What is Partimento?
Partimento is a systematic method of music education founded in 16th century Naples, Italy. Students are provided a musical line (usually a bass), called a ‘partimento’, requiring improvised realisation. This partimento may have annotations to aid the student’s realisation such as figures (numbers indicating which intervals fit with the given note) and indications of where the partimento line should be imitated. Generally, partimenti are exercises for the purposes of instruction, rather than fully composed pieces in their own right. Partimento emphasises melodic realisation, usually in three parts, rather than chordal realisations – like in German thoroughbass or other figured bass realisations. This system of training, combined with Solfeggio (focusing on singing melodies), and Counterpoint (focusing on written voice leading) trained musicians to sing, improvise, and rapidly compose.
What is the difference between ‘Partimento’, ‘partimento’, and ‘partimenti’?
I differentiate between ‘Partimento’ (the body of knowledge, or subject), ‘partimento’ (singular, meaning a figured or unfigured line requiring improvised realisation for pedagogical purposes) and ‘partimenti’ (plural of ‘partimento’). This differentiation allows for clearer communication regarding a partimento, and Partimento. This differentiation is not widely used, but I find it a useful distinction.
Is Schemata the same as Partimento?
No, although you will find schemata in partimenti.
Partimento is the historic teaching practice whereby students would be taught through improvising a realisation of a figured or unfigured bass, whereas schemata are modern identifications of stock phrases used in galant music.
Schemata, forwarded by Robert Gjerdingen in his 2007 book Music in the Galant Style, provides analytical tools to understand voice leading and harmonic patterns in 18th century musical phrases. He identifies patterns such as the ‘Romanesca’, ‘Monte’, ‘Ponte’, ‘Fonte’, ‘Meyer’, ‘Quiescenza’. These have their equivalents in Partimento, but they are not named as such. The Romanesca may be the ‘Down 4th, Up 2nd’ (and inversion which alternates 5/3 and 6/3 chords on a descending scale). Thus, Gjerdingen identified these phrases whose exemplars may be taught through Partimento rules. But it must be stressed that (most) of these terms are modern identifications of stock 18th century phrases, some of which were taught explicitly and some implicitly through Partimento.
What is Figured Bass?
Figured Bass is a method of realising intervals above a bass with numbered annotations called ‘figures’.
There are numbers which are placed near the bass (this can be above or below the bass clef) called ‘figures’ which indicate which interval (regardless of octave) is to be played above the bass note. This is the equivalent of a lead-sheet today, where chords are indicated above a melody. The same flexibility applies also. The chords indicated above the melody in a lead sheet are not simply to be played as left-hand triads (or even just a single bass note in the left hand perhaps with the rest of the chord filled in with the right hand). Instead, texture can be created through arpeggiation, non-chordal notes can be used such as passing notes or neighbour notes, and different rhythms can be used in the chord which are not made explicit by the lead-sheet.
This is all true of Figured Bass, except the realisation is in the melody (right hand), rather than the bass (left hand). A simple Figured Bass realisation may contain just chords in the right hand without too much attention paid to voice leading but increasing levels of complexity may be applied through ensuring a clear soprano melody, smooth voice-leading, a three-part or two part texture, chordal and non-chordal notes (diminutions), different rhythms, suspensions and other devices. These additional levels of complexity are taught through partimenti, such as Francesco Durante’s Diminuiti. Here, Durante provides stock diminutions to be played over phrases which recur throughout the partimento.
What instrumental standard do I need to be to learn Partimento?
If you have a good teacher, you can be at any standard. However, I have found that students who are around Grade 2+ (about 2-3 years of experience) can start to think about integrating elements of Partimento in their practice. The reason why is that the student can get the most out of the subject when they can read the bass clef, understand triads or pop chords, and can play both hands at the same time without too much effort. However, for less experienced learners, Partimento can be adapted. Realisations can be in just two parts, there can be a greater focus on learning aurally rather than with notation, and the realisation can focus on chordal rather than non-chordal notes.
I can’t play the piano, but I would still like to learn Partimento, is that possible?
