Voice Leading


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Voice Leading

Note: If you wish to practice your skills learned in this unit you are encouraged to access this site for an opportunity to practice chord composition and voice leading practices.

Note: You may also want to see here for an opportunity to become familiar with 7th chords.

Bach's Prelude in C m. 1-4. a) Original b) Harmonic Reduction c) Voice Leading Reduction. Image source: By Hucbald.SaintAmand - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36401853

This unit introduces the concept of "Voice Leading". Voice Leading is recognized as an important aspect of music composition due to the heavy influence it can have on harmonic progressions and individual musician's parts in a given piece. Essentially, Voice Leading is the interaction of different melodic lines that creates harmony.

The term "Voice Leading" references the earliest form of music: singing. While ancient music was chant-like, with each individual in a group singing the same part together in unison, advances in music composition (such as two people singing different melodic lines at the same time) gave rise to conventions of composition which would later become codified as rules of Western music composition as we know it now. Today, we often refer to individual lines in music as individual "voices", regardless of whether these "voices" are to be sung by voice or played by an instrument. When three or more voices are combined at the same time, we experience "chords", and as chords progress we hear "harmony". By recognizing these "voices" and understanding how they move, we can get an insight into how and why harmony works.

General Rules

To begin, we'll take a look at what not to do in Voice Leading, before moving on to more general rules and acceptable movements.

The two most important rules of voice leading when it comes to Voice Leading are:

1. No Parallel Octaves

2. No Parallel Fifths

The two intervals mentioned above, the octave and the fifth, are stable intervals. These two intervals do not want to resolve or move; they are mathematically stable. They are most commonly used for resolutions of a phrase, where the listener must realize that something has concluded. Using too many octaves or fifths in a row robs the tonality of its "centered-ness", or its ability to sound like a natural resting place. Below is a C Major chord moving into a D Minor chord. As written here, the two C's in the first chord both move upwards to the two D's in the next chord, and the fifth between C and G in the first chord moves up to the fifth between D and A in the second chord:


These two chords broke both cardinal rules of Voice Leading; no parallel fifths or octaves. See below for a more correct progression from a C Major chord to a D Minor chord:


As seen here, we begin with the same root position C Major chord as we did in the above example. However, rather than move to a root position D Minor chord, we move to a third inversion D Minor 7 chord. By eliminating the parallel fifth and parallel octave, we have created a better sounding progression that will more easily establish our tonic "home" area of C Major.

We have created a slight issue with Voice Leading in that we have lead most voices in the same direction. In Voice Leading, it is preferential to lead the voices in contrary motion as often as possible (when one voice moves up, another voice should move down).

However, we have avoided parallel fifths and octaves, and we have kept our voices from leaping large intervals. Having voices leap large intervals is not good practice when it comes to Voice Leading. Due to the negative practices we have avoided, we can confidently say that this progression is far superior to the one above.

Quick Quiz - Rules

Below are a few quick questions to review the rules about parallel fifths and octaves above.

1. Name the Chords by Root and Property (Ex. "G Major") W1.jpg
Answer: This progression contains a parallel octave. W1A.jpg
2. Name the Chords by Root and Property (Ex. "G Major") W2.jpg
Answer: This progression contains a parallel fifth. W2A.jpg
3. Name the Chords by Root and Property (Ex. "G Major") W3.jpg
Answer: This progression contains a parallel octave. W3A.jpg
4. Name the Chords by Root and Property (Ex. "G Major") W4.jpg
Answer: This progression is acceptable. W4A.jpg

The Chord Map - Review

The chord map that was introduced in the last unit, below, serves as a handy guide for Voice Leading techniques as well. The progressions outlined below are the easiest progressions to write while avoiding parallels in the Major key.


Let's combine what was learned in the last lesson with this lesson. Below is a quick quiz. You should be able to identify two things:

1. Is the progression following the conventions of the chord map?

2. Are there any parallel octaves or fifths?

Quick Quiz - Progressions

1. Does this follow the chord map and avoid parallels? C1b.jpg
Answer: This progression is acceptable. C1A.jpg
2. Does this follow the chord map and avoid parallels? C2b.jpg
Answer: This progression contains two instances of parallel octaves. C2A.jpg
3. Does this follow the chord map and avoid parallels? C3b.jpg
Answer: This progression does not have parallels but does not follow the chord map. C3A.jpg

Once you have finished quizzing yourself, you can proceed to the next unit on instrumentation, where Voice Leading and the Chord Map will be talked about in even further detail.

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1. Apple Inc. (2000-2017). MusicTheory.Net. Retrieved from: www.musictheory.net

2. Noteflight LLC. (2008-2017). Noteflight.Com. Retrieved from: www.noteflight.com