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Harmony - Guide to Proper Voice Leading

Published August 8th, 2003. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR. Info >>>


The Poor Man's Guide to Voice Leading - I'm going to walk you through some of the basics of voice leading in this lesson. When playing through the examples, try to use your fingers rather than a pick. Using your fingers will help separate the notes and help you to hear the individual notes in the chords. Classical genius Segovia once said in an interview that to play with a pick robs the guitar of it's polyphony. So give it a shot!

 
The lessons I learned about voice leading while studying classical music in college haven't change since Bach. We have learned to stretch harmony, melody and rhythm but voice leading still generally works the same way. The four types of contrapuntal motions:
 
Parallel motion - Both voices move in the same direction the exact same distance.
Similar motion - Both voices move in the same direction any distance.
Contrary motion - Both voices move in opposite directions.
Oblique motion - One voice stays the same while the voice moves in one direction or the other.
 
Parallel motion
Similar motion
Contrary motion
Oblique motion
Ex. 1
Ex. 2
Ex. 3
Ex. 4
 
Ex. 1 - This example of parallel maj 3rds.
Ex. 2 - An interval of a major 3rd. moves up to an interval of a minor 3rd.
Ex. 3 - Both voicings are moving in opposite directions to form a perfect 5th.
Ex. 4 - This example of oblique motion demonstrates how one voice stays the same while the upper voicing moves up to form a perfect 4th.
 
So far we have only dealt with two notes at a time. The same principles hold true for chords also.

Chords - The first thing you start working on in your music theory class in college is four part harmony. You start by analyzing and writing Bach Chorales. Although it is four part harmony (chords with four voices), it is mostly triads with one of the notes doubled somewhere in each of the chords. Bach was adventurous compared to his predecessors, he used a dominant 7th chord as a V chord from time to time. A dominant 7th chord has a tritone (diminished 5th) inside of it that kinda scared musicians back in those days so Bach may have been considered a rebel amongst his peers, Ex: G7 = G B D F, the tritone is B-F. Play the interval and see if it scares you. Bach was also a master of counterpoint, the art of writing two melodies on top of each other.

Dominant chords usually got resolved to the tonic chord this way back in Bach's days. At least I had to resolve them this way or my Theory II teacher would get angry at me and threaten to call the Baroque police:

Some rules or at least some standard practices for the *Baroque period (Key:C):

1. The b7 in the V chord (F) moves down to the 3rd of the I chord (E)
2. The root of the V chord (G) stays as the common tone (if possible) in the I chord (G)
3. The 3rd of the V chord (B) moves up to the root in the I chord (C)
4. The 5th of the V chord (D) goes either up or down to the 3rd (E) or down to the root (C) of the I chord
 
 
*A lot of music historians tend to believe that the Baroque period ended with the death of Bach. Another famous Baroque period composer was Vivaldi (an Italian). Before the Baroque period we had the Renaissance. The Classic period begins with Bach's death and pretty much gets going with Mozart. While both Bach and Vivaldi wrote sacred music (for the church), Mozart started writing music for the common people (operas) in German (so people could understand what the hell was going on). The classic period ends with the death of another great German composer, Beethoven. After that we get into the Romantic period. Tchaikovsky and Wagner are some names associated with this period. After the Romantic period we move into the 20th century, which we left behind recently.

What this means to us in the 21st. century
Our chords have become way more harmonically advanced since the Baroque period, for this reason the way we resolve our chords has also changed. Many of the chord voicings we use these days don't even contain 5ths or even roots for that matter. Regardless, the four types of contrapuntal motion remains the same. The concept of "keeping the common tone" still plays an important part in voice leading.
Parallel 5ths - Parallel motion wasn't really considered cool back in the Baroque days. Especially parallel 5ths and Octaves. Other intervalic parallel motion such as 3rds or 2nds, etc. was considered okay. The reason that parallel motion wasn't cool is simple, the separate notes in the moving chords should move around in different directions or at least not the exact same distances to create a sense of melody inside the harmony or at least to create some musical interest. Everything moving in identical intervals is boring to the ear. As we will find out later, sometimes parallel motion can be used very effectively to lead chords together, but for now let's concentrate on the more traditional form of voice leading.
What is proper voice leading? - Hmm....probably, when a chord changes to the next one, one voice should stay the same (if it is present in both chords), you might say "keep the common tone." Another voice moves up and another down. This is an example of what I think is pure perfection when it comes to voice leading: a standard blues turnaround. Check out how the top voice stays the same, the note on the second string moves up in half steps and the note on the fourth string moves down in half steps.
A blues turnaround like the one in the last example probably came into fashion in the 1930's or so. Funny how some blues cats made a musical statement that would have made Bach proud. Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson definitely didn't study music theory in college, did they? I guess it's safe to assume that all these music theory rules are really universal musical laws already known by the ear.

Let's take a look at the different kinds of motion in action. What kind of motion is taking place in the following examples?

Ex. 1) Only one kind of motion going on here, what is it?
Ex. 2) Only one kind here also, what kind of motion do you think it is? Compare the sound of this one to the last example.
Ex. 3) Two types of motion going on here, what are they? Hint: look at the top note in both chords and then the ones below.
Ex. 4) Two types here too, what are they?
Answers:
1. Parallel motion
2. Similar motion
3. Oblique and parallel motion
4. Oblique and contrary motion

A few examples of good voice leading
Ex. 1) This is a standard ii -b5sub- I chord progression. Notice how the top voice remains constant through all the chords. What's going on with the other voices?
 
By keeping the common tone as your top voice, you make almost any chord lead to the next, even if theoretically it doesn't make any musical sense. Proper voice leading can free up your chords and keep you from being stuck with the same old standard chord progressions. Listen and analyze some of Wayne Shorter's or Herbie Hancock's tunes. Ever wonder why so many of their songs are written without key signatures? Why is it that the songs they have written aren't bound by set keys?
Ex. 2) This example shows how by keeping the common tone as the upper voice while resolving the inner voices downward chromatically you can make a maj13th chord resolve to a major chord a half step below.
 
Ex. 3) Now I'm going to turn into a hypocrite. This next example shows how to use parallel motion as an effective tool to connect your chords. This is basically a VI - II - V - I that you use as a turnaround in a Bb blues. The thing that makes this thing work is the bassline. If the bass notes were also moving down chromatically the whole thing would sound stupid. Oh yeah, I included the roots as a reference but you can just let the bassist handle them.
 
Check my lesson on ii - V - I chord progressions for more info on voice leading.

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