Voice leading

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Voice leading
A phrase in J.S. Bach's four-part chorale, Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind (mm. 5–6). The four voices (SATB) each follow independent melodic lines (with some differences in rhythm) that together create a chord progression ending on a Phrygian half cadence.

Voice leading (or 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]


Rigorous concern for voice leading is of greatest importance in common-practice music, although jazz and pop music also demonstrate attention to voice leading to varying degrees. In Jazz Theory, Gabriel Sakuma writes that "[a]t the surface level, jazz voice-leading conventions seem more relaxed than they are in common-practice music." [2] Marc Schonbrun also states that while it is untrue that "popular music has no voice leading in it, [...] the largest amount of popular music is simply conceived with chords as blocks of information, and melodies are layered on top of the chords." [3]


The score below shows the first four measures of the C-major prelude from J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier , Book 1. Letter (a) presents the original score while (b) and (c) present reductions (simplified versions) intended to clarify the harmony and implied voice leading, respectively.

Voice leading

In (b), the same measures are presented as four block chords (with two inverted): I - II4
- V6
- I.

In (c), the four measures are presented as five horizontal voices identified by the direction of the stems (which are added even though the notes are actually whole notes). Notice that each voice consists of just three notes: from top to bottom, (1) E F — E; (2) C D — C; (3) G A G —; (4) E D — E; (5) C — B C. The four chords result from the fact that the voices do not move at the same time.


Voice leading developed as an independent concept when Heinrich Schenker stressed its importance in "free counterpoint", as opposed to strict counterpoint. He wrote:

All musical technique is derived from two basic ingredients: voice leading and the progression of scale degrees [i.e. of harmonic roots]. Of the two, voice leading is the earlier and the more original element. [4]
The theory of voice leading is to be presented here as a discipline unified in itself; that is, I shall show how […] it everywhere maintains its inner unity. [5]

Schenker indeed did not present the rules of voice leading merely as contrapuntal rules, but showed how they are inseparable from the rules of harmony and how they form one of the most essential aspects of musical composition. [6] (See Schenkerian analysis: voice leading.)

Common-practice conventions and pedagogy

Chord connection

Voice leading
An example of parallel fifth in the two lower voices. [7]

Western musicians have tended to teach voice leading by focusing on connecting adjacent harmonies because that skill is foundational to meeting larger, structural objectives. Common-practice conventions dictate that melodic lines should be smooth and independent. To be smooth, they should be primarily conjunct (stepwise), avoid leaps that are difficult to sing, approach and follow leaps with movement in the opposite direction, and correctly handle tendency tones (primarily, the leading-tone, but also the Scale deg 4.svg , which often moves down to Scale deg 3.svg ). [8] To be independent, they should avoid parallel fifths and octaves.

Contrapuntal conventions likewise consider permitted or forbidden melodic intervals in individual parts, intervals between parts, the direction of the movement of the voices with respect to each other, etc. Whether dealing with counterpoint or harmony, these conventions emerge not only from a desire to create easy-to-sing parts [9] but also from the constraints of tonal materials [10] [ vague ] and from the objectives behind writing certain textures.[ vague ]

These conventions are discussed in more detail below.

  1. Move each voice the shortest distance possible. One of the main conventions of common-practice part-writing is that, between successive harmonies, voices should avoid leaps and retain common tones as much as possible. This principle was commonly discussed among 17th- and 18th-century musicians as a rule of thumb. For example, Rameau taught "one cannot pass from one note to another but by that which is closest." [11] In the 19th century, as music pedagogy became a more theoretical discipline in some parts of Europe, the 18th-century rule of thumb became codified into a more strict definition. Organist Johann August Dürrnberger coined the term "rule of the shortest way" for it and delineated that:
    1. When a chord contains one or more notes that will be reused in the chords immediately following, then these notes should remain, that is retained in the respective parts.
    2. The parts which do not remain, follow the law of the shortest way (Gesetze des nächsten Weges), that is that each such part names the note of the following chord closest to itself if no forbidden succession arises from this.
    3. If no note at all is present in a chord which can be reused in the chord immediately following, one must apply contrary motion according to the law of the shortest way, that is, if the root progresses upwards, the accompanying parts must move downwards, or inversely, if the root progresses downwards, the other parts move upwards and, in both cases, to the note of the following chord closest to them. [12]

