Writing Four Part Harmony

Week 5 is our last “new skill” week in the Jazz & Popular Arranging course. The lecture material focused on registration (in what register is each horn playing) and voicing (distance between voices and what line each voice is playing). Our discussion looked at how a vocal arrangement applied similar principles from the course. Our assignment used a variety of voicing techniques to write a four part harmony to “Blue Room.”


Boras (2005) described the concept of low interval limits (what are the lowest possible notes a given interval can be voiced and not be “muddy”) with demonstrations of intervals ranging from a minor 2nd to a major 10th. Boras also provided the Five Golden Rules of Tonal and Modal Voicing:

  1. Flat nine (b9) intervals should occur only on dominant seventh chords, between the root and b9 and/or between the fifth and b13th chords.

  2. Do not use a half-step interval between the top two voices.

  3. Do not use tensions below F3; this causes low interval problems. The exception is using an eleventh to support the minor seventh or minor seventh(b5) chords.

  4. Never use a plain dominant seventh chord as a voicing, in other words, root, third, fifth, and b7th. Use tensions as substitutes for chord tones or altered fifths (see Rule 5).

  5. Tension nines (b9s, #9s, or 9s) may replace ones. Tension elevens may replace minor thirds or fifths. Tension #11s may replace fifths—only on Lydian chord scales, not on Ionian. Tension 13s (b13s or 13s) may replace fifths. (p.153)

It seems the book goes into much more detail about each of these rules, as well as provides specific types of voicings. However, our scanned copy for the course omits several of those pages. One of the examples we can see is Five-Way Close Doubled Lead, where the top voice is the melody, the bottom voice is the melody doubled an octave lower, and the inner voices are made up of notes from the chord scale using major/minor thirds and seconds. We can also see a description of Five-Way Close voicing, which keeps the top voice as the melody and fills the remaining four voices with notes from the chord scale. Other examples include Cluster Voicings (made up primarily of seconds), Quartal Voicings (made up primarily of fourths), Upper Structure Triads (major/minor triads in top three voices), and a Melody with Harmonic Backgrounds.


Prompt: I have posted a jazz-oriented vocal arrangement of a composition, "The Bass in Barcelona" (arranged for SATB, two on each part). Discuss how (or if) It applies the arranging principles discussed so far in the course to writing for chorus. How might you apply the skills learned in the course to vocal writing?

Initial Post: This arrangement of “The Bass in Barcelona” definitely applies many of the arranging principles discussed so far in the course. It appears the melody uses anticipation and delay by eighth notes with many syncopated entrances and rhythms. The two bass parts, when functioning like an upright bass, follow the principles discussed in this course—using primarily roots and fifths to provide foundations for the harmony. The voices singing harmony function both like comping instruments or like horns, providing harmonic structure as well as responses to the melody. Much of the harmony is written in close voicing, whether functioning as a harmonization of the melody or as a background. For example, the background harmonization at Letter A is voiced closely beneath the G4 in Alto 1—Eb4 in the Alto 2, C4 and Ab3 in Tenor 1 and 2, respectively. The minor seventh between Bass 1 and Tenor 2 sits well above Boras’ (2005) low interval limit of F2 to Eb3 (p. 151).

There are also examples of where this arrangement does not follow the discussed arranging principles. One example would be the vocal ranges. The Bb3 in the soprano could be quite low for some, and the large leap at Letter C to G5 could be quite difficult. Another example would be how the melody is not always the highest sonority. When the soprano has the melody, there are many times when the alto harmony ascends above the written melody. At Letter C, Soprano 2 gets the melody with Soprano 1 extending the harmony high above it, and Tenor 1 gets the melody in the center of the harmony. The Basses also frequently sing the melody, leaving the remaining harmonizations well above it. However, none of these digressions from our discussed principles would be too difficult for a skilled, small vocal ensemble with two on a part.

Many of the same skills for registration, voicing, and rhythmic line apply to vocal writing as well. Lines can be anticipated and delayed for voice. Care should be taken when considering each voice parts register. Care should also be taken when considering which voice(s) sing melody and harmony, just like when considering instrumental timbres. Rhythm section instruments can also be incorporated with vocal ensembles, allowing more harmonization options for the voice parts.

