Mar 27

How to Compose a Madrigal [Challenging]


How to Compose a Monteverdi-Style Madrigal in a Minor Key [Challenging]

In this post I’m going to walk you through the steps for composing a madrigal in the style of Monteverdi. It’s quite complicated, so I’ve split the tutorial into three separate videos, to break things up a bit.

You might find this lesson a bit tricky to understand if you haven’t had much contact with chords and their inversions, and the rules of harmony.

What do Monteverdi’s Madrigals Sound Like?

Claudio MonteverdiMonteverdi wrote madrigals in the 16th and 17th centuries. His mature compositions are a cross between the very old style used in the Renaissance which was based on “modes”, and the emerging Baroque style which heralded the development of the diatonic system – otherwise known as the major/minor scales. If you’re not familiar with any Monteverdi madrigals, take some time to listen before you attempt to write your own! This overlapping of modalities makes for some interesting and beautiful harmonies. You can find plenty of listening material on Youtube.


Madrigals are “contrapuntal”, which means that each individual part has some melodic and rhythmic interest. It is not just one line of melody with a succession of chords as an accompaniment. The harmony is actually created by the interweaving melodies. Although not always written for voices, (Monteverdi also used viols – string instruments popular before the violin), the parts of a madrigal are always suitable for the human voice. This means that most of the time, each part moves by step, and awkward intervals are always avoided. Monterverdi’s music has several characteristics which we can try to copy into our own madrigal compositions.


How to Write a Madrigal

To compose my own madrigal, I’m going to follow these steps:

  1. Choose a key (D minor), time signature (4/4) and  instrumentation (string quartet)
  2. Write the melody line.
  3. Using typical chord progressions, write the bass line and make note of the intended chords.
  4. Fill in the alto and tenor parts, bearing in mind the general rules of harmony.
  5. Add suspensions, passing notes and imitation to the alto, tenor and bass parts.

You can watch how I do this in the video tutorials. More details are explained below!

1. How to Plan the Madrigal and Write the Melody Line


Madrigals of this era are not specifically either major or minor, but seem to hover between two related keys. Pick a key signature, let’s say 1 flat, and use the relative major (F)  AND minor (D) keys, sometimes focusing on the major and at other times on the minor. When I use Roman numerals for chords, I’m using the minor key as the base key. This means, however, that the relative major appears as chord III, and the dominant in the relative major is VII. You might not be used to thinking of III and VII as primary chords, but I think it’s quite easy to get used to (trust me!)

From the melodic minor scale, we have both the unchanged and raised versions of the 6th and 7th notes of the scale. So for example in D minor, we can use Bb and B natural, C natural and C sharp.

Monteverdi tends to use both the major and minor versions of chords I, IV and V in a minor key. For example, if the piece is in D minor, we could expect to find the chords D minor, D major, G minor, G major, A minor and A major.

The major chords for IV and V exist because the chord notes are there in the melodic minor scale (e.g. B natural gives us a G major IV in D minor).

The importance of the tonic note is so strong that it causes no confusion to the ears if harmonised with either a major or minor chord – we process the information in more or less the same way. In Monterverdi’s time the major version was slightly superior, in that the minor version was avoided as the final chord of a piece. In fact, the final chord of the piece will be either major, or a “fifth chord” – with no third. The absence of a third in a “fifth chord” means it is technically neither major or minor, although the subtle overtones put more emphasis on a major third harmonic, making us sense that is actually major.


Writing the Melody Line

I did a brief analysis of the intervals used in a few of Monteverdi’s madrigals, and discovered that the melody moves by unison or step around 70% of the time. Fourths/fifths/octaves are used about 19% of the time and thirds are used about 10% of the time. (Octaves are more likely to be found as a leap, rather than a fall). The final 1% is 6th or 7ths – almost never used. Augmented and diminished intervals are practically never used – I didn’t find any examples in the madrigals I was looking at.

