This Hub is a companion to “Part-writing Tonic and Dominant Chords 1”—hereafter, I’ll call it “PTD1”—a companion giving you practical exercises to help build your skill at part-writing. PTD1 sets forth some of the most basic concepts of part-writing, so if you haven’t read it yet, you should probably go back and do so before attempting the exercises below.
- Part-writing Chords: Tonic And Dominant I
How to write the most common Classical chord progression, with audio/video examples and easy-to-understand explanations. Learn about "lead sheets," chordal "voices," "spacing" and "doubling," "leading tones," "relative motion" and more.
Each exercise consists of a single 3-note sequence harmonized with the tonic and dominant chord patterns given in PTD1—the harmonic pattern I-V-I. In each case, the soprano (top) voice is given, and you must add the other three voices one at a time, using the model ‘lines’ discussed in the previous Hub. You’ll be practicing in different keys. (If you’re uncertain about keys and how they work, you can read up on the concept in my Hub “Understand Chords: Chords In Keys.”)
- Understand Chords: Chords In Keys (Part Two of a Series)
Chords are important musical building blocks, of course, but they aren't just isolated 'things.' Rather they belong more or less naturally in certain 'keys.' Learn about them here!
One “given” to get out of the way before we walk through the first exercise together: it’s usual in part-writing exercises to write for a four-part chorus. The four parts are soprano, alto, tenor and bass; the ranges for each are given in the example below. So as we add each part (or ‘voice’) we should make sure to keep each within its range. (The given part is always the soprano.) Always add the bass part first, then the two inner voices.
How To Use This Hub
Work the exercises!
Best would be to write the exercises out by hand on physical manuscript paper, though using a notation program would also be worthwhile. But if you simply read through the text, you won't get much out of it.
To make it easy, links to printable manuscript paper and to downloadable notation freeware are given in the sidebar. So take a few moments to arm yourself with paper or software, and then continue on to the exercises.
Manuscript And Software Links
- Grand Staff Templates | Free Blank Sheet Music
Free blank grand staff templates in portrait and landscape orientation in PDF format.
- MuseScore | Free music composition & notation software
A free notation program. Disclaimer: Neither Doc Snow nor Hubpages has any connection to this software, nor assumes any responsibility for damages that may arise from its use. Its presentation here is a convenience, not a recommendation.
Exercise 1 is in C major—the key signature has no sharps and no flats.
(As a quick reminder, the “key signature” is the area immediately to the right of the treble and bass clef symbols at the left edge of each 5-line staff in the music. “Sharp” and “flat” signs may be placed there; their effect is to modify the ‘default’ pitch of the notes placed upon the line or space around which the sharp or flat centers. Sharps raise the pitch one semi-tone, while the flats lower it one semi-tone—semi-tones are the smallest interval, and are equivalent to one key on a piano, or one fret on a guitar.)
The given notes, c-b-c, lie on the scale degrees 1-7-1—since scale degree 1 is always the tone after which the key is named, and we are in the key of C major.
(“B” is scale degree 7, since we count scale degrees upwards from the tonic: “C” is 1, “d” is 2, and so on up to scale degree 7. Scale degree eight has the same name—in this case “c”—as scale degree 1.)
Here’s the given voice for the first exercise. Copy it out on your manuscript, or enter it in your software.
Start by adding the bass voice, since it is the easiest and most definitive. The bass notes are always going to be the ‘roots’ of the chords—if chord ‘roots’ are new for you, you may want to refer back to “Understand Chords: What Is A Triad?” That means that in these exercises the bass notes are always going to be the scale degrees 1-5-1.
Your only challenge is to write them in the right octave: they must fit into the bass range, and must leave enough space to fit alto and tenor parts in between soprano and bass, covering all three chord tones. (You’ll recall that triads have three chord tones: root, third and fifth.)
Go ahead and write down the bass line you've worked out.
Here’s a possible bass part for Exercise 1.
If you wrote it just as it is given here, great! But if you wrote the “G” an octave higher, or even one or both of the “Cs” an octave higher, don’t fret; that’s perfectly acceptable also. If you wrote the “C” an octave lower, though, that’s a bit below the bass range. Similarly, a “G” two octaves higher would be above the allowable range.