A partimento could be played and realised on one harmony instrument such as any form of keyboard, harp, guitar, or marimba. But partimenti could be realised on any melody instrument. This could be achieved through making a recording of the partimento (on your instrument, on a keyboard or finding existing audio of a partimento) and then playing over the top of the recording. Alternatively, a partimento may be played and realised through ensemble – with a bass instrument playing the partimento (if the partimento is in the bass) and the melody instrument realising the partimento.
What makes Partimento effective?
There are many reasons why studying Partimento is so effective. Here are five:
- Holistic Learning: The study of Partimento engages all of the senses and teaches music holistically. This allows all the various components of the study of music to not be siloed, but instead to knit together. Theory links with aural through improvisation; analysis helps understand the music before you play it. This is because theory, aural skills, analysis etc. are means to an end, rather than ends in and of themselves – which is currently how they are taught.
- Kinaesthetic Learning: Quite often, subjects such as harmony and counterpoint are taught with a closed piano lid. This removes the kinaesthetic and aural learning approaches. Students may feel disconnected to the music that they are writing or learning about. Whereas Partimento teaches harmony and counterpoint through improvisation at the instrument. This allows the advantages of embodied learning, where understanding is demonstrated through output in real time, rather than written exercises.
- Owning the Product: At its heart, Partimento is creative. Partimento allows for improvised realisation of a figured or unfigured bass. What this means is, you are a given a bassline (or perhaps a melody requiring imitation) and given the chords which fit with that bass – everything else is up to you. You get to decide which notes to play as a melody, the dynamics, tempo, style, diminutions, everything! Partimento is creativity with constraints. This allows players to feel like they have created the partimento, it is their realisation and no one can take that away from them. This engages students with the music because they feel that it is theirs. This makes students value the music more than if it were someone else’s (this can be known as the ‘IKEA Effect’).
- Partimento Techniques are Everywhere: Partimenti aren’t just exercises with no real-world application; instead, the musical techniques taught through partimenti are everywhere. Cadences, Rule of the Octave, Sequences and Modulations appear throughout all the common-practice Western art music. Even if musicians have not been taught through partimenti, they often still compose using techniques were disseminated through musicians who had. This allows us to find Partimento techniques in the music of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. This makes Partimento effective because students begin to hear what they are learning in the music they love. If students really love romantic music, studying Partimento is still relevant and useful to them.
- Authenticity: The composers we still listen to today were produced through Partimento (or similar) instruction. Thus, learning Partimento helps to understand composers’ music on their own terms, rather than contemporary anachronistic analysis using concepts such as chords and Roman numerals which would have been alien to those composers.
Will studying Partimento teach me to improvise classical music?
Yes… but not directly.
Partimento teaches classical improvisation through understanding foundational rules (such as cadences and the rule of the octave) then melodically realising figured and unfigured basses. Partimenti are best realised when improvised and through lots of different realisations over the same partimento. The bass may also be embellished through diminutions. However, the focus of Partimento is improvised realisation of given material, rather than improvisation without any material to begin with. One can certainly plan an improvisation through creating a tonal and phrase structure ahead of time, but this is not something directly taught in Partimento. This is where partimenti (which were exercises) are different from composed and fully improvised music. However, one can find themselves being proficient with improvisation away from a partimento through studying partimenti, as many techniques learnt through Partimento are transferrable to fully improvised music.
PS. I could get very bogged down with definitions of ‘Improvisation’ and ‘Partimento’ (and don’t get me started on ‘Classical Music’!) so please take the naivest definitions of these terms.
Does learning Partimento only help with improvisation?
Partimento trains many skills such as Analysis, Aural, Music Theory, Counterpoint, Harmony, Keyboard Skills, Transposition. The way Partimento can train all of these skills simultaneously is because it is taught at the instrument. Partimento is not learnt through reading or with a pencil and paper; instead, it is taught through the fingers. Partimento is a holistic educational approach which engages all the senses. Many musicians remark that studying Partimento has changed the way they hear music.