Response: The classmate I chose to respond to talked about specific note choices in some of the chords that were voiced as well as characteristics of the different voice parts from the vocal arrangement. Here is my response:

______, thank you for your specific commentary on the harmony! I had not looked at such fine detail in terms of how the arranger had utilized the different chords. Speaking specifically to some of the harmonies you mentioned, I think the B natural in the Alto, measures 11 and 13, are functioning as a b9, like you hypothesize. It is common for dominant function chords to have alterations, even if they are not marked, and the B natural instead of a Cb means not needing a natural on the following C in the Eb chord. My best guess at what is happening in measure 5 is the T2 A natural is functioning as the major 7th, and the Ab in A1 is part of a brief Fm7 chord on beat 4. The Ab could also be an enclosure of the resulting G in the Soprano, measure 6. We won't ever "hear" the A natural against the Ab in measure 5 like we will the Bb against the B natural in measures 11 and 13.

I really like what you say about the "character of an instrument" being unique to voice. I think in harmonic background writing, both for vocalists and instrumentalists, we want those sounds to blend. In more soloistic areas, musicians can alter tone, timbre, and color to better stand out.


Prompt: For this week's arrangement, we will expand our ensemble to five horns (trumpet, trombone, and alto, tenor, and baritone saxes) and full rhythm section. For this assignment I have created two score templates. One is for an initial draft to enable us to do a few preliminary steps.

  1. Draft Score

    1. For the first eight measures of "Blue Room" (The Standards Real Book, pp. 65- 66), write the melody in a simple, swinging rhythm, notated as a single line on a treble clef staff.

    2. For the second eight-measure phrase, assign the trumpet to play the same melodic line with some tasteful rhythmic variation. Underneath that line, on the first grand staff (treble and bass clef), write four-note voicings in half notes only, using the root, third, fifth, and seventh of the chords (you can use the sixth for the F6, and the voicing for F6 and Dm7 can be the same if you want) to create a harmonic background for the trumpet melody. These should be in close position, as compact as possible (there should be no room to add other chord tones anywhere in these voicings). Two measures before B in the fake book (and the penultimate measure of the tune) will be a half note and two quarters. Use chord inversions to create smooth voice leading and pay close attention to low interval limits and registration.

    3. In the second grand staff, add rhythmic interest to the harmonic background by using the voicings from step 2 to accent and accompany the trumpet melody through the mixed usage of sustained chords, rhythmic accents, and rests.

  2. Final Score

    1. For the first eight measures and the bridge, arrange the melody with your choice of instrumental combinations employing solo, unison, or octave unison (a variety is good). All parts will be in concert pitch with baritone sax in bass clef (untransposed) and tenor sax in treble clef and transposed up an octave.

    2. For the second eight measures, transfer the trumpet melody and the rhythmic version of the four-horn harmonic background from step 3 of the draft template to the final score template. For the four-horn voicings, note the score order: bari lowest, in order up to the alto.

    3. For the last A section, repeat the second A (trumpet lead with harmonic background), but with some slight rhythmic variations in the trumpet line and in the rhythm of the harmonic background.

    4. Compose a walking bass line in four employing just roots and fifths. Advanced students may write a smooth bass line employing roots, thirds, fifths, and sevenths.

    5. Compose a piano/guitar part using slashes (level one), and employ rhythmic notation in the staff (level two) to complement the rhythm of the horn melody. Do this latter step for at least two measures of each section of the arrangement (all As and the bridge).

    6. Compose a drum part using slashes (level one), and notate important rhythmic figures (ensemble cues) on the first space above the staff for the drummer to use at her discretion. Also use level two notation for at least two measures of each section of the arrangement (all As and the bridge - this could be in conjunction with the piano/guitar).

Response: I struggled with this assignment for a few reasons. First off, the melody of “Blue Room” has several leaps away from middle C, making it difficult to harmonize according to the rules outlined in the lecture and assignment. Secondly, I struggled to understand how to watch out for the low interval limits from the lecture as a result of harmonizing the low notes in the melody. Third, the requirements for the piano/guitar and drum parts made it so that certain parts of the melody and harmony had to be written in such a way that I would want rhythmic notation in the rhythm section parts. You can see in my submission below:


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.