Creating (SL and HL)
Stylistic techniques: Bach Chorale
Chorales are hymns of the Lutheran (Protestant) church of Germany that evolved from
monophonic plainsong to become sophisticated metrical settings for four-part choir.
JS Bach is widely considered to be the preeminent composer of this genre. Several hundred
chorales feature in his cantatas and other large-scale religious works. Bach’s workings are
often highly expressive, using all of the musical elements at his disposal to enliven the text.
To fulfil one of the Creating options, a four-part harmonisation in the style of JS Bach of a
pre-existing chorale melody of 16 or more bars may be submitted along with another
stylistic exercise: Renaissance vocal counterpoint, figured bass in the baroque style, twopart
18th-century instrumental counterpoint, 18th-century string quartet, 19th-century song
accompaniment or 12-note/tone techniques. A reflective statement that describes the
intention, process and outcome in no more than 300 words is required for both exercises.
Aural familiarity with the genre is a prerequisite for success. The completed working should
provide evidence that demonstrates a secure understanding of musical features that are
characteristic of Bach’s style, including:
• vocal ranges and tessitura,
• spacing of the parts,
• part-writing and voice-leading,
• the treatment of dissonance,
• harmonic rhythm,
• standard cadential progressions,
• typical harmonic vocabulary,
• modulation, cadential and transient, and
• notation practice.
Successful harmonisations have a strong sense of musical flow. This is achieved by a melodic
bass line that provides a strong counterpoint to the melody and the elaboration of the
tenor, alto and bass parts with decorations (passing and auxiliary notes), dissonances (4-3
and 9-8), chromatic harmony and modulation.
Chorales are normally written in short score: soprano and alto on a treble stave, tenor and
bass on a bass stave. Irrespective of the pitch of the note, the stems for soprano and tenor
point up, while those for alto and bass point down. A pause (fermata) above the stave is
used to indicate the final chord of each phrase.
It is common practice to describe the chords beneath the bass stave using Roman numerals.
Note, however, that these are meaningless unless the key note is also given. Uppercase
should be used to indicate the key note of a major key and lowercase for a minor key.
Where there is a modulation (see Modulation), this should be shown as follows:
Vocal range and tessitura
The following ranges are based on Bach’s usage in his chorale harmonisations:
Spacing of the parts (soprano, alto, tenor and bass)
There should be no more than an octave between soprano and alto, and alto and tenor. As
Bach’s tenor parts are frequently on ledger lines above middle C, the distance between
soprano and tenor should be minimised whenever possible.
When realising a triad for four voices, a note will have to be doubled.
• The root of a chord should be doubled in preference to the 5th.
• The 3rd should only be doubled if the voice-leading makes it preferable to do so. For
example, during an active bassline or at an imperfect cadence where Ib resolves to V
and the soprano part moves in contrary motion with the bass.
• The 5th is the only note that can be omitted.
• Tendency notes (dissonances and chromatic or leading notes) should never be
• In chord Ic, the 5th (the bass note) should be doubled.
• Diminished triads (chord vii and ii in minor keys) should be used in first inversion
with the bass note (the 3rd of the chord) doubled.
The cadence
Each phrase concludes with a cadence (at the pause sign).
• Perfect cadences are the most common (c. 78%), usually with both V and I in root
position. viib – I is sometimes used, but never as the final cadence.
• Imperfect cadences (? – V) are frequently used (c. 20%).
• Plagal and interrupted cadences are rarely used.
Bach’s cadential progressions are often predictable and formulaic in nature. II(7b) – V(7) – I is
the most common. The cadential 6/4 (Ic – V(7) – I) is also frequently used (NB Ic should sound
on a strong beat).
The shape of the melody, as it relates to the degrees of the scale, is often a good indicator
of the cadence type. For example:
• 3-2-1 and 8-7-8 accommodates a cadential 6/4. alternatively, 3-2-1 is often
approached using Ib (Ib V I).
• 2-1, where the 2 is a minim, accommodates II7b V I.
Harmonic rhythm
Most chorales are in quadruple simple time; a few are in triple simple. For chorales in
quadruple time:
• Chords should change on every crotchet beat. Minims, other than those found at the
pause, should therefore be harmonised with two chords. V4-3 is permissible, if the
suspension and its resolution are spread over two beats.
