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View Full Version : Do you try avoiding parallel fifths?


Langriman
08-29-2009, 11:12 PM
I'm reading through a textbook on harmony right now ( http://www.amazon.com/Harmonic-Practice-Tonal-Music-Second/dp/0393976661 ) and after getting through the introductory chapters which were quite helpful (what are the main chords, chord transitions, cadences, rules of thumb for voice leading and so on), I've found that a good chunk of this book is "good ways to go from chord A to chord B without doing something that should be used sparingly". A lot of the stuff that should be used sparingly generally makes sense, like using lots of melodic leaps greater than a whole step, using dissonant intervals, and crossing two voices on the score. However, an enormous amount of attention is paid to avoiding parallel fifths and octaves.

Now, I understand the basic justification for this rule: it confuses the individuality of the voices. However, if I'm not writing contrapuntal music for a single instrument or ensemble of similar instruments, is this really important? When I listen to examples of tunes with and without parallel fifths, I can't hear anything wrong. Most of the music I want to make isn't concerned with keeping a continual dialogue between two similar voices. Furthermore, other sources I've looked at say that other schools of music beyond Western classical music from the common practice period don't worry about this rule at all. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_fifths

I know that the usual advice given to beginners is to learn the rules first and then experiment with breaking them later, but it seems like this rule might be completely irrelevant and it's taking up a big chunk of the information I'm trying to digest from my informal musical education. So my question to you composers and remixers out there who put a lot of thought into your harmonies: Does this rule inform your music-making at all? Can you tell when a piece you are listening to has a parallel fifth, and does it sound bad to you?

Fishy
08-30-2009, 12:02 AM
They aren't as important in large ensembles but if you have a 4-part choir or something then yes, you should try and avoid them. This is assuming you want something that sounds like authentic western classical harmony (although even the great composers used them sometimes).

Conversely, every rock guitar part ever written pretty much uses parallel fifths religiously. Depends on the style/sound you want. Parralel fifths tend to stand out as they reinforce one another, and because they aren't very interesting (as there isn't any tension created or released during that particular movement) that's generally something you want to avoid.

As with many musical rules; purists will follow them religious, others will use them when it suits them, and some people just don't care and write what they like. You can't do anything "wrong" unless you have a set of rules or a style you want to conform to.

PROTO·DOME
08-30-2009, 01:31 AM
You can't do anything "wrong" unless you have a set of rules or a style you want to conform to.

Exactly. I don't fuss over it- infact I'm not sure I use any real rules when writing music- you just do what sounds good. If you're writing a Bach corale then parallel fifths is like a sin- otherwise just chill and ignore them.

Moseph
08-30-2009, 03:39 AM
For what it's worth, when I write voices against each other, I still try to avoid parallel octaves, fifths, and fourths, not because the "rules" tell me to -- I'm certainly not following traditional part-writing rules in many other respects -- but because I've come to the point where I genuinely consider them to sound weak in a contrapuntal context (unless I want that specific sound). I can usually pick out the sound of them when I listen to what I'm writing, and there are usually alternate solutions for the voice movement that sound better to me, even in my rule-free context.

And therein lies the thing to consider: the idea of avoiding these parallels came about because people thought they didn't sound good, not because someone arbitrarily decreed that you couldn't use them. If they don't bother you in whatever context you happen to be in, then don't avoid them. Do keep in mind, though, that others may hear them more easily than you do, any it may bother them, especially if the parallels occur in a context of traditional, classical-sounding harmony, so always be prepared to justify your musical decisions if someone questions them.

EDIT: Also might be good to point out that contrary motion still rocks, not because the rules say to use it, but because it usually sounds good. It's another great way to differentiate voices, which is really what the spirit of counterpoint is about regardless of whether you're following strict rules or not.

audio fidelity
08-30-2009, 05:10 PM
my understanding is gregorian chant did this quite alot and composers wanted to distinguish themselves from music from the middle ages so it was seen as old and timely if you heard it happen - when western harmony was much more strict it was pretty obvious and people would immediately pick up on it (the audience being more adept as well)

today where everyone just does whatever they want with harmony in concert music - parallel 5ths or octaves being a problem are not so much an issue - it just comes down to style

besides beginning harmony classes no one is really gonna chew you out if it sounds good to your ear

tweex
08-30-2009, 07:37 PM
A lot of the stuff that should be used sparingly generally makes sense, like using lots of melodic leaps greater than a whole step, using dissonant intervals, and crossing two voices on the score. However, an enormous amount of attention is paid to avoiding parallel fifths and octaves.

