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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Back to Bach

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

When I was a senior in high school (1973-74) I took an elective class in music theory. As luck would have it, the class was taught by a superior teacher, whose jazz band took 1st place in state every year.

The guy was pretty brutal and half the class dropped the first week. But for those of us who toughened up and took what he dished out, by the end of the year we were writing original pieces in the 4-part Bach Chorale style.

Our final grade was based on selecting a poem and setting it to music in the Bach style. I used a poem by William Cowper originally called, "Light Shining Out of Darkness" which later became the Christian hymn, "God Moves in a Mysterious Way."

We would bring in our manuscripts, the teacher would sit at the piano, sight read the piece and critique it in front of the class. I got an A.

Looking back on it, it was quite amazing; a bunch of high school kids writing original music as 4-part Bach chorales.

The 4-part Bach Chorale, for those of you who don't know, is choir music. The 4 parts are soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

We learned a bunch of rules - by rote - that define the parameters of the style. We were never told the, "why?" of the rules, we just had to blindly follow them.

The rules that I remember were things like,

  • The bass can jump a 4th or a 5th but the altos and tenors should not move more than a whole step from one chord to another.

  • No parallel 5ths

  • No parallel octaves

(The above is simplistic; if you want to be overwhelmed by the rules, check this out.)

Keep in mind I was a guitar player who was formed by the rock music of the mid-to-late sixties. I was trying to relate what I was learning in this music theory class to my guitar playing.

I could find no correlation in the Bach style to my guitar playing. I remember thinking,

"No parallel 5ths?!? Rock music is FULL of parallel 5ths! Entire genres of rock are based on them! Without parallel 5ths there would be no Kinks, no Black Sabbath, no Deep Purple, no Jimi Hendrix, no Cream, no Steppenwolf, no Mountain!" - and on and on.

All the bands today that derive from the above - way too numerous to mention - could not play the music they do without parallel 5ths - otherwise known as, "power chords." It's a fundamental sound to multiple genres of rock music.

And so the 4-part Bach Chorale style remained an intellectual exercise that was mostly disassociated from anything I was playing on the guitar.

The only thing that had any effect on my guitar playing from that theory class was learning to spell triads and figuring out how to play scale-tone triads on the guitar. That was very valuable knowledge that has stood me in good stead ever since, plus the knowledge I gained from that class allowed me to coast through 3 years worth of theory classes in college but it was all intellectualized; the rules of the 4-part Bach Chorale style didn't affect my guitar playing in the real world at all.

In 1979 I took 5 lessons from jazz guitarist Danny Embrey. Within 4 weeks I had learned 5 types of root-position 7th chords in all possible positions on the neck (most of which I already knew) and all their respective inversions (most of which I didn't know).

This opened up the door to what's called, "common-tone voice leading" - i.e. voicing chords in a way that causes the least amount of movement from one chord to another.

One aspect of common-tone voicing is that, to most ears, a chord with any note but the root in the bass sounds less stable or resonant than one with the root in the bass.

Fast-forward a year or so and I was studying with John Elliott. We started a section of his method ("The Theory of Harmony") that he called, "Seventh Voicing." He drew a chart that looked like this:

"Ok" I thought to myself, "We're eliminating the 5th of a 7th chord to make room for adding the melody on the top of the chord."

I also noticed he was speaking of the notes of the chord in choir-terms. Four voices; soprano, alto, tenor, bass.

I learned to play the two voicings, Close Position and Open Position, all over the neck in every key. Then we started adding melodies on the top of the chords. We went through a bunch of tunes all arranged with open and close-voiced chords.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, it clicked. I noticed that the melody (soprano) could be anything. When moving from one chord to another, if the root (bass) moved a minor third or less, the voicing, whether open or close, stayed the same. If the root (bass) moved a 4th or a 5th (or more) the voicing alternated - from close to open or open to close.

This caused the alto and tenor voices to move very little; like a half-step or whole-step.

Remember the Bach rule?

  • The bass can jump a 4th or a 5th but the altos and tenors should not move more than a whole step from one chord to another.


All the Bach stuff just integrated into my guitar playing in one fell swoop! It was one of those Eureka! moments.

John had no idea; he was just giving me the next lesson, but for me it was a revelation! The Bach 4-part chorale style was no longer just an intellectual exercise but became a quantum leap in my actual everyday guitar playing.

Plus I now knew the "why" of the rules;

  • The bass is usually the root of the chord, which lends the stability of root position chords.

  • The alto and tenor voices follow the common-tone concept; the least amount of movement possible to create smooth voice leading.

It's the strongest aspect of parallel voice leading combined with the strongest aspect of common-tone voice leading.

In other words, the 4-part Bach Chorale style.

The open and close-position chords that I learned from John Elliott (I've also heard them referred to as, "shell voicings" though John never used that term) are ubiquitous in jazz guitar playing. Freddie Greens' 4-to-the-bar strumming and the Gypsy Jazz genre derived from the playing of Django Reinhardt come immediatly to mind, but these chord voicings are found everywhere.

When you learn 1st-position cowboy chords - G, C, D, A, E, Em, Am etc. - smooth voice leading is kind of automatic because everything is in one position, and most of the time the root is in the bass, which hearkens back to Bach.

The way triads are used in 80's Rock - Bon Jovi, Van Halen, etc. - incorporates triad inversions that create smooth voice leading. When combined with what the bass player plays (usually the root at least) you have the open and close-voiced ideas that go back to Bach.

You don't have to understand or be aware of the 4-part Bach Chorale style for your playing to behave according to its dictates.

If you are aware of Bach, and are breaking the rules on purpose, as a matter of principle or because that's what you want to hear, you are reacting to Bach; your "anti-Bach" is still because of Bach.

If you are a musician of the West, playing any genre - Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country, whatever - you can't get away from Bach, whether you know it or not.


P.S. The next new product release coming soon from Master Guitar School will be Unit 6: 7th Voicing. Sign up now if you're not a Site Member to get in on the special deal that will be available to Site Members only!


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