with common tones
Exercises (for in-class)
A. Common-Tone Connections
Once again Ill pick the top note -- all you need to do is fill in the alto and tenor to make a
proper close voicing. Next, convert the close-voiced progression to an open voiced one (in
fill in closed voicings
Finally, make a common-tone progression of your own, first
in close voicings and then in open.
convert to open voicings
B. Next-closest Connections
Same deal as the previous page.
This line requires a mix of common-tone and next-closest connections.
Make your own progression that includes at least one next-closest connection.
The Third to Third technique (Ottman p. 95)
Up until now weve been making our progressions in all open or all closed voicings. Theres a good
reason for this -- carelessly flipping between open and closed will often cause errors. Theres only
one way to safely do it, which well call the third-to-third method.
1. The third in one chord moves
to the third in the other.
2. The common tone stays put.
3. The remaining voice moves
by step. (It moves in the
opposite direction of the big
Heres one that goes from open to closed.
Unfortunately, this method does not always work out well -- it depends on how the first chord is arranged.
However, it is important to know, since jumping between open and closed positions using any other method
will usually create bad fifths or octaves.
(8ves by contrary)
(8ves by contrary)