Tool #1: Parallel Chords

Every time you write parallel fifths, Bach kills a kitten.  Or at least if you’re starting part-writing in theory class.  Parallel fifths have a unique sound, one that can be jarring and unsettling.  But, we’re in the year 2011, and it’s obvious that parallel fifths and parallel chords are okay if used to good effect.

I remember writing my first orchestral piece bit by bit, section by section.  One section was written entirely at my guitar, just sliding “jazz chords” (seventh chords and their extensions/alterations) up and down the neck.  For example, I might make the shape of a G13 chord in my left hand and play it with different roots up and down the neck–for example G13, C13, Bb13, A13.  I found this to be intoxicating.  The sonority of the 13th chord would be transformed into a progression, and tension would be built and released depending on the next root and the duration/rhythm of the progressing chords.  And here’s one of the best parts about this process: the parallels didn’t “sound bad” to me.

I orchestrated this to the string choir, leaving out the basses.  The sustain of the bowed strings allowed the chords to hold, and the pianissimo and con sordino markings allowed the quiet, serene landscape to unfold slowly.  The chords were already pre-voiced because they were written at the guitar in an acceptable range for strings, and this jazz chord section is one of the better parts of the entire piece, even though it was by far one of the simplest to write. (See my piece “Shards”, around 7:45 into the track on YouTube at

Parallel chords can offer a huge range of effects.  In my next orchestral piece I stacked fifths in the french horns, and then added other fifths as the other members of the brass choir entered.  The effect was a haunting horn call that was made more powerful when the lower and reinforcing fifths of the cylindrical brass and tuba were added.  (See my piece “Sleepless”, around 5:50 into the track on YouTube at

I highly encourage you to try this out–come up with a cool voicing and play around with different transpositions of it in sequence.  It is a great tool to add color and new harmony, as well as create tension and release (depending on the juxtapositions of the chords).

What are your thoughts?  Got any examples online you can post links to?

Thanks for reading!


2 thoughts on “Tool #1: Parallel Chords

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