Harmonising Chorale Melodies for SATB Choir

This article is intended for students who need to harmonise a chorale melody in the style of J. S. Bach, as is often required for Harmony papers in undergraduate music degrees. This, of course, does not preclude any one else interested in gaining some understanding of the sort of processes involved in harmonising a given part for SATB choir. Typically, the harmonised chorales which many universities expect their students to produce will include harmonies which Bach may have only infrequently, or rarely, used in his own harmonisations. This is because universities typically use the harmonised chorales as a means of teaching harmony in general and so students are required to illustrate their understanding of the various types of chords by correctly inserting them where ever the given part allows. For this reason, the present article deals with such chords as: diminished sevenths, augmented 6ths, and various types of secondary chords. An understanding of passing progressions and the correct use of the cadential six-four is also required.

It is important to remember that the harmonised chorales of J. S. Bach were written for SATB choir, therefore, all ‘rules’ governing the writing of vocal melodies need to be kept in mind at all times. You will not have to set the words, however, an understanding of the various rules for setting a vocal melody, such as, avoiding intervals which are difficult to sing, not exceeding the ranges of the voices, and maintaining a typical texture, will all be required. The student must also adhere to the forbidden voice-leading rules of the classical era, and produce convincing progressions. This may sound like a lot to remember but further information will be given as these topics are introduced below, or by clicking on any highlighted topics.


Before we begin, it is vitally important to keep each voice in their correct range. Typical choir voice ranges are shown below.

Voice ranges

When setting melodies for voices, prolonged writing at the extremities of the ranges should be avoided as this is difficult and taxing for most singers.

The tenor part is typically written in the treble clef but sounds an octave lower (this is indicated by the little 8 attached to the bottom of the clef). This is used when all voices are written on a separate stave, or in open score, as below.

SATB open S

When the voices are paired up on two staves, or in short score, the tenor is written as it sounds – in the bass clef.

SATB short

Most examples of harmonised chorales are in short score, as is the case for most harmonisation questions, therefore, the tenor will be written as it sounds.

Now that we know the voice ranges, let us look at the excerpt which we will harmonise.

SATB beginning

This is only one phrase of a complete chorale and it includes the soprano part. Typically it is the soprano part which is included with this type of question; it is this part which will give us the clues to complete our harmonisation.

Firstly, we should establish what key our excerpt is in. This can usually be done by looking at the key signature, but we can also look at the final note of the chorale (which is often the tonic) and any accidentals in the excerpt to help us decide if it is in a major key or its relative minor. Our excerpt is in G minor. This can be confirmed not only by the key signature, but also by the F sharp accidental in bar 1 and the final G note in bar 4.

With the key now established we can begin our harmonisation.

At this stage it is usually a good idea to sketch in a possible bass line, this will help us to get a sense of our progression while also creating a strong countermelody with the soprano part. These early sketches may need to be altered or changed at a later time, but it is important to create an early outline of your harmonisation. At this stage it is also a good idea to sketch in the cadences. Obviously, for our example only one cadence is needed, but for a full chorale there may be as many as six, or more. By sketching in the cadences we gain more of an understanding of where our chorale is headed, especially when modulations are involved.

As mentioned above, it is the given part which gives us the clues for completing our harmonisation. To determine which cadence we can use at the end of our excerpt we must look at the final two notes, in this case it is an A and G. In the key of G minor the only possible cadence we can use at this point is a perfect cadence, V – i, as the other cadential possibilities such as plagal, imperfect and interrupted, do not contain the relevant notes A and G. We can now sketch in a possible bass line for our cadence

SATB cadence

and indicate what chords we intend these to be (of course, these may change as we proceed).

Cadence label

With our cadence in place we can begin sketching in the rest of our bass line. The notes in the soprano part guide us in our choice of harmony, but remember to create strong progressions – by frequently using the primary triads, I, IV and V, passing, and cadential progressions – and also insure that your bass line has a strong melodic contour – by using contrary motion with the soprano part whenever possible.

SATB bass

Even at this early stage, we have used a passing progression (beats three and four, bar 1), a secondary dominant (beat two, bar 2), and a cadential six-four (beats three and four, bar 4). Already our cadence has been extended with the addition of the cadential six-four. We can now sketch in the remaining parts.

SATB First try- parallels

With our remaining parts sketched in we can already see several part-writing errors, such as the consecutive fifths between the upbeat bar and bar 1, and between beats one and two of bar 1. Finding a solution to the consecutives, such as changing the chords or rearranging the parts is a good idea if the underlying chord progression is faulty, however, at this stage, when we have only added simple block chords, it is probably a better idea to begin to fill out the progressions and decorate the harmony, or to look for simple solutions to the consecutives. In an examination situation this is often the better way to spend your time as many of the part-writing errors will disappear once secondary chords and non-harmony notes are added. (Warning: don’t think that the addition of non-harmony notes will always solve the problems of bad part-writing. It is better to not write them at all if possible).

