Music Theory Puzzle – Spot the Parallel Fifths in Bach Chorale

It’s been a while since I put out a music theory puzzle. Here is an excerpt from a chorale by J.S. Bach, “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (“”Oh God, look down from heaven”). This particular chorale contains (*gasp*) parallel fifths. Take a look and see if you can spot them. The answer after the break.

Bach Chorale 3 excerptComposer Russell Steinberg wrote about Bach’s use of unconventional techniques like parallel fifths.

The risky choices require much more imagination. They introduce elements of chaos and instability into the chorale that require other extreme choices to balance the whole. Not surprisingly, Bach does not choose to play it safe. Instead, he careens around the fringes of tonal coherence. His riskier choices require ever more imaginative responses in an intricate balancing act that erupts in surprise and a hypersensitive awareness of connections between the voices. Bach’s chorales expose possibilities within tonality that are not immediately obvious, all by pushing the system to its breaking point. If the conventional voice leading the textbooks advocate produces a dozen solutions, Bach’s unconventional tendencies expose hundreds of new choices. These choices bend the system and astonish the ear, but still work within the tonal framework, and ultimately support and strengthen its foundations. They revitalize the chorales with the excitement of discovering new possibilities and new beauty in tonality.

Did you spot the parallel fifths yet? Continue on to see the answer.

Bach Chorale 3 excerpt shown

In this particular example the effect of the parallel fifths is obscured a bit because it happens just after a cadence, but it is yet another example of Bach breaking the rules.

Practicing this type of “error detection” is a useful exercise for music theory students and composers. It’s a valuable skill to be able to proof your own work and practicing finding “mistakes” like Bach’s use of parallel fifths here will help you find it in your own work easier. As a composer, having a profound understanding of how separate voices interact and lead from one harmonic event to another frees up your ability to get those sounds in your head onto the paper and into your performer’s hands quicker and more accurately.


Here’s an update. I don’t recall exactly where I found the setting I posted originally that has both parallel 5ths and octaves. I suspect that the octaves were a copy clam on my part. The parallel 5ths I seem to recall having read about somewhere, which is why I looked for this particular choral example.

I looked again and found the same passage set differently.

Dave

I asked to spot the parallel 5ths, not octaves, so stop that! 😛

But serious, good catch! I will need to go back and find the original choral and see if that was something Bach actually wrote or a copy clam on my part.

Gabor

Hi, two comments. 1. according to classic theory, parallel movements between the end of one choral line and the beginnig of another, are not considered real parallel movements (because of the fermata), thus are not strictly forbidden (as if they were within the line). 2. there are two more parallels in this excerpt: first, in the second bar, tenor (c-f#), bass (c-b). This is a covered fifth movement, doesn’t sound very good (however common, especially in cadences to ensure both chords are fully voiced); Second: the parallel octaves mentioned by Carla. Sould be a typo, a copying error or a misreading, Bach would never write down something like that.

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