• Quaver movement in the melody can either be treated as passing notes or a
doubling of the harmonic rhythm.
• For chorales with an anacrusis at the opening of a phrase, the weak/strong rule does
not apply. (see Other considerations)
Each part has a particular function:
• The soprano carries the melody
• The bass defines the harmony and provides the main counterpoint to the melody
• The inner parts complete the harmony
The inner parts should usually move by the smallest possible interval from chord to chord,
but in defining the harmony, it is not uncommon for the bass to leap as necessary. It should
be noted, however, that many of Bach’s most successful basslines are scalic.
Chorales are to be sung, so awkward melodic intervals should be avoided.
There are conventions that are used to ensure the independence of each voice:
• Octaves and fifths between any two voices in consecutive chords must be avoided,
even if the parts move in contrary motion.
• The soprano must not leap in similar motion with the bass to form an interval of an
octave or a fifth.
The excellence of the part-writing may dictate otherwise, but in ordinary circumstances
unnecessary crossovers should be avoided: the parts should retain their normal order of
register from one chord to the next.
Overlaps, which occur when two neighbouring parts move so that the lower part in the
second chord is higher than the upper part in the first, or vice versa, should also be avoided,
though there are exceptions.
At the cadence, it is not uncommon for an inner voice with the leading note to resolve to a
note other than the tonic: the overriding requirement is to have the root, 3rd and 5th present
in the concluding chord of the cadence.
Root and first inversions are used to give the bass line melodic shape, with second
inversions reserved exclusively for the cadential and passing 6/4s. Scalic bass lines are
especially effective.
Treatment of dissonance
All dissonances must be prepared (sounded in the previous chord, in same part and either at
or one note above the dissonance that follows) and resolved downwards by step. There is
one significant exception: V7. This dissonance may be approached by step from below or by
a leap of a third.
Second inversions chords are unstable and, therefore, considered a dissonance. This type of
chord is only used in two places: at a cadence in the cadential 6/4 (Ic – V – I) and in the
passing 6/4 (e.g. IV – Ic – II7b). As with the 4-3 suspension, the fourth in a 6/4 chord must be
Harmonic vocabulary
Chords I and Ib, V and Vb, are the most frequently used chords.
II7b should be used in preference to IV as the approach chord to the dominant, especially at
a perfect cadence. It is a much more colourful chord and is simple to convert to a secondary
III is rarely used, but when it is, it usually follows VI.
vii and ii in minor keys are diminished triads that should never be used in root position.
Secondary dominants are common, especially at cadences where II7b is chromatically
altered to become V7 of V.
Every chorale includes at least one modulation. Passing (transient) modulations mid-phrase
are common.
Modulations often involve the use of a pivot chord for the smooth transition from one key
to another. A pivot chord is a diatonic chord that is common to the prevailing and the key
that follows. Abrupt modulations, usually from the final chord of a cadence to the first chord
of the following phrase, do not require any special preparation.
Accidentals in the melody confirm that a modulation is required, as does a leading note that
does not rise. Nevertheless, the absence of accidentals does not mean that a modulation is
not possible or appropriate.
Other considerations
All notes should have a function:
• Harmony note
• (Accented) passing note
• (Upper or lower) auxiliary note
• Anticipation
• Échappée
If a note cannot be given one of these labels, there is an error that needs to be corrected.
It should be noted that:
• Anticipations and échappées should not be harmonised.
• Minor key chorales must end with a Tierce de Picardie.
Weak/strong rule
Chord I may be repeated from an anacrusis to the first strong beat of the phrase, when
implied by the melody. In this case, the bass note should leap upward by an octave. In all
other instances, a bass note should not be repeated from a weak beat to a strong beat
unless the bass note on the strong beat is a dissonance.
Faced with a complete chorale to harmonise, the challenge can seem overwhelming.
Approaching the task step by step and cultivating the ability to respond intuitively to the
melody can be liberating; what some consider a highly technical endeavour becomes purely
musical. Aural familiarity with the genre is essential. Singing, playing and listening to
chorales is vitally important preparatory work that must not be overlooked. Of particular
value is singing or playing the soprano and bass parts without the inner voices, as this brings
a much greater awareness of the two-part counterpoint that exists between these voices.