    This rule was taught by Bruckner [13] to Schoenberg and Schenker, who both had followed his classes in Vienna. [14] Schenker re-conceived the principle as the "rule of melodic fluency":

    If one wants to avoid the dangers produced by larger intervals [...], the best remedy is simply to interrupt the series of leaps – that is, to prevent a second leap from occurring by continuing with a second or an only slightly larger interval after the first leap; or one may change the direction of the second interval altogether; finally both means can be used in combination. Such procedures yield a kind of wave-like melodic line which as a whole represents an animated entity, and which, with its ascending and descending curves, appears balanced in all its individual component parts. This kind of line manifests what is called melodic fluency [Fließender Gesang]. [15]

    Schenker attributed the rule to Cherubini, but this is the result of a somewhat inexact German translation. Cherubini only said that conjunct movement should be preferred. [16] Franz Stoepel, the German translator, used the expression Fließender Gesang to translate mouvement conjoint. [17] The concept of Fließender Gesang is a common concept of German counterpoint theory. [18] Modern Schenkerians made the concept of "melodic fluency" an important one in their teaching of voice leading. [19]
  2. Voice crossing should be avoided except to create melodic interest. [20]
  3. Avoid parallel fifths and octaves . To promote voice independence, melodic lines should avoid parallel unisons, parallel fifths, and parallel octaves between any two voices. [21] They should also avoid hidden consecutives, perfect intervals reached by any two voices moving in the same direction, even if not by the same interval, particularly if the higher of the two voices makes a disjunct motion. [22] In organ registers, certain interval combinations and chords are activated by a single key so that playing a melody results in parallel voice leading. These voices, losing independence, are fused into one and the parallel chords are perceived as single tones with a new timbre. This effect is also used in orchestral arrangements; for instance, in Ravel’s Bolero #5 the parallel parts of flutes, horn and celesta resemble the sound of an electric organ. In counterpoint, parallel voices are prohibited because they violate the homogeneity of musical texture when independent voices occasionally disappear turning into a new timbre quality and vice versa. [23] [24]

Harmonic roles

As the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque era in the 1600s, part writing reflected the increasing stratification of harmonic roles. This differentiation between outer and inner voices was an outgrowth of both tonality and homophony. In this new Baroque style, the outer voices took a commanding role in determining the flow of the music and tended to move more often by leaps. Inner voices tended to move stepwise or repeat common tones.

A modern perspective on voice leading in mm. 3-7 of J. S. Bach's Little Prelude in E minor, BWV 941. From the last chord of each measure to the first chord of the next, all melodic movements (excepting those in the bass) are conjunct; inside each measure, however, octave shifts account for a more complex parsimonious voice leading. Play original (help*info)
or reduction (help*info) BWV941 Voice leading.TIF
A modern perspective on voice leading in mm. 3-7 of J. S. Bach's Little Prelude in E minor, BWV 941. From the last chord of each measure to the first chord of the next, all melodic movements (excepting those in the bass) are conjunct; inside each measure, however, octave shifts account for a more complex parsimonious voice leading. Loudspeaker.svg Play original   or Loudspeaker.svg reduction  

A Schenkerian analysis perspective on these roles shifts the discussion somewhat from "outer and inner voices" to "upper and bass voices." Although the outer voices still play the dominant, form-defining role in this view, the leading soprano voice is often seen as a composite line that draws on the voice leadings in each of the upper voices of the imaginary continuo. [26] Approaching harmony from a non-Schenkerian perspective, Dmitri Tymoczko nonetheless also demonstrates such "3+1" voice leading, where "three voices articulate a strongly crossing-free voice leading between complete triads [...], while a fourth voice adds doublings," as a feature of tonal writing. [27]

Neo-Riemannian theory examines another facet of this principle. That theory decomposes movements from one chord to another into one or several "parsimonious movements" between pitch classes instead of actual pitches (i.e., neglecting octave shifts). [28] Such analysis shows the deeper continuity underneath surface disjunctions, as in the Bach example from BWV 941 hereby.

