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Are parallel [perfect] fifths and octaves ever acceptable, or ever seen or heard?

A member here asked me this morning, “Are parallel octaves and [perfect] fifths ever OK? Will I ever see them?”, and I thought a polished answer belongs here.

There are genres, such as rock and roll, where parallel chords going up or down the guitar neck are wholly idiomatic — so-called “power chords”, as well as the bass-scalar beginning of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone (does that count as “classical” yet?).  In most kinds of Jazz, block chords moving in parallel are no problem at all, especially chromatically. Or heavy, two-handed keyboard chords in eight or ten parts in romantic or modern music.

In classical music, there are "octave/unisono" passages, such as the opening of Bach's D minor harpsichord concerto BWV 1052, or that of the famous D minor Toccata BWV 565, where all parts are in octaves for several measures, as well as countless concerti by Vivaldi and others. The unisono opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or that of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik , literally could not be more famous (those don't count as "parallel octaves"). But not perfect fifths.

Between lines of hymns (4-voiced “chorales”), i.e., after a fermata, Bach not infrequently allows voices to proceed in otherwise unacceptable parallels; the mind of the listener is usually expected to “clear its table/buffer” at such points (but not always).  Try here for a discussion of parallel fifths in Bach Chorales.

And in symphonic music (but not classical/baroque), there are places where one instrument (in a fuller texture) doubles another at the octave, in the manner of "octave" organ stops (e.g., flute/bassoon), but that is "romantic era" gesture. And, of course, many orchestrations involve two different instruments playing the same part in unison. In many Bach cantatas, the continuo and vocal bass go "in and out" of tracking each other in exact unison, which causes occasional small passages to "look like" consecutive unisons amidst a seeming run of independence.   But not fifths.

And there are cases of “parallels at larger note values”, where the parallel intervals are not directly adjacent, but other notes intervene between them, which may or may not be acceptable depending upon the specific notes and context, and their acceptability may be contentious: "Sounds like fifths to me!". "Well, not to me."

There is a cadential anticipation gesture that causes parallel fifths between the melody and a descending seventh, where parallel perfect fifths are, remarkably, tolerated (e.g., bar 4).  And there is a case of the resolution of so-called "German Augmented Sixth" chords where they are inevitable, and occur so regularly in Mozart's oeuvre that they are sometimes called "Mozart fifths".

Parallels and unplanned doubling are also permitted between continuo right-hands (realizations) and obbligato instruments and voices (but the RH must be contrapuntally rigorous with its own LH, i.e., the common bass line); the real-time continuo "realizer" is not supposed to be aware of those parts; this is a complex subject; see my many continuo realizations posted here for examples (note that usually realizations are not "written", so you won't "see" them).

And then there is the matter of “direct fifths/octaves”, not exactly parallel, but similar motion into a perfect interval leaving the forbidden unsaid but implied, whose acceptability varies from style to style, composer to composer, and time to time, and with respect to which Bach is considerably more lenient than the theorists of his time.

And occasionally, composers make errors.

Otherwise, the answer, for contrapuntal writing of putatively independent parts,  is just NO, if you want your work to resemble that of composers who held fast to this guideline.

June 2019

The first competition is here!

For this month, the theme will be "Relaxation", since summer is a relaxing time of year. Any pieces composed/arranged/transcribed should incorporate relaxation in some way.

Have fun, and good luck!

Also, as only one piece has been submitted so far, the June competition has been extended again until August.