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Chapter 3: A Case for Partimento Pt. 1 – Music Theory

Reform needs to occur in musical theory and improvisation pedagogies. I posit that Partimento can be used as a method in which to holistically integrate compartmentalised aspects of music education. Partimento can act as a scaffold to train improvisation (Callahan, 2017, p. 196). Improvisation is an admirable goal in and of itself and produces valuable by-products such as greater theoretical comprehension and fluency in performance. The study of partimenti primarily imparts musical knowledge and proficiency through haptic experience. Improvisation could be used as end unto itself, or it could be used as vehicle to teach other concepts (Callahan, 2017, p. 187). In this chapter, I shall discuss the benefits of teaching theory through haptic experience and the benefits of improvisation. Throughout, I shall point towards how Partimento meets these goals.

The Benefits of Hands-on Learning in Relation to Music Theory

Music theory, as discussed in Chapter 2, is frequently taught in a compartmentalised form. Written and conceptual understanding are prioritised over holistic integration and practical realisation. Callahan (2012) taught two counterpoint classes, a traditional written counterpoint curriculum and a keyboard workshop teaching figured bass as a starting point for improvisation. He found “almost without exception, the keyboard students improvised better counterpoint than the counterpoint students wrote; the work of the former was more idiomatic, more musical, and much more fluent than that of the latter” (p. 61). Gross (2013) notes the benefits of kinaesthetic learning in relation to the improvisation of figuration preludes. Theoretical concepts can be put into practice which solidifies analytical and compositional comprehension through practical realisation (p.41). Gross emphasises that “the physical motion of the hands reinforces conceptual mastery and enables creativity” (p.20). Diergarten (2011) indicates that this holistic, hands-on approach has historical precedent. He shows examples of Tritto, Mozart and Beethoven (amongst others) undertaking (and teaching) written Fuxian counterpoint only after the “fundamentals on a keyboard instrument” had been taught – in some cases through partimenti (p.71). Chen (2003, pp.15-17) highlights the difficulties for modern historians to decode how “exercises in species counterpoint equipped one to write operas, symphonies and sonatas. … There remains the important question of how composers accomplished the shift from strict to free writing”. Diergarten (2011, p.73) asserts that this question does not present itself when studying partimenti. Instead, “instrument and training in the stylus a capella complement each other continually”. Partimento thus acts as a holistic method connecting haptic experience with conceptual comprehension.

The desideratum for hands-on learning has been addressed by Porter (2013). He calls for ear training, harmonic progressions and contrapuntal voice-leading to be taught “at the keyboard” (p.15). All too often these musical disciplines are taught “involving much paper and chalkboards” (p.14). He calls for a more embodied approach to facilitate improvisation and to allow students to physically produce what they may cognitively understand. Furthermore, physical reproduction reciprocates cognitive understanding. Callahan (2012, p.63) writes that “improvisation converts contrapuntal topics and principles … into tasks —and, even better, habits—which are relevant even outside of real time and away from an instrument”. Some of Callahan’s 2015 findings were that of the overwhelmingly positive student feedback in relation to a more practical music theory undergraduate class. The students enjoyed the “visceral”, “tangible, audible [and] musical” elements of the class (p.11). They felt satisfaction at their creation of a “musical product” (this is corroborated by Schubert, 2017, p.184). These responses led Callahan to posit that “music theory instruction ought to be multi-modal, with keyboard-based learning constituting one strand alongside written work” (p.11).

These scholarly claims are difficult to ignore. One possible reason for the benefits of hands-on learning as opposed to purely written theory, may be that theory is regarded by most students as a means to an end. Students use theory to better themselves in the practical aspects of music, to perform, compose or improvise (Callahan, 2015, p.1). Perhaps a linguistic metaphor may be used, it may be reasonable to suggest that foreign-language learners learn the fewest grammatical rules necessary in order to gain fluency of that language. Grammatical rules compartmentalised away from the spoken or creative aspects of languages are, for most students, not the purpose of learning a language. They are necessary, but best learnt when integrated as a contributing part to the whole. It may be necessary, therefore, to decompartmentalise written music theory as a discipline in favour of its holistic integration throughout all aspects of music making (at least for beginner to intermediate level students). Partimenti may be a useful solution to this issue. An embodied, holistic, practice-centric approach is at the core of Partimento.

How Partimento Facilitates Hands-on Learning

My aim for the study of Partimento, or its integration into pedagogy today, is not with the realisation of a partimento being the goal in and of itself; I am more concerned with the skills imparted through study of partimenti. Partimento rules provide a method in which to practically teach theoretical concepts and facilitate improvisation. Ijzerman (2018, p.xii) notes that even “the easiest eighteenth-century partimenti … require a considerable set of musical skills, which a beginner may not have acquired yet”. This statement is correct; however, I would argue that the study of Partimento rules teaches the beginner student a wide-range of skills which seep across all elements of tonal music.

