Part Writing

Scholar David Huron explains that part writing (also called “voice leading”) “has been variously defined, but one simple definition is that it is the art of combining concurrent musical lines or melodies.” He continues, “The practice became codified into a set of recommendations (do’s and don’ts)” around the 1500s. These recommendations have evolved over the years along with changes in style, taste, and insight.

Fully trained musicians recognize that mastering part writing requires more than simple adherence to these rules. As a simplification of musical practice, the rules cannot cover every scenario. In certain situations, the rules may contradict each other. At other times, the goal underlying a particular rule may not align with the composer’s musical goal. Thus, though students of part writing begin by learning some basic rules, they best master the art is by studying masterworks.

Without “dumping the whole load of hay,” as Elder Maxwell once put it, here are two brief examples to consider:

Most amateur musicians recognize Bach as one of these master composers, but a composer they may not know is Palestrina. Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” is breathtaking not only for the beauty of its sound but for the grace of its voice leading. Each of its five parts are graceful to sing and seem to fit effortlessly with the other voices:

Good part-writing is not only the provenance of master composers. Professional choral composers also distinguish themselves by their voice leading. Part of the reason Eric Whitacre is famous for his cluster sound is not only because it’s breathtaking but also because he wrote the parts in such a way that this effect is as easy as possible to achieve:

Closer to home, listen to Ronald Staheli’s version of “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” (You can find the music on holysheetmusic.com.) It is another excellent example of professional-level voice leading, but in a familiar, LDS context:

Learning to identify good part writing can especially be a challenge for amateur musicians who lack the time and resources to devote to its study. That’s part of the reason I’m writing these posts—to help you discern quality craft beyond mere surface beauty and, in turn, to help you see how an understanding of craft enables you to see beauty and feel the Spirit in ways that require sensitivity to these details.

(This post was an excerpt from a longer post available here.)

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