It’s parti(mento) time!

There’s been a resurgence of attention lately to the position of practice in the teaching of music theory, both in the sense of ‘practical’ keyboard skills and the ‘practice’ of the composers we study. This has centred on reviving sets of ‘schemas’ based on short, ‘partimento’ bass lines that Eighteenth-Century musicians learned as stock-in-trade prototypes for improvisation and composition (the distinction between the two being much more slight for musicians of the time than we sometime suppose today).

For further reading on this fascinating topic, we highly recommend this excellent website by the modern master of this historical practice in teaching, Robert Gjerdingen. We’ve no wish to duplicate that fine resource; instead, we’ll focus here as usual on the complementary provision of interactive resources that you can download and adjust for your own purposes.

Downloads Overview

Files are hosted locally and downloadable in either .mscz or .mxl format. The .mscz format is for MuseScore specifically; you can open the .mxl files in any music notation software. Further explanation of each component part follows this overview.

The Rule of the Octave

  • Building the Rule, approaching the ‘Rule’ by incrementally nuancing a succession of parallel 63s: .mscz, .mxl
  • Part by Part, taking a closer look at the component parts of the ‘Rule’: .mscz, .mxl

Harmonising the scale with sequences

Partimenti Prototypes: Representations of canonical schemas

Schema Scores: Templates for pieces based on combinations of schemas.

More about those files

Rule of the Octave

The ‘Rule of the Octave’ is a kind of cheat sheet for harmonising diatonic music: there’s one chord for each scale degree and you can go a long way by just plugging them in on top of the bass line. The version of the harmonisation used here is closely based on that of Fedele Fenaroli (Naples 1775), but with a couple of modifications to preserve a consistent number of voices throughout (4vv, including the bass) and to avoid any suggestion of parallels.

File 1: Approaching the ‘Rule’ from parallel 63s

.mscz, .mxl

This section builds up a version of the Rule of the Octave by proceeding in incremental steps from parallel 63s to the rule proper. You could also think of this as a matter of moving from a flat to a rich harmonic hierarchy, or else as a ‘Regolo recipe’: how to make or understand the rule in four easy steps.

  1. We begin with a simple harmonisation of the bass scale using parallel 63 chords only. There’s nothing grammatically incorrect about this, but neither does it have much of a sense of hierarchy or variety.

  2. Next we put in strategic 53s on the first and last chords to give a sense of closure on the tonic.

  3. Then we set 53s on the dominant note of both ascending and descending forms to further nuance the hierarchy (these are important chords too!).

  4. Finally, we precede each of the tonic and dominant chords (including those in inversion) with 7ths. In one case, this also involves a chromatic alteration for a stronger sense of tonicising the dominant. Why do you think we might only make that change this one time, and not anywhere else in the progression?

File 2: Examining the Rule Part by Part

.mscz, .mxl

Having arrived at the ‘Rule’, this second file deconstructs it again so you can practice in parts, with any number of voices, and in any ‘position’ (inversion of the right hand harmonisation). Keep practicing each component part and in a range of keys to build fluency with and abstraction of ‘the rule’. (NB: you can transpose scores in MuseScore with the ‘Notes’ menu: Notes/Transpose.)

We begin by combining the bass scale with each of the three upper-voice parts in turn, centred respectively on the:

  • tonic (first system of each page: ascending on page 1; descending on p.2)
  • mediant (second system)
  • dominant (third system) These systems are annotated with the interval between the upper and lower parts.

We then combine those upper parts into three-note, right-hand chords to generate ‘the rule’. Here the three versions (‘positions’ in Fenaroli’s language) are given by the inversion of the chord. Again the top voice is centred successively on the:

  • tonic (fourth system)
  • mediant (fifth system)
  • dominant (sixth system)

Harmonising the Scale with Sequences

(NB: The open and short score versions of this material are otherwise identical so these introductory comments apply equally to both.)

We begin once again with a simple harmonisation of the scale using parallel 63 chords only, before proceeding to:

5-6

  • Ascending: a 5-6 move above each bass note
  • Descending: 5-6 on alternating bass notes

7-6: Chains of Suspensions

  • Ascending: 7-6 (and 8 to re-start the pattern)
  • Descending: essentially parallel 63 chords with a delayed top line

Cycles of 5ths (where the scale connects alternate bass notes)

  • Descending 1: Triads only
  • Descending 2: with 7ths and suspensions (cf. 7-6 descending)
  • Descending 3: ‘Zigzag’ circle-of-fifths (note the outer-voice canon)
  • One Ascending form with 4-3 suspensions

2-3: More Chains of Suspensions

  • Ascending: with re-starts, like in the 7-6 ascending pattern.
  • Descending: 2-3 in a V42-I6 harmonic pattern, but diatonic (i.e. without tonicisations).

