How do I approach Bach Chorales?

Bach Chorales may not be the most exciting thing to do, but there are many ways to make the whole concept less daunting, and make your Chorales better in the process! What more can you need?

Here are some tips on how to survive (and succeed!) in Bach Chorales:

- Spot the key first. By looking at the key signature, you can easily find out what key the piece starts in.

However, occasionally it isn’t as simple – maybe the later modulations, and references towards various related keys, are confusing you. One thing you should definitely focus on is how the piece ends – look at the soprano line, and it will almost definitely be ending on the tonic note. Now that you have established the key of the piece, it makes spotting the modulations to related keys so much easier.

- Once the key, and its modulations are established (by looking at cadential points), what you should do now is harmonise the cadential points. These don’t have to be fancy at first, you just want to get the structure grounded.

- One aspect of the Chorale which gets you really good marks is having a strong, and purposeful bassline. This is why the next step is to write the bassline.

Out of all the voices in the piece, the bass has the most interest (apart from maybe the soprano) so make sure you give it lots of direction: leaps (no bigger than a fifth, apart from octaves near a cadence), but make sure these are balanced with conjunct motion, and also consider running basslines (passing notes between harmony notes).

- After this, you can fill in the chords for the tenor -and alto: but watch out for consecutives! Consecutive fifths and octaves make Bach turn in his grave: and though it may seem they can appear everywhere so easily, it’s not so hard to resolve the problem.

 When you think you’ve finished your Chorale – check, check and check again! Check for consecutives between each part: first soprano and alto, soprano and tenor, and so forth – remember the niftier ones like alto and bass!

One way to avoid these consecutives is to write the bassline in contrary motion to the soprano, and make the middle parts move very little, and when they do, only steps and small leaps. Imagine the SATB voices are moody teenagers: S & B are always wanting to go against each other, and A & T want to do as little work as possible.

Hopefully, with these little tips in mind, the prospect of Bach Chorales won’t seem as overwhelming! 

Heather P. A Level Music tutor, GCSE Music tutor, GCSE English Litera...

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