What are the disadvantages of studying Partimento?
There are certainly disadvantages to studying Partimento:
- Lack of Resources: As the study of Partimento is still quite new, there is a lack of resources available (although this is changing). This also results in there being a lack of teachers who adequately know and understand Partimento to teach the subject effectively.
- Musicality: Partimento does not teach musicality. There is no mention of performance directions or how one should play the partimento, it is entirely up to the teacher and student. This provides the student with freedom to put their own expression into the music; however, if one does not integrate musical playing into the study of Partimento, then performance expression may suffer.
- Accreditation: Partimento is not recognised by examination boards. Although a valuable pursuit in and of itself, the study of Partimento does not directly lead to Practical or Theoretical examinations provided by exam boards. This may change in time, and even though there is no direct examination in Partimento, there is much transferrable benefit from the study of Partimento.
- One Piece of the Puzzle: Partimento was only one part of the curriculum for Neapolitan students. Counterpoint and Solfeggio were taught in tandem with Partimento (in fact, Solfeggio was to be taught for three years before students could pick up an instrument and learn Partimento). This helped cover a larger skill set more thoroughly to train the student to compose, improvise, and sing fluently. Were Partimento to be practised today at the exclusion of other fields of study, then the student may miss out on the benefits that a rounder musical education may bring.
- Form: Partimento focuses on phrases rather than forms. When a student of Partimento improvises away from a partimento, or composes, they may find their improvisations or compositions lack coherency and structure. This is because Partimento focuses more on the phrase, than the form. Knowing Partimento prototypes, bass motions or the Rule of the Octave helps to understand how to harmonise these prototypes and play them in interesting ways but does not overtly focus on where these phrases should sit within a piece of music, or how long they last. This is why the study of form should supplement the study of Partimento.
Do I need to know Figured Bass to study Partimento?
No, but it helps.
Figured bass is not particularly difficult to learn if learnt practically. Depending on your prior experience, you may have to undergo a period of mentally translating your understanding of chords and inversions into intervals. This takes time and patience, but figures are an extremely effective way of reading music – much more effective than chord symbols and their inversions for classical music. Figures allow you to quickly spot consonance and dissonance, suspensions and schemata. Figures are the language that partimenti are communicated through, and so it is certainly worth learning to fully engage with partimenti.
Figured Bass is simply recognising and playing intervals at your instrument. It may also be worth knowing the abbreviations that figured bass use.
However, don’t get overly stuck on Figured Bass or feel like it is preventing you from learning partimenti. It is important not to see Figured Bass as an end in itself; instead, think of it as a means to play partimenti and recognise patterns more fluently.
How should I practise a partimento?
There are many different approaches to practising a partimento. Some may be specific to a partimento, or group of partimenti (where imitiation may be more of a focus or using certain diminutions), and there are many approaches put forward by historic sources and contemporary ones. The approach that I have found to be effective with myself and my students, combining many historical and contemporary approaches, is the following:
- Label – Add labels such as prototype (such as, the Rule of the Octave, type of Cadence, Bass Motion), scale degree, key, chord, figures or any other label that helps you understand the partimento.
- Chunk – Break up the partimento into the different prototypes that you have identified, then practise each of the following steps for each chunk.
- Chords – Play full chords above the bass (4 voices including the bass with 3 in the R.H.). Repeat this in the three positions that you may find the chords in (start in 1st position, then 2nd position, then 3rd position).
- Two Voices – Play just one voice in the R.H. using chordal notes only. Try each voice that the chord occupied, then try a mix of the different voices. Try in many different ways then sketch the melody you like the most.
- Diminutions – Add diminutions such as neighbour notes, passing notes, suspensions etc. Try just one technique at a time, try only using passing notes, then only using appoggiaturas etc. When you have exhausted each diminution, try a mix of two diminutions, then any which you like the most.
- Combine – Then you can try more of the partimento, perhaps two neighbouring chunks, which might be 5 or 6 bars, until you can fluently play them as chords, in two voices or with diminutions. When you are confident with a few chunks, see if you can add in more chunks until the entire partimento has been covered.