With this being the case, then the majority of my orchestral work is completely wrong :)! My melodic intervals, many times, jump several intervals above the note preceding it and I write octaves CONSTANTLY for my instruments (strings together, brass together, woodwinds together, etc etc). However, from a programming standpoint, writing octaves is a very effective way of hiding a synthetic sound!

But, as everyone is saying, to each his own :-).

WillRock
08-30-2009, 07:51 PM
Gario, post in this thread :P

I do, but I know of people that don't... the reason I avoid them is because they don't sound as good to me as other combinations of chords, basically, style preference.

zircon
08-30-2009, 08:37 PM
Depends on what you're doing... I've been drawn to quartalism lately, which uses a lot of fourths and fifths.

Langriman
08-30-2009, 09:14 PM
I don't strive to follow rules for the sake of following rules, but I wonder if the fact that I can't hear anything wrong with parallel fifths means that I need to train my ear more, or that I'm not a very critical listener. Or that I've just grown up with a wider range of music than what 19th century European theorists listened to.

Depends on what you're doing... I've been drawn to quartalism lately, which uses a lot of fourths and fifths.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quartal_and_quintal_harmony
that's really interesting

Gario
08-30-2009, 09:46 PM
Originally Posted by Willrock

Gario, post in this thread :PYES.

Quartal/Quintal music uses parallel fifths, by the very nature of the music. I obviously don't complain when they're used there (strangely enough, I still try to avoid them when writing that music, but that's personal :P).

I'm currently working on a tutorial on Counterpoint, and I go through Parallel Fifths extensively, so I'll just quote it for you.

Originally Posted by Gario's Tutorial

Interestingly, ... parallel fifths do not simply make two voices sound like one voice, as the notes are different. Instead, in a counterpoint (and in composition, in general) parallel fifths create a conflict, as perfect fifths are a very strong static interval (the strongest static interval next to the octave, in fact). There are different theories on why this is true (the occurrence on the harmonic series is one explanation, the intervalic 2/3 ratio is another), but it is true, nonetheless. This means that if an interval is a fifth then it will aurally need to be in a strong, static moment and not used as something in motion.

What happens to the counterpoint if parallel fifths are used? The fifth is a static interval, but it is being moved from place to place. What happens aurally is that each time the fifth moves from once place to another it creates a new 'static moment' in the music, so instead of moving seamlessly from one place to another the music will move from place to place and settle each time, thus making the counterpoint sound clunky and awkward.

This is the complaint I have made the most in the forums around here, 'This has parallel fifths here, here and here...'. Why do I make a big deal about it when I don't complain about the other forbidden rules, here? Unlike [parallel octaves and unisons], if this happens in composition the effect it has on the harmonies is detrimental as the music loses any sort of flow it could have. If it is used to enhance a melodic line more often than not it will clash terribly with the harmonic backdrop, because unlike parallel octaves or unisons they are not the same note, and the fifth will bring out-of-the-key notes into the music unless the parallel fifth motion is sometimes replaced with a diminished fifth (which doesn't sound good to double a line with at all).

I understand that a lot of music nowadays use parallel fifths freely (actually, it is required in some music, such as in the power chords of heavy metal). The effect that parallel fifths has on something can be incredibly powerful if a static or clunky effect is desired. In heavy metal the listeners want a 'chuggy' song to bob their heads and mosh to (I can't imagine too much moshing if the music was 'contrapuntally correct'; too many people would be listening). In some impressionist music parallel fifths were used to create many static moments in the music one after the other. Remember, though, if you are moving from one chord to the next moving in fifths will generally ruin the sense of flow in the music. It'll making it sound like unrelated moments in the music rather than a flowing series of chords.Yeah, to sum that up, fifths make the counterpoint clunky, and can introduce notes that are not a part of the key because of the nature of that interval. This doesn't only apply to strict counterpoint - it also applies to basic voice-leading, so that's why it's generally a bad idea to use them in the context of tonal writing. As long as you understand that, you'll be just fine. Forgive the unclear moments in the quote - that's a work in progress.

Originally posted by Tweek

With this being the case, then the majority of my orchestral work is completely wrong :)! My melodic intervals, many times, jump several intervals above the note preceding it and I write octaves CONSTANTLY for my instruments (strings together, brass together, woodwinds together, etc etc). However, from a programming standpoint, writing octaves is a very effective way of hiding a synthetic sound!Octaves in orchestral writing are not incorrect unless one is trying to write two distinct lines in the music and use them. I think everyone doubles all sorts of orchestral sounds to create cool effects, so your alright (not that you needed me to tell you that, lol).

Parallel fifths are in fact wrong in that context, though, if your trying to write tonal music - avoid them if you can, unless the 'clunky music' is the effect that your going for. Experiment and see where that gets you, as ultimately it's your ear that matters, not mine (perhaps the judges, if your trying to get on OC).