Conventions or rules have been codified over many years to help scholars of four-part
counterpoint understand Bach’s approach. Look hard, however, and you will discover that
his workings are not faultless, if technical perfection is a criterion for success, but they offer
a profoundly musical response to the challenge. For examination purposes, however, it is
usually best to work within the conventions mentioned in this document. Guided by these
and aided by aural familiarity, it is possible to produce pastiche work of a very high quality.
Developing an efficient and effective methodology to the task is key.
It is important to remember that the bass line should provide a strong counterpoint to the
melody: the addition of inner parts to weak, two-part counterpoint will not correct or
obscure deficiencies in the bass line. The bass line defines the harmony and provides a
sense of direction and momentum to each cadence. Bach’s cadential solutions are formulaic
in nature and should be studied carefully and used in your own workings. This is not
plagiarism, but a requirement for success in this genre; harmonic and melodic invention
should be reserved for other parts of the phrase.
1. When presented with a melody to harmonise, play or sing each phrase before
considering its harmonic implications.
Identifying the tonality and key note confirms the key. Be guided by your musical
• Is the phrase major or minor?
• Is it possible to sense the key note at any point during the phrase?
• Is it possible to sense the leading note rising to the tonic?
• Does the cadence provide a sense of arrival on the tonic chord (perfect) or a feeling
that the music must continue (imperfect)?
The melodic shape of soprano part as it relates to the degrees of the scale can help
confirm a possible cadence type, but if you are still unsure, look at the final note of
the phrase and consider if it is falls within the tonic or dominant chord of the
proposed key.
• Identify the key at the opening and the close of the phrase. Are these the same? If
not, is it possible to identify where the music modulated?
2. Note the key(s) on the score and if it is helpful to do so, prepare a grid showing the
notes of the diatonic chords available:
Key: F major
Fifth C D E F G A Bb
Third A Bb C D E F G
Root F G A Bb C D E
Chord I ii iii IV V vi viio
Key: D minor
Fifth A Bb C(#) D E F G
Third F G A Bb C# D E
Root D E F G A Bb C#
Chord I iio III(+) IV V VI viio
In this example, uppercase and lowercase Roman numerals are used to indicate the tonality
of the chord, major and minor respectively. A lowercase numeral followed o indicates a
diminished triad, an uppercase numeral followed by + indicates augmented.
3. For each phrase, first add a bass line to the cadence and its approach chord. Then
the opening of the phrase.
• Is the opening of the phrase and the cadence in the same key?
Informed by the results of step 1, complete the bass line between these two points.
Does the bass line provide a strong, musical counterpoint to the melody?
4. Check for consecutives and exposed intervals.
Do not add any inner parts until the chorale is complete with a strong bass line
5. For each phrase, complete steps 1 to 4.
6. Complete the harmony by adding inner parts but resist the temptation to decorate
these with passing or auxiliary notes until the basic harmonic framework has been
7. Now look for opportunities to enhance your work with:
• Passing notes, especially V7
• Dissonance, including 4-3 and 9-8
• Auxiliary notes, but use these sparingly
8. Check your work for the following issues:
o Consecutive 5th, octave or unison, in similar or contrary motion, between any two
o Exposed 5th or octave between the soprano and bass parts
o Unprepared dissonance
o Unresolved dissonance
o Doubled tendency (dissonant or chromatic) note
o Doubled leading note
o Note does not proceed correctly (e.g. a passing note from the leading note or a
melodic interval that cannot easily be sung)
o More than an octave between the soprano and alto or alto and tenor
o Crossing parts
o Overlapping parts
o Chord repeated from weak to a strong beat (other than an anacrusis)
o Diminished chord in root position
o Omission of 3rd
o Wrong note or unsuitable chord
o False relation
o Poor notation
Useful resources
A Student’s Guide to Harmony and Counterpoint, Hugh Benham (ISBN 978-1-904226-31-4) presents all of Bach’s chorale settings and a wealth of scholarly
articles and research about this genre
J.S. Bach: Chorales, Chamber Choir of Europe, Nicol Matt, Brilliant Classics (6 CDs)
Apps (for Apple devices)
Bach Chorales (free) includes 371 of Bach’s chorale settings, in four-part realisation or with
figured bass.
Sheet Music Scanner (£3.99) plays back sheet music, either by taking a photo of it or by
importing a pdf.
Theory Lessons (£2.99) presents a summary of musical terms.