  • The melody (soprano) line moves mostly by step.
  • It is very common in a madrigal to find that the melody moves slowly downwards by step, then leaps up by a larger interval (like a 5th) only to wend its way downwards slowly again.
  • Where the melody moves by a semitone, this is nearly always in a downwards direction. So, we could find B falling to Bb, but probably not Bb rising to B. (Rising semitones are found, however, when the music is changing key. In this tutorial we will avoid modulating as there is quite a lot to take in already without discussing modulation!)
  • A wide variety of rhythms are used.
  • Use longer note values to signify the end of a phrase, and plan the melody to fit cadences at these points
  • Start and end on notes from the tonic chord


2. Adding the Bass Line

Adding the bass line is the same thing as choosing which chords (and their inversions) you want to harmonise your melody.

The basic method I use is to take the melody note (ignoring any decorative notes) and look at which chords it fits with. There will be several to choose from. Next, look at the likely progressions of chords, and a choose a chord which seems authentic. From the chosen chord, the bass line can use the root or third – you need to check for consecutive 5ths or octaves, and augmented intervals then pick the best note.


Because both the major and minor chords are used for chords I, IV and V, there are ten possible chords to choose from when harmonising a madrigal.

For each degree of the natural minor scale, you can make a triad using that scale degree as the root. There is no chord made from the sharpened 6th or 7th degree (i.e. B natural or C# here).

In the Roman numeral system for naming chords, major chords use capital letters and minor and diminished chords use lower case. Diminished chords also have a small ° symbol next to them.

These are the chords available in D minor:


D E F G A Bb C
D maj (I) E dim (ii°) F maj (III) G maj (IV) A maj (V) Bb maj (VI) C maj (VII)
D min (i) G min (iv) A min (v)

If you write a piece in a different key, let’s say G minor, you need to work out the same chords for that key (I,i,ii°,III,IV,iv,V,v,VI and VII).

In addition, a tonic or dominant chord with no third is sometimes used. In this tutorial, I’ll notate this “fifth chord” as [i] or [v] in square brackets.


For each chord, you can use the root or third of the basic triad as a bass note. For example, the chord of D minor contains the notes D, F and A. Of these, D is the root and F is the third – you can use either of those in the bass. A is the fifth, and can’t be used except in special circumstances.


To sound authentic, you need to try to use progressions of chords in the same way that Monteverdi did. If you stick to the progressions detailed here, your piece ought to sound authentic enough! Pay attention to whether the major or minor version of the chord is stated – they are not completely interchangeable!

Two-Chord Progressions

For each chord that you write, make sure that the next chord is one in this list, to avoid pitfalls!

Chord: can be followed by:
i V, v or VII
I i or V
[i] I
ii° III or VI
III i, VI or VII
iv i or V
IV III, iv or VII
v IV or VII
V i, I, [i],  iv or v
[v] i or I
VI ii°, III, V, [v]  or VII


Longer Progressions




i-V-v-IV-iv-i-V (common in laments!)


  •  The madrigal should start on chord i or [i] (or the relative major tonic III)
  • Where there is a major and minor version of a chord, it’s not usual to find the minor followed by the major.
  • The progressions ii°- III and VII-III make the music slip into the relative major. (III is the tonic of the relative major).
  •  A madrigal usually ends either on I or [i], but not the minor chord i, with a perfect cadence from V.
  • It’s useful to follow VI with a fifth chord [v] (i.e. with no third) because otherwise there are awkward intervals to deal with, trying to get to the C# smoothly!

 Consecutive Harmonies

Monteverdi would have carefully avoided writing consecutive intervals of a perfect 5th or octave. While we will do our best to avoid them, we can’t guarantee that the odd one might slip in here and there! Get rid of them if you can!

3. The Inner Parts

The two most significant parts of a madrigal are the melody line and the bass. The inner parts (of which there could be 1-4) tend to fill in the harmony more, but often imitate the melody line and should be tuneful.

Imitation means that the same motifs (fragments of melody) are used, perhaps at a different pitch, or rhythms are echoed at staggered intervals, for example.

The middle parts in particular can be made more interesting by the addition of passing notes and suspensions.

  • Passing notes can be added between any two notes which are a third apart, (unless doing so creates consecutive 5ths or octaves). Make sure that there are no augmented intervals either.
  • Suspensions can be added when the note you want to suspend falls by a second, and also forms a dissonance with the bass (of a 2nd, 4th or 7th) and also falls to a note which doesn’t already exist in the chord (excluding the bass).


Useful Links






Image credits: Painting of Monteverdi: After Bernardo Strozzi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



1 comment

1 ping

  1. Sheryll Cassella

    Super site

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