So far, we’ve added a “1-5-1” line to a “1-7-1” line. In PTD1, we discussed how the strategy of “keeping a common tone” normally works well with a “1-7-1” line. So, continue by adding a “5-5-5” common-tone line in one of the inner voices. Does it work better in alto or tenor?
Actually, either works fine—although the spacing is a little more even with the common tone in the tenor, as shown. (If you put it in the alto, but below the staff, that’s a mistake. It’s too far away from the soprano part—as we said in PTD1, upper parts should not be farther apart than an octave.)
So, we need to add the last part. There are a couple of ways to figure out what line we need to write.
First, we could refer back to PTD1 and check which line works with the ones we already have.
Alternately, we could think about what chord tones we are still missing, and work out our lines from there: Do the tonic chords have all three chord tones? Does the dominant chord? With those questions answered, you would arrange your line to include any missing tones.
Here’s the final line, 3-2-3. Notice how it runs parallel to the soprano, moving stepwise down, then back up, just as the soprano does.
(If you put the common tone line in the alto instead of the tenor, then the 3-2-3 should appear in the tenor--but it must be in the same octave as shown here. That is, it must begin on the "E" above the bass clef staff. Otherwise the spacing between alto and tenor will be too wide. Either version is correct; in terms of the musical effect, the alternate version will be brighter-sounding since the alto and tenor are both higher in the singer's vocal ranges.)
Let’s hear the completed result:
Video Example 1
Now let’s try Exercise 2. Note the key signature: one sharp—“F#.”
You may know the key that goes with this key signature, but if not, here’s a rule to help you out: for sharp keys, the last sharp in the key signature—the one farthest to the right—is always scale degree 7. That means that the next higher note is scale degree 1, and as we noted above, scale degree 1 is by definition the key note or tonic. So, one note above “F#” would be “G,” and our key here would be G major.
What are the scale degrees of which our given line consists? Proceed as before, adding first the bass line (“1-5-1”), then the line with common tone (“5-5-5”), and lastly the line in parallel motion.
This exercise is the same as exercise 1—it is simply transposed into a higher key. But all the lines are the same: 1-7-1 in the soprano, 3-2-3 in the alto, 5-5-5 in the tenor, and (of course!) 1-5-1 in the bass. Here’s how it sounds: the same but higher, and consequently ‘brighter.’
Video Example 2
For Exercise 3, we have a new key and a new soprano line.
What is the key, first? Use the rule above to figure that out if you don’t already know the key, and then decide what the line is.
With a little luck you answered that the key is D major—“D” being the note above “C#”—and that the line is “3-2-3.”
Now proceed as before: add the bass, the common tone line and the final line to complete the texture. (Each addition is given successively in the example; just click to see the next one.)
If you didn’t already notice, this version is essentially a rearrangement of the previous two: the “3-2-3” line that we saw previously in the alto is now in the soprano, and the “1-7-1” from the soprano is now the alto line. But the lower two voices correspond exactly with the previous versions. This “voice exchange” is illustrated below:
Let’s hear Exercise 3 complete:
Video Example 3
First, identify the key of exercise 4, then the scale degrees of the soprano line.
In A major, we have a “3-2-3” soprano line. Complete, as for Exercise 3.
Video Example 4
What’s the key and soprano line for Exercise 5?
The answer, of course, is “3-2-1” in E major. We saw in PTD1 that this line can often be accompanied in contrary motion. Can you apply this pattern to Exercise 5?
When the “1-2-3” line is accompanied with a contrary “3-2-1” line, keeping the common tone doesn’t work because the dominant chord would end up without a third. This forces the “5-5-5-“ line to become “5-7-5.” Compare the two versions in A major, below, to hear why the missing third is not such a good thing--listen carefully to the second chord:
Video Example 5
Here's the completed exercise:
Video Example 6
Exercise 6 brings us to a new challenge: flat keys. If you already know your keys, not a problem; but if not, how do you identify flat keys from their key signature?
Luckily, there is a rule to help, and it is almost as simple as the one for the sharp keys: the last flat in a key signature is always scale degree 4. So in exercise 4, count down four notes from the “Bb” to find your tonic, “F.” (Count the Bb as “one.”)