See also


  1. Clendinning, Jane (2011). The Musicians Guide to Theory and Analysis. Norton. p. A73.
  2. Terefenko, Dariusz (2014). Jazz Theory: From Basic to Advanced Study, p. 33. Routledge. ISBN   9781135043018.
  3. Schonbrun, Marc (2011). The Everything Music Theory Book, pp. 149, 174. Adams Media. ISBN   9781440511820.
  4. Schenker, Heinrich. Counterpoint, vol. I, transl. J. Rothgeb and J. Thym, New York, Schirmer, 1987, p. xxv.
  5. Schenker, Heinrich. Counterpoint, vol. I, transl. (1987), p. xxx.
  6. "[Schenker's] theory of Auskomponierung ['Elaboration'] shows voice-leading as the means by which the chord, as a harmonic concept, is made to unfold and extend in time. This, indeed, is the essence of music". Oswald Jonas, "Introduction" to Heinrich Schenker, Harmony, transl. by E. Mann Borgese, ed. by Oswald Jonas, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1954, p. ix; "Heinrich Schenker has shown the correct relationship between the horizontal [counterpoint] and the vertical [harmony]. His theory is drawn from a profound understanding of the masterpieces of music [...]. Thus he indicates to us the way: to satisfy the demands of harmony while mastering the task of voice-leading," id., p. xv.
  7. Kostka, Stefan; Payne, Dorothy (2004). Tonal Harmony (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill. pp.  78. ISBN   0072852607. OCLC   51613969.
  8. Kostka, p. 71–72.
  9. Bartlette, Christopher, and Steven G. Laitz (2010). Graduate Review of Tonal Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 47–50. ISBN   978-0-19-537698-2
  10. Tymoczko, Dmitri (2011). A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19-533667-2
  11. Rameau, Jean-Philippe. Traité de L'Harmonie Reduite à ses Principes naturels, Paris, 1722, Book 4, pp. 186–87: On ne peut passer d'une Notte à une autre que par celle qui en est la plus voisine. An even earlier version can be found in Charles Masson, Nouveau traité des regles pour la composition de la musique, Paris, Ballard, 1705, p. 47: Quand on jouë sur la Basse pour accompagner, les Parties superieures pratiquent tous les Accords qui peuvent être faits sans quitter la corde où ils se trouvent; ou bien elles doivent prendre ceux qu'on peut faire avec le moindre intervalle, soit en montant soit en descendant.
  12. Dürrnberger, Johann August. Elementar-Lehrbuch der Harmonie- und Generalbass-Lehre, Linz, 1841, p. 53.
  13. Bruckner, Anton. Vorlesungen über Harmonielehre und Kontrapunkt an der Universität Wien, E. Schwanzara ed., Vienna, 1950, p. 129. See Robert W. Wason, Viennese Harmonic Theory from Albrechtsberger to Schenker and Schoenberg, Ann Arbor, London, UMI Research Press, 1985, p. 70. ISBN   0-8357-1586-8
  14. Schoenberg, Arnold, Theory of Harmony, trans. Roy E. Carter. Belmont Music Publishers, 1983, 1978 (original quote 1911). p. 39. ISBN   0-520-04944-6. Schoenberg writes: "Thus, the voices will follow (as I once heard Bruckner say) the law of the shortest way".
  15. Schenker, Heinrich. Kontrapunkt, vol. I, 1910, p. 133; Counterpoint, J. Rothgeb and J. Thym transl., New York, Schirmer, 1987, p. 94.
  16. Cherubini, Luigi. Cours de Contrepoint et de Fugue, bilingual ed. French/German, Leipzig and Paris, c. 1835, p. 7.
  17. See Schenkerian analysis.
  18. See for instance Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, vol. II, Berlin, Königsberg, 1776, p. 82.
  19. Cadwallader, Allen; Gagné, David. Analysis of Tonal Music, 3d ed., Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 17.
  20. 1955-, Marvin, Elizabeth West (2011-01-01). The musician's guide to theory and analysis. W.W. Norton. ISBN   9780393930818. OCLC   320193510.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  21. Miller, Michael (2005). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory, p. 193. Penguin. ISBN   9781592574377.
  22. Piston, Walter. Harmony, revised edition, Norton & Co, 1948, p. 25.
  23. Tanguiane (Tangian), Andranick (1993). Artificial Perception and Music Recognition. Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence. 746. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer. ISBN   978-3-540-57394-4.
  24. Tanguiane (Tangian), Andranick (1994). "A principle of correlativity of perception and its application to music recognition". Music Perception. 11 (4): 465–502. doi:10.2307/40285634.
  25. Meeùs, Nicolas (2018) "Übergreifen," Gamut: Online Journal of the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic: Vol. 8 : Iss. 1 , Article 6, p. 118, Example 13a. Available at: https://trace.tennessee.edu/gamut/vol8/iss1/6
  26. Cadwaller, Allan; Gagne, David (2010). Analysis of Tonal Music: A Schenkerian Approach. Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0199732470.
  27. Tymoczko, Dmitri (2011). A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice . New York: Oxford University Press. pp.  204–07. ISBN   978-0-19-533667-2.
  28. Richard Cohn, "Neo-Riemannian Operations, Parsimonious Trichords, and their 'Tonnetz' Representations", note 4, writes that the term "parsimony" is used in this context in Ottokar Hostinský, Die Lehre von den musikalischen Klangen, Prag, H. Dominicus, 1879, p. 106. Cohn considers the principe of parsimony to be the same thing as the "law of the shortest way", but this is only partly true.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Counterpoint Polyphonic music with separate melodies