- Repeat – When you have played through the partimento in its entirety, try it again in another way. This can be done again and again.
Further, it is more important to practise one partimento fluently, and in many different ways, than it is to practise lots of partimenti. Emphasis should be placed on trying as many realisations as possible, at a steady speed. This is certainly challenging, and so it is important that many combinations must be attempted in Step 2 above.
Where can I find out more about Partimento?
- Music in the Galant Style – Robert Gjerdingen (2007)
- Partimento and Continuo Playing: In Theory and Practice – Edited by Moelants (2010)
- The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, and Practice – Giorgio Sanguinetti (2012)
- Counterpoint and Partimento – Peter van Tour (2014)
- The 189 Partimenti of Nicola Sala Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 – Peter Van Tour (2017)
- Studies in Historical Improvisation: From Cantare super Librum to Partimenti – Edited by Guido (2017)
- Harmony, Counterpoint, Partimento – Job Ijzerman (2018)
- Child Composers in the Old Conservatoires – Robert Gjerdingen (2020)
- The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation – John Mortensen (2020)
- The Solfeggio Tradition – Nicholas Baragwanath (2020)
- Historic Improvisation Discussion Forum (MyBB) – John Mortensen
- Improving Pianists
- Partimenti (Reddit) – Nikhil Hogan
- The Art of Partimento (Facebook) – The largest online community of Partimento
- Art of Composing – Robert Gjerdingen
- The Nikhil Hogan Show
- Gjerdingen Google Sites – Introductory material for Partimento
- Improv Planet – John Mortensen’s exclusive Partimento resources
- Improving Pianists
- Monuments of Partimenti
- partimenti.com – Details for the MentiParti annual event
- partimenti.org – Discover the original partimento treatises, counterpoint, solfeggio online for free
- Cedarville Music – Free improvisational tips, tricks, and performances produced by John Mortensen
- Child Composers – Robert Gjerdingen’s 2020 book’s companion YouTube channel
- Ewald Demeyre
- Improving Pianists
- Nikhil Hogan
- Tobias Cramm
You can also find many academic papers on this subject. If you look at the bibliography of any of my articles on Partimento, then you shall find many valuable academic papers.
Will studying Partimento or Schemata change the way I hear, or understand, common-practice music?
Music theory gives us a language to communicate about music. Partimento and Schemata add new words to that language.
All theory changes the way you listen to music. Learning about major and minor tonalities, modulations, form, or Augmented 6th chords allows you to hear music differently. In fact, almost all music theory seeks to categorise music in a way which allows people to communicate about it. Imagine trying to communicate about football without talking about player positions, formations, or rules.
Partimento and Schemata both focus on learning music at the level of the phrase. Partimento teaches common phrases such as the Rule of the Octave and certain sequences. Schemata trains the musician in hearing, analysing, and playing music at the middleground (skeletal phrase structure) rather than foreground (diminution). This allows the listener to hear music at the level of the phrase (particularly the counterpoint) rather than simply the surface notes.
Further to this, Partimento and Schemata teaches common phrases in common-practice music. This allows the listener to hear when a composer is doing something which is conventional, or unconventional.
Why is your website turquoise?
This, along with being a stylish, contemporary colour is an homage to the Santa Maria Della Pietà Dei Turchini – one the most prestigious Neapolitan conservatories. The child students (figliuoli) would wear a dark turquoise (hence ‘… dei Turchini’) uniform: cassock (sottana), long robe (zimarra), and cap. Each conservatory had colour coded uniforms for the students:
- Santa Maria Della Pietà Dei Turchini – Entirely dark turquoise uniform
- Santa Maria di Loreto – Entirely white uniform, except for public performances, where black was worn
- Sant’Onofrio a Capuana – White cassock, long grey robe, brown cap
- I Poveri di Gesù Cristo – Red cassock, long blue robe, blue cap
This integration of old practices in a contemporary form, I believe, fits well with the aim to revive, and update, old methods for modern students.