A simple solution to the consecutives between beats one and two of bar 1 is to change the dominant chord on beat two to a dominant seventh chord in four-two inversion.

Cons solution

This solution effectively solves the consecutives problem while also adding an extra drive towards the tonic chord on beat three of bar 1.

When we do wish to begin decorating our excerpt, it is once again the soprano part which gives us the necessary clues to proceed. In our excerpt, the soprano part contains only one beat which is not a quarter note. From this we can assume that the use of note values shorter than an eighth note will probably not be appropriate. With this in mind, as well as the use of non-harmony notes to create an eighth note texture, we can also try to precede many of the existing chords with secondary chords. Remember, when using secondary chords on the offbeat eighth note, the existing quarter note must be part of the secondary chord. An initial sketch of our decorated excerpt will hopefully clarify.

Initial secondary

On the offbeat of beat one, bar 1, we have inserted a secondary dominant seventh, which precedes the dominant of G minor creating a V of V progression. We are able to insert this chord here because the existing G note in the soprano part becomes the seventh of our secondary seventh chord and also resolves correctly; down to the third of the dominant (F sharp). Notice also that the third of the secondary seventh (C sharp) is prepared correctly, to avoid a false relation, and also resolves correctly, up to the root of the dominant (D). On the offbeat of beat four, bar 1, we have retained the B flat and G quarter notes in the soprano and bass parts respectively, and created a secondary diminished seventh chord which precedes the minor dominant at the beginning of bar 2. The existing soprano and bass quarter notes resolve correctly when used as part of the diminished seventh. And finally, on the offbeat of beat two, bar 3, we have again used the existing B flat and G quarter notes in the soprano and bass parts to create a German augmented 6th chord.

Notice that with the insertion of these secondary chords, some of the voice-leading has changed from our earlier sketch. For example, the secondary dominant seventh on the offbeat of beat one, bar 1, has changed the dominant on beat two back to a root position chord which now moves through a four-two inversion to the first inversion tonic chord on beat three. Also, the German augmented 6th chord in bar 3 has created some motion towards the initial chord of the cadential six-four on beat three.

Of course, these secondary chords still do not solve the consecutive fifths between the upbeat bar and bar 1, and the eighth note leap from the third (C sharp) to the E natural of the secondary dominant on beat two of bar 2 means there is no direct move from the leading note of the secondary dominant (C sharp) to the root of the dominant on beat three. We can solve these issues by adding more eighth note movement.

Final 2ndary


Notice the use of voice exchange between the tenor and bass parts in the upbeat bar removes the consecutives while also creating some eighth note movement into bar 1.

In bar 2, transferring the leading note from the alto to the bass of the secondary dominant on beat two, not only solves the issue outlined above, but also creates more eighth note movement. We can also add another secondary dominant to the texture; this time on the offbeat of beat four, bar 2.

Final 2ndary

This secondary dominant precedes the subdominant on beat one of bar 3, and adds more eighth note movement.

With most of the phrase now consisting of a continuous eighth note rhythm, the drive towards the cadence seems to lose its impetus on the remaining quarter note beats (beat three, bar 2, and beats one, three and four, bar 3). This does not mean that the above example is wrong, or that a continuous eighth note rhythm should always be the goal of all harmonisations. The student should, however, always keep in mind the rhythmic aspect of his/her harmonisation, especially the rhythmic drive towards the cadences. As this excerpt is being used as a ‘student guide’ to chorale harmonisation, let us see if we can add more eighth note movement.

SATB non1

Here, the dominant chord on beat three of bar 2 has become a dominant seventh resolving in four-two inversion to chord i on beat four. This has created some eighth note movement on this beat. The secondary dominant, on beat two, which precedes the dominant, on beat three of bar 2, has now also become a secondary dominant seventh. And finally, further eighth note movement has been created by changing the cadential dominant in bar 3 to a dominant seventh.

Other ways of creating movement in the phrase is to use non harmony notes such as, passing notes, anticipations, and suspensions.

SATB non2

Notice there has now been added two suspensions in the alto part: a 9-8 suspension on beats one and two, bar 1, and a 4-3 suspension on beat four of bar 2 resolving on beat one of bar 3. The resolution of the seventh of the secondary dominant seventh on beat two of bar 2 (G) also creates a 4-3 suspension over chord V on beat three. Suspensions are an excellent means of creating forward movement through the use of tension and release through dissonance and consonance. As always, suspensions must be properly prepared and resolve correctly.

Now, the only thing left to do is to correctly label our progression, and indicate the key of our excerpt.

Complete SATB

This is only one possible harmonisation for this chorale melody. The steps for completing this excerpt are also only a suggested guide for your own work. As with everything, time and diligent practise will make the process quicker and less confusing while also strengthening the foundations of harmony and composition.

Bach’s 371 Harmonised Chorales is an excellent resource for further study of this topic

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