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more musical lines which are harmonically interdependent yet independent in rhythm and melodic contour. It has been most commonly identified in the European classical tradition, strongly developing during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period, especially in the Baroque. The term originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum meaning "point against point", i.e. "note against note".

Harmony Aspect of music

In music, harmony is the process by which the composition of individual sounds, or superpositions of sounds, is analyzed by hearing. Usually, this means simultaneously occurring frequencies, pitches, or chords.

Atonality Music that lacks a tonal center or key

Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day, where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another. More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. "The repertory of atonal music is characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments".

Music theory Considers the practices and possibilities of music

Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music. The Oxford Companion to Music describes three interrelated uses of the term "music theory". The first is the "rudiments", that are needed to understand music notation ; the second is learning scholars' views on music from antiquity to the present; the third a sub-topic of musicology that "seeks to define processes and general principles in music". The musicological approach to theory differs from music analysis "in that it takes as its starting-point not the individual work or performance but the fundamental materials from which it is built."

Perfect fourth musical interval

A fourth is a musical interval encompassing four staff positions in the music notation of Western culture, and a perfect fourth is the fourth spanning five semitones. For example, the ascending interval from C to the next F is a perfect fourth, because the note F is the fifth semitone above C, and there are four staff positions between C and F. Diminished and augmented fourths span the same number of staff positions, but consist of a different number of semitones.

