Lessons for Rufus: parallel 5ths? Don’t listen to them

January 11, 2007



I overheard some students working on their harmony exercises at the cafe last night. One said “No! You can’t do that; that’s parallel 5ths.” The other sighed in disappointment.

I don’t recall your telling me why you couldn’t tolerate being a music student, but if this is what they were feeding you, I don’t blame you! Look at ms. 45-46 [above] in Beethoven’s Op.28 D major piano sonata (1) and see the naughtiest parallel 5ths you can imagine.

In my day, as we studied harmony and counterpoint, parallel 5ths were always marked wrong, and we felt like complete idiots if our teachers found them. Now days, I am shocked that nothing has changed. Do they not know of my young brothers Claude and Erik who shattered that silliness once and for all? But no! They insist on perpetuating this silly rule. Granted, if a student wants to parody music of the classical era (and WHY would one want to?), yes, they should avoid parallel 5ths. Think how less interesting the musical world would be if Henry Mancini had not written “The Pink Panther” theme––all in parallel 5ths. Don’t listen to that silly rule, m’boy. Celebrate parallel 5ths!


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel Wolf January 11, 2007 at 4:24 pm

Roger — This is an important insight for students, and one that teachers all too often leave unsaid: the rules of an exercise cannot be translated one for one into actual compositional practice. An exercise in counterpoint or harmony avoids parallel fifths and octaves because one wants a dissimilitude among lines, that is, the individual lines have to be melodies in their own right. A central purpose of the exercise is creating that independence. In “real” composition, however, such a limitation is not always required or even desireable. Indeed, one often finds — and opera is especially rich in examples (while schools typically avoid citing operatic examples) — that an ensemble with part writing will thin out to octaves or a unison (and vice versa), or that parallel fifths will be used for effect. But these real examples by no means discount the value of the exercise, because it’s through the complex ensemble that the parallel or unison ensemble gains its particular power.

Roger Bourland January 11, 2007 at 7:28 pm

I wield the power of the red pencil when it comes to “correcting” original chorales that my students compose. Finding parallel 5ths is something tangible that teachers can “mark wrong” as though harmony exercises are like math problems.

Hey Daniel, YOU are the one that should be writing a book. Your language and thoughts are shiny and thoughtful. Thanks again for your remarks.

Daniel Wolf January 13, 2007 at 10:06 am

Roger, I hope that it won’t disappoint
to learn that I’d once written a textbook disjoint.
It was full of musical arithmetics,
couched in harmless — almost — limericks
and covering 15th century modal counterpoint.

A title sought I for this heft,
and took one from Miller, Henry, with dexterous theft.
For, in order to sell one million copies
of a book teaching tunes as florid as poppies,
I had to hide behind metaphors somewhat bereft

of the usual moral qualities found
in the older musical theories renowned.
TOPIC OF COUNTERPOINT, my grand tome was called.
(Do you think it risque or just somewhat ribald?)
At once it was a hit in the music theory underground,

It was sold in brown paper on corners quite dark
To desperately cribbing students out for a lark,
Experimenting in the basement of old Schoenberg hall
hiding their octaves and fifths parallal.
‘Til my fortune was stopped by a snarc!

Yes, an agent of the SMT secret police
had caught me unlicensed, trying to fleece
a stack my books to some students in LA
who were supposed to have been reading their Schenker and Forte.
At once, from theory teaching I had to desist and to cease.

And so, all alone in my garrett of exile
I wait for the day when I’ll be free to compile
My next great big book which
will be one for the kitchen
with every single recipe guaranteed to beguile.

Brad Wood January 13, 2007 at 6:43 pm

Well at least I know the deafening silence following my own almost-harmless Seeger limerick was not one of pure disgust 😉

After having the parallel fifths shown me (I was thrown off by the brief pause between them, thanks Roger), I’ve been trying to understand why they don’t sound as obvious. And I think it’s the resolution of the suspension before the next bar. Amusing that Beethoven has that G# sounding in isolation as well. But I get a sense of a sort of completion, an intermediate end, which allows me to hear the next measure in a sufficiently new context.

Roger Bourland January 15, 2007 at 12:05 pm

OK Daniel, you’ve seeled the deal. We’ll be the HERR MUSIKDOKTOR DOCTORS!

Brad, He gets away with it because he just repeats the phrase DOWN a major second; no transition, he just GOES THERE. And there are the parallel 5ths.The silence forgives and washes away the sin.

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