I’m teaching Music Theory II in a summer session at UNL right now, and last week one of my students asked why we make them do traditional part-writing. He wants to be a music producer, and he doesn’t anticipate composing any Bach-style harmonizations in his career.

On the one hand, I understand this. The rules are pretty rigid. No parallel fifths or octaves. No voice crossing. Resolve the tendency tones. Don’t double the wrong voice. Make all four melodic lines interesting, but not too interesting, and by the way, they need to line up into complete chords that progress according to specific functional principles. This certainly isn’t a rulebook that contemporary classical composers or pop songwriters are bound by.

So why should every music student have to learn part-writing? Here’s why:

  1. Strict part-writing instills the broader concept of balancing the horizontal and vertical dimensions of music. Composers of every style and time period confront this challenge, and performers and conductors need to consider it as well. Strong melodies and strong chord progressions both want to dominate the musical texture. Managing these two competing elements requires craft and compromise. Part-writing develops this skill, which is then easily adapted to styles beyond common-practice harmony. 
  2. Functional part-writing is part of a complete toolbox of compositional techniques. If someone doesn’t understand a rule, then “breaking” it is meaningless. Learning to part-write means also learning the distinctive sounds that result when the rules *aren’t* followed. As Hawley Ades says in Choral Arranging"The experienced arranger will not be rigidly confined by these rules in all situations, but they should be carefully observed by the beginner. Gradually he will recognize with assurance those situations in which these principles may be safely disregarded."
  3. The terminology of part-writing permeates how we talk about music of other styles. Learning the language allows you to communicate more effectively about whatever music is in front of you. For example, right now I’m mixing an album of my original jazz compositions - pretty stylistically far from Haydn and Beethoven. And yet, the mix notes I send to our engineer say things like:

    “The parallel octaves in the horns at 1:35 aren’t quite lining up.”

    “Let’s bring out the leading tone resolution in the bass during the
    C2/E-->Fma13 progression.”

    “The open-spaced triads in this section feel really sparse,
    do you think close voicings would be more effective?”

    This process is more efficient because we can both describe musical events by their specific names.
  4. Following the principles of voice-leading makes the performer’s job easier. Whether the music is for voices or instruments, it’s worthwhile to learn what makes a melodic line “singable.” Even though we derive these rules from a relatively old musical era, the part-writing guidelines for range, motion and melodic intervals are generally still followed in many different genres.

  5. Every musician (composers, conductors, performers, and anyone else) will be stronger if they can spell and recognize chords quickly. Part-writing demands this skill and places it into an immediate musical context. As I tell my students, your ability to spell chords is only as useful as your ability to do it immediately.

Part-writing is difficult for many students, but I think there is tremendous value in learning this skill, for the same reason that an aspiring novelist (or book reviewer, or English teacher, etc.) should know Shakespeare. Even though some of the stylistic elements won't apply to every situation, musicians-in-training should soak up the broad, rich musicianship that part-writing builds.


I’ve been watching NBC’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show about comedy writers at a late-night sketch show. In one episode, the producers are trying to get two newly-hired writers more involved, even though they’re not really experienced enough to contribute yet. One producer says to the other: “Toss them in the river… give their sketch a spot at the dress tonight. Let them hear what 300 people not laughing sounds like.”

This line really resonated with me because this is an experience composers need. Not so much the reaction of an audience (although that can be useful), but the composer’s own reaction to hearing the music presented in its final form.

I tell my students “you will learn more in 1 minute of hearing human musicians play what you wrote than you will in hours of composition lessons with me.” There is no feedback more valuable than hearing something not work when you thought the MIDI playback sounded pretty good. Or, more happily, when music you didn’t like while you were writing it turns out to be surprisingly great when a real player picks it up.

Young composers: every time you hear your music performed, you are honing your understanding of the connection between the notes you put on the page, and the sounds that result when musicians realize those notes. Get your music played, early and often, by humans. MIDI playback will lie to you. Composition teachers might lie to you. Your ears will never lie.