Parallel harmony can be a real shock to the ear of the listener - and hopefully that’s the effect you’re going for when you utilize it! While we can often be taught in traditional functional harmony arrangement to avoid things like parallel octaves and fifths, this practice doesn’t necessarily hold true for more modern orchestration. Utilizing voices in parallel motion in a carefully planned and purposeful manner can bring a real shift in tone to your piece. Here are three ways to get your feet wet breaking the counterpoint rules of the 1700s.
The simplest way to get started in parallelism (sounds like we’re analyzing artwork, hmm….) is to start with parallel motion. With parallel motion, you’re not worried so much about whether each chord tone rises or falls at the exact same interval—our main focus is maintaining the intervallic relationship between the tones.
In this example, you can see that the notes don’t necessarily jump the same distance. The top note jumps up a minor third, while the bottom note jumps up a major one. However, the key signature is maintained (the example is in F major) and the tonality is intact. It isn’t exact parallel harmony, but it is a good way to start! Once you’ve got the hang of this, it’s time to move onto some more strict parallel harmonies.
In the next example, you’ll notice that not only does the interval between the chord tones remain consistent, but the distance that each tone individually jumps is also consistent. You don’t have to necessarily do this with standard triad chords or simple consonant intervals. You can layer some intervals on top of each other, utilize fourths and create some really fun textures. On their own, some of these intervals might not feel very ‘resolved’, but with some motion begin to feel like they have a destination.
Once you’ve mastered individual lines and compound intervals moving in parallel, it’s time to give it a shot with some more complex harmonies. It doesn’t matter whether your plan is to utilize this technique for dance, EDM, jazz, rock, or pop—you can benefit from doing a little ‘listening homework’ to composers like Debussy and Ravel to hear the effect in practice.
With parallel chords, we’re looking for the ‘whole package’. Each note in the chord has to move in the exact same interval (every note goes up a half step, or down a minor third, etc.). In addition to that, every intervallic relationship between the individual chord tones must be maintained. If you’re using a minor ninth chord, each chord will wind up being a minor ninth chord. This will likely force you to utilize harmonies outside of the key you’re working in, and that’s totally OK!
I Like to Move It
Starting out by moving in half steps with any of these techniques will likely be the easiest, but once you’ve got that down, the sky’s the limit! Harmonizing a melody with parallel chords can give you a real ‘paradigm shift’ in the middle of your song and grab your listener’s attention in a way that standard tonal harmony doesn’t.