Schenkerian analysis is a method of analyzing tonal music, based on the theories of Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935). The goal is to demonstrate the organic coherence of the work by showing how it relates to an abstracted deep structure, the Ursatz. This primal structure is roughly the same for any tonal work, but a Schenkerian analysis shows how, in an individual case, that structure develops into a unique work at the "foreground", the level of the score itself. A key theoretical concept is "tonal space". The intervals between the notes of the tonic triad in the background form a tonal space that is filled with passing and neighbour tones, producing new triads and new tonal spaces that are open for further elaborations until the "surface" of the work is reached.


Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality. In this hierarchy, the single pitch or triadic chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic. The root of the tonic chord forms the name given to the key; so in the key of C major, the note C is both the tonic of the scale and the root of the tonic chord. Simple folk music songs often start and end with the tonic note. The most common use of the term "is to designate the arrangement of musical phenomena around a referential tonic in European music from about 1600 to about 1910". Contemporary classical music from 1910 to the 2000s may practice or avoid any sort of tonality—but harmony in almost all Western popular music remains tonal. Harmony in jazz includes many but not all tonal characteristics of the European common practice period, sometimes known as "classical music".


In Western music and music theory, diminution has four distinct meanings. Diminution may be a form of embellishment in which a long note is divided into a series of shorter, usually melodic, values. Diminution may also be the compositional device where a melody, theme or motif is presented in shorter note-values than were previously used. Diminution is also the term for the proportional shortening of the value of individual note-shapes in mensural notation, either by coloration or by a sign of proportion. A minor or perfect interval that is narrowed by a chromatic semitone is a diminished interval, and the process may be referred to as diminution.

In music theory, a ninth chord is a chord that encompasses the interval of a ninth when arranged in close position with the root in the bass.

The ninth chord and its inversions exist today, or at least they can exist. The pupil will easily find examples in the literature [such as Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Strauss's opera Salome]. It is not necessary to set up special laws for its treatment. If one wants to be careful, one will be able to use the laws that pertain to the seventh chords: that is, dissonances resolve by step downward, the root leaps a fourth upward.

Chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing the primary diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale. Chromaticism is in contrast or addition to tonality or diatonicism and modality. Chromatic elements are considered, "elaborations of or substitutions for diatonic scale members".

Not only at the beginning of a composition but also in the midst of it, each scale-step [degree] manifests an irresistible urge to attain the value of the tonic for itself as that of the strongest scale-step. If the composer yields to this urge of the scale-step within the diatonic system of which this scale-step forms part, I call this process tonicalization and the phenomenon itself chromatic.

Chromaticism is almost by definition an alteration of, an interpolation in or deviation from this basic diatonic organization.

Throughout the nineteenth century, composers felt free to alter any or all chord members of a given tertian structure [chord built from thirds] according to their compositional needs and dictates. Pronounced or continuous chordal alteration [and 'extension'] resulted in chromaticism. Chromaticism, together with frequent modulations and an abundance of non-harmonicism [non-chord tones], initially effected an expansion of the tertian system; the overuse of the procedures late in the century forewarned the decline and near collapse [atonality] of the system [tonality].

Chromaticism is the name given to the use of tones outside the major or minor scales. Chromatic tones began to appear in music long before the common-practice period, and by the beginning of that period were an important part of its melodic and harmonic resources. Chromatic tones arise in music partly from inflection [alteration] of scale degrees in the major and minor modes, party from secondary dominant harmony, from a special vocabulary of altered chords, and from certain nonharmonic tones.... Notes outside the scale do not necessarily affect the tonality....tonality is established by the progression of roots and the tonal functions of the chords, even though the details of the music may contain all the tones of the chromatic scale.

Sometimes...a melody based on a regular diatonic scale is laced with many accidentals, and although all 12 tones of the chromatic scale may appear, the tonal characteristics of the diatonic scale are maintained. ... Chromaticism [is t]he introduction of some pitches of the chromatic scale into music that is basically diatonic in orientation, or music that is based on the chromatic scale instead of the diatonic scales.