Partimenti Prototypes: Representations of canonical schemas

These documents provides a set of schemas, with the constituent parts set out as prototypically as is possible in musical notation: that is, with melody and figured bass lines, along with (in the first file’s case) chords in a middle part based on an automatic realisation of those figures.

More truly prototypical is the following list of information for each schema:

Name When Melodic line Bass line Metre Harmony (figures)
Romanesca Opening [1, 5, 1, 1] [1, 7, 6, 3] S W S W [5, 6, 5, 6]
Do-Re-Mi Opening [1, 2, 3] [1, 7, 1] S W S [5, 6, 5]
Sol-Fa-Mi Opening [5, 4, 4, 3] [1, 2, 7, 1] W S W S [5, 5, ‘6,5’, 5]
Meyer Opening [1, 7, 4, 3] [1, 2, 7, 1] W S W S [5, ‘6,4,3’, ‘6,5’, 5]
Prinner Answer/Process/Transition [6, 5, 4, 3] [4, 3, 2, 1] S W S W [5, 6, 7, 6, 5]
Modulating Prinner Answer/Process/Transition, e.g. end of A [3, 2, 1, 7] [8, 7, 6, 5] S W S W [5, 6, 7, ‘#6’, 5]
Fonte Answer/Process/Transition, e.g. start of B [5, 4, 4, 3] [‘#1’, 2, 7, 1] W S W S [‘6,5’, 5, ‘6,5’, 5]
Monte Answer/Process/Transition, e.g. start of B [‘1’, ‘b7’, ‘6’, ‘2’, ‘1’, ‘7’] [3, 4, ‘#4’, 5] W S W S [6, 5, 6, 5]
Ponte Answer/Process/Transition [5, 7, 2] [5] S W S [5, 7, 7]
Fenaroli Pre-Cadential [4, 3, 7, 1] [7, 1, 2, 3] S W S W [6, 5, 6, 6]
Indugio Pre-Cadential [2, 4, 6, 1, 7] [4, 4, 4, ‘4#’, 5] S W S W S [‘6,5’, ‘6,5’, ‘6,5’, ‘6,5’, 5]
Deceptive Cadence Pre-Cadential [1, 2, 2, 1] [3, 4, 5, 6] W S W S [6, ‘6,5’, 5, 5]
Evaded Cadence Pre-Cadential [1, 2, 2, 1] [3, 4, 5, 5, 1] W S W S [6, ‘6,5’, 5, 6]
Passo Indietro Pre-Cadential [7, 1] [4, 3] S W S W S [‘6,4,2’, 6]
Cadenza Semplice Cadence [1, 2, 2, 1] [3, 4, 5, 1] W S W S [6, ‘6,5’, 5, 5]
Cadenza Composta Cadence [1, 2, 3, 2, 1] [3, 4, 5, 5, 1] W S () S W S [6, ‘6,5’, ‘6,4’, 7, 5]
Cadenza Doppia Cadence [4, 3, 2, 1] [5, 1] S W S W S [5, ‘6,4’, 4, 3, 5]
Comma Cadence [4, 3] [7, 1] W S [‘6,5’, 5]
Converging Cadence Cadence [3, 2, 1, 7] [‘3’, ‘4’, ‘#4’, ‘5’] W S [6, ‘6,5’, ‘6,5’, 5]
Quiescenza Post-Cadential [‘b7’, ‘6’, ‘7’, ‘1’] [1] W S W S [‘b7’, ‘6,4’, ‘7,4,2’, 5]

Schema Scores: Templates for pieces based on combinations of schemas

As reflected in the above grid, one key element of these schemas is their order.

This section provides some combinations of schemas which can be thought of as prototype pieces, both to illustrate how they work, and as a template for scaffolding student exercises in pastiche composition.

N.B. To be abundantly clear, these prototype pieces are not intended as ‘real music’! It takes a lot of fleshing out to get from these to anything worthwhile: that’s the exercise. Use these templates but bury them beneath layers of musical character and embellishment.

Some tips for getting started:

  • Rhythm: Try picking a single, characteristic rhythm to serve as the basis for your piece and use it often (but not exactly: see how many different ways you can adapt it);
  • Melody: Introduce embellishments, decorating some stepwise motions with turns, for instance, and filling in some large leaps;
  • Accompaniment: introduce one or more characteristic pattern for chordal accompaniments like the ‘Alberti Bass’;
  • Texture: particularly for longer piece, vary the number of voices present, and the way in which they relate.