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The Regle de l'Octave in Thorough-Bass Theory and Practice


In virtually every eighteenth-century thorough-bass and composition treatise

one finds a series of scale harmonizations figured above all 24 ascending and
descending major and melodic minor scales.' These harmonizations go by var-
ious names, including the "ambitus modi," "harmonical scale," "modulazione
dell'ottava," "Sitze der Accorden," and perhaps most common of all, "la regle de
l'octave" - the "rule of the octave." This last term was coined by the French
theorbist and guitarist Franqois Campion in his important primer on thorough-
bass.2 Campion's figuring of the major scale is reproduced and realized in Ex-
ample 1. With a few exceptions to be discussed, this was the figuring found in
most eighteenth-century texts.

Example 1: Campion'sreglede l'octave

4 65 6 6 433 2
6 6

The idea behind the regle (as it was sometimes abbreviated) is that each scale
degree can be associated with a unique harmony, one which reciprocally de-
fines that scale degree. Only the tonic and dominant support "perfect chords"
(i.e. "root-position" triads), while all the other scale degrees support some va-
riety of sixth chord. By knowing which particular sixth chord belongs to which
scale degree, one can harmonize any diatonic scale progression. At the same
time, by means of differing characteristic dissonances, one can orient a given
chord within any key. So, for example, the 6/4/2 chord (the accord du tri-ton)
defines uniquely the fourth scale degree descending to a 6/3 on the mediant
(the accord de la petite sixte in major). If however we play a 6/5/3 chord (accord
de la grande sixte), we are defining the fourth scale degree ascending to the dom-
inant. Should we raise this chord's lowest note a half-step, thus creating a
diminished fifth (figured 6/5/3 - the accord de fausse-quinte), we are defining a
new leading tone (note sensible). With only a few exceptions, we can continue

Research for this study was made possible by a generous fellowships granted by the American Council of Learned
Societies and the Fulbright Scholar Program allowing me to travel to various European archives during the academic
year, 1989-90. For their helpful comments on earlier drafts of the present essay, I would like to thank Renate Groth,
Joel Lester, and Ian Bent.
CAMPION,Traitsd'Accompagnementet de Compositionselon la rigledes octaves de musique (Paris 1716).
92 TheReglede l'Octavein Thorough-Bass
ThomasChristensen: TheoryandPractice
this process and find a unique chord to distinguish each scale degree for every
major and minor key.
There were two ways in which such information could be useful to musi-
cians. The first application - and the one which Campion discussed - could be
made by beginning accompanists and composers who needed to find an idio-
matic harmonization of a simple diatonic bass line. By learning the regle de
l'octave in all 24 major and minor keys, the student had a handy rule-of-thumb
for harmonizing most any bass progression that moved by step. The second
application of the regle in the eighteenth century was made by solo performers
on keyboard and hand-plucked instruments who wished to learn the art of im-
provisation, or as it was called at the time, preluding. As any successful im-
provisation required the knowledge of grammatical harmonic progressions, a
simple formula along the lines of the regle proved useful.
It is tempting perhaps for us today to depreciate an elementary pedagogical
device like the regle as impoverished in conception and restrictive in applica-
tion.3 But this would be short-sighted. As we will see, the r'gle de l'octave played
a surprisingly important role in the education and practice of eighteenth-cen-
tury musicians. In elegant concision it made concrete otherwise abstract con-
cepts of mode, key, and harmonic coherence. At the same time it showed how
these concepts could be put into practical use by both the performer and com-
poser. To see how this could be so, we will consider the respective place of the
regle de l'octave in the pedagogies of thorough-bass and improvisation.

The original idea behind Campion's regle de l'octave, as we have already noted,
was to provide the beginning accompanist and composer a simple harmoniza-
tion that could be applied above an unfigured diatonic bass line. By memoriz-
ing the regle, Campion argued, a musician was acquiring a repertoire of the
most essential harmonies and harmonic progressions. Since most music chan-
ges keys, or as Campion put it, "is an assemblage of sections of these octaves,"
one would need to know the regle in all transpositions, and more crucially, to
recognize when "to change octaves."' In Campion's view, the characteristic dis-
sonances contained in the regle offer the easiest and most effective means to
change keys and reciprocally, to recognize key changes.
Campion admits that the regle is not infallible. A scale degree can support a
harmony other than that found in the regle, particularly when the bass moves
chromatically or by leap. Likewise, there are numerous dissonant chords not
contained in its vocabulary that a good accompanist and composer would need
to know. To this end, Campion included in his treatise a list of supplemental
bass progressions and "extraordinary" chords for study, along with explana-

The very few references made to the rigle in modern thorough-bass tutors or music histories are invariably
negative. Typical is W. KOLNEDER's description of the progression as an "Eselsbriicke" and of "geringstem Wert":
Schule des Generalbafqspiels
(Wilhelmshaven 1983), p. 94.
Traits d'Accompagnement,p. 8.