Bach's outer-voice counterpoint


Bach's outer voice counterpoint is founded almost entirely upon consonant intervals. Follow these simple guidelines.
  1. 10ths and 6ths are used without restriction
  2. 5ths and 8ves are best with contrary motion
  3. 5ths and 8ves are fine with similar motion ONLY IF one voice, preferably the soprano, moves by step.

You will discover that Bach favors beginning and ending phrases with either a perfect consonance or a 10th. Beginning a phrase with a 6th is possible but not common.

Dissonance at the level of the quarter note.

In a Bach chorale, there are few (1-3 on average) dissonant intervals in the outer voices. Bach's outer-voice counterpoint is predicated on consonant intervallic combinations. The most frequent of these occasional dissonances are the 7th and the dim. 5th.
  1. 7th (2nds) in the melody (bass) must resolve down by step
  2. dim. 5th (aug. 4th) permissable in connection with chords of dominant function.
  3. Be aware that 2nds and aug. 4ths, although permissible, are far less frequent between outer voices than their inversions (7th and dim. 5).

Eighth-notes in the melody (2 against 1)

Chorale melodies occasionally employ two stepwise notes above a single bass note. In such instances, five possibilities exist. One is consonant (6-5, 5-6), the others dissonant. The consonant passing tone (5-6, 6-5) is quite common. Of the accented dissonant figures, the 4-3 is the most frequent while the 9-8 is the least frequent.

Listen to Bach's bass lines for the following chorales. Notice how infrequent dissonance is used in the outer-voice counterpoint.
  1. O Welt, sieh hier deine Leben Chorale No. 366 (A-major).

  2. O Welt, sieh hier deine Leben Chorale No. 363 (A-major).

  3. O Welt, sieh hier deine Leben Chorale No. 275 (A-major).

  4. Jesu, der du meine Seele Chorale No. 37 (a-minor).

  5. Jesu, der du meine Seele Chorale No. 269 (g-minor).

  6. Jesu meine freude. Chorale No. 263 (e-minor).

  7. Jesu meine freude Chorale No. 96 (d-minor).

Last update: 03.26.99