By way of compensation for this wrinkle, the given soprano line is a familiar one. Identify it and supply the missing lines to complete the I-V-I progression.
Video Example 7
Exercise 7 brings a different soprano line into the mix. Identify it, and the key.
If you said Bb major, and “3-7-1,” you are two-for-two on the exercise. Notice that your second-last flat is also your tonic; this will be the case for all key signatures with two or more flats—and is handier than counting down four scale degrees from the last flat, as we had to do for the key of F major. Now, supply the remaining voices.
As seen in PTD1, the “3-7-1” can be paired with the “1-2-3” line, allowing the use of a common tone.
Video Example 8
Exercise 8 will seem familiar. Just be careful, when you name the key, to take the key signature’s effects fully into account!
A “1-2-3” line in Eb. (If you were using the ‘flat key’ rule to figure out the key, and forgot to apply the flat in the key signature to the name of the tonic, you might have said “E major”—not, of course, correct!) And the other lines?
There are two possibilities, at least. First, one can use the “3-7-1” line, as in the last exercises. But it’s also perfectly fine to use the “5-7-1” line, as shown.
Video Example 9
What’s the key and given line for Exercise 9? Once you have the answer, use a common tone in your 4-part setting.
Video Example 10
Here are the 'givens' for Exercise 10:
Following the previous examples, it would be possible to place the contrary line in the tenor voice and the common-tone line in the alto, like this:
The tenor would end in unison with the bass—that is, on the same pitch—and would be low in its range, but those things are acceptable.
There is another solution, though, one involving a different modification of the common-tone line. See if you can find it.
Here the alto voice skips away from the expected resolution of the leading tone, "C," in order to fill in the fifth of the tonic triad, the "Ab." Similarly, the tenor abandons the common tone so that it can provide the needed third--"F."
This is a very common voice-leading, especially at cadences, where the soprano is apt to descend to the tonic. Alto and tenor choristers get to know these 'fill-in' lines very well!
Video Example 11
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- snowonmusic | A music theory blog that's NOT all work!
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So, that's our quick course in part-writing the tonic-dominant connection.
Naturally, it doesn't cover absolutely every way of writing these chords; even for such a short progression, there are many possibilities. But the versions of this essential progression you've practiced here are ones that you will see (and write yourself, if you continue your study of music theory) over and over again.
Just as importantly, they give us a solid foundation to work from as we learn to learn to part-write other chords (and other chordal relationships.) The next chord we'll focus on will be the sub-dominant--the IV chord.
In fact, I've got a Hub on that. Check it out! (You can just click on the title below, where the arrow points to the next Hub in this series.)
Other Hubs by Doc Snow
- Part-writing Chords: Summary I
A 'syllabus' and summary for Doc Snow's innovative Hubs on the essential musical skill of part-writing. Sequence, content and links--plus a summary of part-writing 'rules.'
- Part-writing Inverted Chords: Primary Triads In First Inversion
How to use inverted triads in common-practice four-part writing. Learn to write tonic, dominant and subdominant in first inversion--these explanations, illustrations, and practice examples make it easy!
- Understand Chords: What's A Triad? (Part One of a Series)
Chords are a musical basic--but what are they, really? Here's a beginner's guide, with written and audio examples.
- How (Not) To Practice Music Efficiently, Part Two
Practice more efficiently and get better faster with these practical strategies! Topics include practicing for continuity versus practicing for problem-solving; changing the terms of the practice problem; and practicing with a metronome.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on December 06, 2011:
Hey, thanks guys--glad it worked for you! My goal is to work up to fairly complete coverage of the diatonic chords, so watch for future installments!
Chas Mac from UK on December 06, 2011:
That's an impressive amount of info you've packed in there, Doc. Clear and easy to follow too. Great hub.
Smatin113Babby234 on December 06, 2011:
That's sooooooooooo cool.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on December 06, 2011:
I hope you found this Hub helpful!
But just in case something was confusing, unclear, or provoked another question in your mind, we have this handy comment capsule where you can let me know all about it.
So, do let me know what's on your mind about this Hub--and thanks for coming by!