Take, for example, the first rule in many a Partimento pedagogues Regole – a simple cadence (cadenze semplice) in C-major in each hand position – which may be appropriate for a student of grade 1 or 2 (ABRSM) standard:

Figure 2: A simple cadence in each hand position, with three different bass motions

These simple cadences impart the strong relationship between chords I and V without having to be told that I and V have a strong relationship; it is demonstrably evident through their regular occurrence and primacy of place throughout Partimento. Gjerdingen, (2010, p.53) discusses this further in relation to suspensions, “the student thus learns how the suspension works in context, without needing to be told the details of counterpoint. Moreover, the student absorbs the sense of a suspension as a decoration or ornament of the basic theme”. This is furthered through an aural link between the sonorities created between chords I and V. Furthermore, chords C and G are taught in each hand position which highlights the different ways in which a chord may be played whilst maintaining the same bass root. Harmony and counterpoint are imparted through vertical alignment of chords C and G on their respective root position notes and appropriate voice leading appearing across each voice within the right hand (Gross, 2013, p.20). Perfect intervals of the fourth, the fifth and the octave appear in the left hand ascending or descending in order to play the successive tonic or dominant note. Notational understanding of treble and bass clef is imparted through recurring notes between hand positions of the same chord; it is vital to read each harmony as one chord, rather than four separate notes. This myriad of benefits can be extracted through “experience before conceptualisation” (Sánchez-Kisielewska, 2017, p.118) for students with minimal technical facility or notational fluency. This shows the vast theoretical skills taught through only a simple cadence.

Simple cadences, like much of the Regole, are not unique to the Partimento tradition. But the above example acts as a microcosm of the potential benefits that the study of Partimento may bring. Partimento begins by showing you what you can do, rather than emphasising what you must avoid (Callahan, 2015, p.8). This is done in a haptic way, Hugo Riemann (1919, cited by Diergarten, 2011, pp.74-75) accurately notes that “a well-trained Generalbass player feels incorrect consecutives immediately in his fingers, which he can then forestall and thus implement the proper consecutives before his eye can correctly comprehend it”. Thus, correct voice leading is immanent in the study of Partimento, rather than a theoretical axiom. Rabinovitch and Slominski (2015, p.1) found that partimenti and schemata allowed student engagement “both with abstract issues in music theory and with historical styles, while making theory assignments more musical”. Furthermore, the awareness and production of “underlying harmonic skeletons” with a polyphonic melody can cement knowledge of harmony and diminutions (p.3). This allows students “to engage in real time with “written-theory” concepts such as chordal skips and non-chord tones, and also paves the way for a more specialized study of historical improvisation as an end in itself” (p.3). In my teaching practice, young students of around Grade 2 or 3 (ABRSM) standard have successfully improvised first and second species counterpoint over a given bassline. This has been achieved merely through a basic understanding of chordal and non-chordal tones. These concepts, so often confined to written theory, have been practically taught at the piano resulting in the students’ development of a keen kinaesthetic and aural awareness of chordal and non-chordal tones.


Callahan, M. (2012). Teaching Baroque Counterpoint Through Improvisation. Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 26, 61-100.

Callahan, M.R. (2015). Teaching and learning undergraduate music theory at the keyboard: Challenges, solutions, and impacts. Music Theory Online, 21 (3), 1-22.

Callahan, M. (2017). Learning tonal counterpoint through keyboard improvisation in the twenty-first century. In M. Guido (Ed.) Studies in Historical Improvisation (pp. 185-203). New York: Routledge.

Chen, J.Y. (2003). Palestrina and the influence of “old” style in eighteenth-century Vienna. Journal of Musicological Research, 22 (1-2), 1-44.

Community Early Learning Centre. (2018). Tree With Hand Vinyl [png]. PinClipart.

Diergarten, F. (2011). ‘The true fundamentals of composition’: Haydn’s partimento counterpoint. Eighteenth-Century Music, 8 (1), 53-75. Retrieved from doi:10.1017/S1478570610000412.

Gjerdingen, R. (2010). Partimenti written to impart a knowledge of counterpoint and composition. In D. Moelants & K. Snyers (Eds.) Partimento and Continuo Playing (pp. 43-70). Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Gross, A. (2013). The improvisation of figuration preludes and the enduring value of Bach family pedagogy. Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 27, 19-46.

Ijzerman, J. (2018). Harmony, Counterpoint, Partimento: A New Method Inspired by Old Masters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Porter, W. (2013). Why is improvisation so difficult?. Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 27, 7-18.

Rabinovitch, G. & Slominski, J. (2015). Towards a galant pedagogy: partimenti and schemata as tools in the pedagogy of eighteenth-century style improvisation. Music Theory Online, 21 (3), 1-11. Retrieved from

Sánchez-Kisielewska, O. (2017). The Rule of the Octave in First-Year Undergraduate Theory: Teaching in the Twenty-First Century with Eighteenth-Century Strategies. Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 31, 113-134.

Schubert, P. (2017). Teaching theory through improvisation. In M. Guido (Ed.) Studies in Historical Improvisation (pp. 175-184). New York: Routledge.

By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.

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