Voice leading is a fascinating compositional tool that can help you create more expressive and harmonious music. In this post, I’ll explain what voice leading is, why it is important, and how you can apply it to your own compositions.
What is voice leading?
Voice leading, also known as part writing, is the linear progression of individual melodic lines (voices or parts) and their interaction with one another to create harmonies, typically in accordance with the principles of common-practice harmony and counterpoint ¹. It is the progression or movement of the individual parts or voices in a vocal or instrumental composition ². Voice leading creates harmony by following rules about melodic motions of voices ¹.
For example, imagine you have four singers who are singing a chord. Each singer has a different voice range and sings a different note of the chord. The way they move from one chord to another is called voice leading. Voice leading can affect how smooth, natural, or expressive the chord progression sounds.
How does voice leading affect my music?
Voice leading is an important composition tool for several reasons. First, it can make your music sound more coherent and unified, as the voices move in a logical and consistent way. Second, it can make your music sound more pleasing and satisfying, as the voices avoid dissonance and resolve tension. Third, it can make your music sound more varied and interesting, as the voices create different textures and colors.
Voice leading is especially important in common-practice music, which is the style of music that dominated Western Europe from about 1600 to 1900. This style of music is based on tonality, which is the system of organizing pitches around a central note called the tonic. Common-practice music uses chords that are built from the notes of a scale that corresponds to the tonic. These chords have different functions and relationships within the tonal system.
Voice leading in common-practice music follows strict rules that ensure that the chords are connected smoothly and harmoniously. These rules include avoiding parallel fifths and octaves, resolving leading tones and sevenths, maintaining independence of voices, and balancing consonance and dissonance.
However, voice leading is not only relevant for common-practice music. It can also be applied to other styles of music, such as jazz and pop music. These styles of music may use different harmonic systems, such as modal scales or extended chords, but they still benefit from good voice leading. Voice leading can make jazz and pop music sound more sophisticated and elegant, as well as more expressive and emotional.
How can you apply voice leading to your own compositions?
To apply voice leading to your own compositions, you need to consider two main aspects: the number of voices and the type of motion.
The number of voices refers to how many melodic lines or parts you have in your composition. The most common number of voices is four, which corresponds to the four-part chords scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices. However, you can also use fewer or more voices depending on your musical goals and preferences.
The type of motion refers to how the voices move from one chord to another. There are three basic types of motion: parallel, similar, and contrary.
Parallel motion occurs when two or more voices move in the same direction by the same interval. For example, if two voices move from C to G by a perfect fifth, they are moving in parallel motion.
Similar motion occurs when two or more voices move in the same direction but by different intervals. For example, if one voice moves from C to G by a perfect fifth and another voice moves from E to A by a perfect fourth, they are moving in similar motion.
Contrary motion occurs when two or more voices move in opposite directions. For example, if one voice moves from C to G by a perfect fifth and another voice moves from E to B by a perfect fourth down, they are moving in contrary motion.
Each type of motion has its advantages and disadvantages. Parallel motion can create a strong sense of harmony and direction, but it can also reduce the independence and variety of the voices. Similar motion can create a smooth and natural connection between chords, but it can also create dissonance and parallelism if not used carefully. Contrary motion can create a balanced and interesting texture, but it can also create gaps and crossings between the voices.
To achieve good voice leading, you should use a combination of these types of motion in a way that suits your musical style and intention. You should also follow some general guidelines that can help you avoid common pitfalls and errors. Here are some examples:
- Keep the voices within their comfortable ranges.
- Avoid large leaps or skips between notes.
- Move each voice by the smallest possible interval.
- Maintain a consistent spacing between the voices.
- Avoid crossing or overlapping the voices.
- Avoid doubling or omitting notes of the chords.
- Resolve dissonant notes to consonant notes.
- Avoid repeated notes or chords unless intended for effect.
Of course, these are not absolute rules, but rather suggestions that can help you improve your voice leading. You can always break or modify them if you have a good reason or a creative idea. The most important thing is to use your ears and your musical judgment to decide what sounds best for your composition.
Voice Leading – a useful songwriting tool
Voice leading is a powerful music composition technique that can enhance your expression and harmony. By understanding what voice leading is, why it is important, and how you can apply it to your own compositions, you can create more coherent, pleasing, and varied music. Voice leading is not only a matter of following rules, but also a matter of developing your musical intuition and creativity.
I hope this post has helped you learn more about voice leading and inspired you to experiment with it in your own music. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them below. Thanks for reading!