Parallel fifths and the cognitive-perceptual system

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The dictates of common practice counterpoint from the Renaissance on forbid the use of parallel (perfect) fifths or octaves—the interval of a perfect fifth or an octave between two voices on successive beats or notes—as, perceptually, these would reduce the texture of the piece from N to N-1 voices. Study of Bach’s chorales shows that in general Bach followed the rule against parallel fifths or octaves to fourth order—with such parallels occurring in only ≈0.012% interval pairs between voices—and when parallels do occur their perception is mitigated by some other feature of the harmony or melody. On extremely rare occasions Bach used parallel fifths as an effect to enhance the affekt of a text and in these cases extreme chromaticism is used as “cover” for the parallels. Two exceptions are (1) parallel fifths in a certain cadential figure that Bach did not find objectionable and (2) parallels “interrupted” by a fermata which Bach found marginally acceptable at second order (≈1.3% of fermata breaks).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Neuroscience of Bach's Music
Subtitle of host publicationPerception, Action, and Cognition Effects on the Brain
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780443135194
ISBN (Print)9780443135200
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • Applied linguistics
  • Audio signal processing
  • Cadential fifths
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Interrupted fifths
  • Parallel fifths
  • Parallel octaves
  • Perception


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