In music theory, the term scale degree refers to the position of a particular note on a scale relative to the tonic, the first and main note of the scale from which each octave is assumed to begin. Degrees are useful for indicating the size of intervals and chords and whether they are major or minor.

In music theory, a Neapolitan chord is a major chord built on the lowered (flatted) second (supertonic) scale degree. In Schenkerian analysis, it is known as a Phrygian II, since in minor scales the chord is built on the notes of the corresponding Phrygian mode.

Felix Salzer was an Austrian-American music theorist, musicologist and pedagogue. He was one of the principal followers of Heinrich Schenker, and did much to refine and explain Schenkerian analysis after Schenker's death.

In music theory, prolongation is the process in tonal music through which a pitch, interval, or consonant triad is able to govern spans of music when not physically sounding. It is a central principle in the music-analytic methodology of Schenkerian analysis, conceived by Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker.

Consecutive fifths

In music, consecutive fifths, or parallel fifths, are progressions in which the interval of a perfect fifth is followed by a different perfect fifth between the same two musical parts : for example, from C to D in one part along with G to A in a higher part. Octave displacement is irrelevant to this aspect of musical grammar; for example, parallel twelfths are equivalent to parallel fifths.

Fundamental structure

In Schenkerian analysis, the fundamental structure describes the structure of a tonal work as it occurs at the most remote level and in the most abstract form. A basic elaboration of the tonic triad, it consists of the fundamental line accompanied by the bass arpeggiation. Hence the fundamental structure, like the fundamental line itself, takes one of three forms, according to which tonic triad pitch is the primary tone. The example hereby shows a fundamental structure in C major, with the fundamental line descending from scale degree :

The Urlinie offers the unfurling (Auswicklung) of a basic triad, it presents tonality on horizontal paths. The tonal system, too, flow into these as well, a system intended to bring purposeful order into the world of chords through its selection of the harmonic degrees. The mediator between the horizontal formulation of tonality presented by the Urlinie and the vertical formulation presented by the harmonic degrees is voice leading.

The upper voice of a fundamental structure, which is the fundamental line, utilizes the descending direction; the lower voice, which is the bass arpeggiation through the fifth, takes the ascending direction. [...] The combination of fundamental line and bass arpeggiation constitutes a unity. [...] Neither the fundamental line nor the bass arpeggiation can stand alone. Only when acting together, when unified in a contrapuntal structure, do they produce art.

Roman numeral analysis is a type of musical analysis in which chords are represented by Roman numerals. In some cases, Roman numerals denote scale degrees themselves. More commonly, however, they represent the chord whose root note is that scale degree. For instance, III denotes either the third scale degree or, more commonly, the chord built on it. Typically, uppercase Roman numerals are used to represent major chords, while lowercase Roman numerals are used to represent minor chords. However, some music theorists use upper-case Roman numerals for all chords, regardless of chord quality.

Linear progression

In music, a linear progression is a passing note elaboration involving stepwise melodic motion in one direction between two harmonic tones. "The compositional unfolding of a specific interval, one of the intervals of the chord of nature." For example: -- over the tonic. According to Schenker: "A linear progression always presupposes a passing note; there can be no linear progression without a passing note, no passing note without a linear progression." In German Zug may be combined with prefixes to create related words such as Untergreifzug, a linear progression rising from a lower voice, Uebergreifzug, a linear progression overlapping another, or Terzzug, linear progression through a third. The term Zug may best be translated as "a direct, unimpeded motion from one place to another."

Structural level

In Schenkerian analysis, a structural level is a representation of a piece of music at a different level of abstraction, with levels typically including foreground, middleground, and background. According to Schenker musical form is "an energy transformation, as a transformation of the forces that flow from background to foreground through the levels."

This is a glossary of Schenkerian analysis, a method of musical analysis of tonal music based on the theories of Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935). The method is discussed in the concerned article and no attempt is made here to summarize it. Similarly, the entries below whenever possible link to other articles where the concepts are described with more details, and the definitions are kept here to a minimum.