I read on an online forum that a composition “teacher” (if we can say that about this person…) told a pupil that four-part writing is useless and to forget all about it. It has nothing to do with composition.
All I have to say to this is… what stupidity! Four-part writing is the essence of composition.
Let’s say we use four-part writing exactly as-is, you know – Bach Chorale style. Just like that it is perfect for many, many film moods: inspirational, religioso, grandiose, heroic, epic, fanfares, westerns, battle music and the list goes on.
Four-part writing can instantly become two, three or five-part writing with zero extra effort. You have counter-melodies and accompaniment patterns possible while maintaining control over the total sonority.
You can use four part writing as-is for accompanying a melody (four-parts under a tune) or you can also break up your four-part writing to have arpeggiated patterns, waltz patterns, ostinato patterns and all kinds of accompaniments. All great composers have done exactly that! (I am still in shock that somebody calls themselves a composition teacher and doesn’t know this.)
But four-part writing is much more than that for me. At it’s core it is about the simultaneous control of both the vertical and horizontal planes. I know that this sounds very fancy, but I don’t even want to limit that concept by using the word “harmony”, because this brings to mind traditional chords. In my concert music I like to think in terms of sonority and not traditional harmony. In other words, I’ll use tritones, sevenths and fourths as freely as thirds and sixths, and I control these the same way as you would with that Bach chorale style. Four-part concepts are also an integral part of jazz harmony teachings! The chords are slightly different, concept is the same.
There was other craziness espoused by this “teacher” but I’ll stop there. My point is that four-part writing is important and used all the time by good composers. It’s much, much more than a Bach chorale! It’s not an option if you want to be a good composer.
Can you think of easy to spot examples of four-part writing in films? Here are some to get you started:
- “Hymn for the Fallen” by John Williams
- “Lando’s Palace” from Empire Strikes Back
- “Asteroid Field” from Empire Strikes Back at about 2:19
- “All Systems Go” James Horner Apollo 13
- “Aases’ Death” by Grieg. (Not film music, but very cinematic.)