Voice leading

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In counterpoint theory, voice leading denotes the rules regulating the melodic movements of individual parts (voices), or the application of these rules by the composer. Voice leading stresses the 'horizontal', melodic aspect of a polyphonic composition, while harmony stresses its 'vertical' aspect, as the example below shows.

Harmony and voice leading in m. 1-4 of BWV 846a

The score in (a) reproduces the first four measures of Bach's Preludium in C major (BWV 846a) from the Well Tempered Keyboard, volume 1.

In (b), the same measures are presented as consisting in four block chords: the first and the fourth ones are the same, a triad of C major (I); the second is a 7th chord on D (II), inverted to show C in the bass; the third is a dominant 7th on G (V), inverted to show B in the bass.

In (c), the four measure are presented as formed of five horizontal parts (voices) identified by the direction of the stems, each consisting in only 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.

While (b) presents a harmonic reading of the passage, (c) shows its voice leading.

Voice leading and counterpoint[edit]

The rules of voice leading, in first instance, are not different from those of counterpoint and the whole question would not seem to require a separate treatment. They deal with 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. (See Counterpoint for more details on rules, especially in Species counterpoint; see also Contrapuntal motion.)

Voice leading developed as an independent concept when Heinrich Schenker stressed its importance in "free composition", 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.[1]
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.[2]

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

Melodic fluency[edit]

One of the main laws of voice leading in counterpoint is that the voices should make as few steps as possible and should as much as possible retain common tones between successive harmonies. In German counterpoint theory, this was known as Fließender Gesang (litt. "Fluent melody").[3]

Details of the voice leading in m. 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 are conjunct; inside each measure, however, octave shifts account for a more complex parsimonious voice leading.

Schenker[4] attributed this rule to Cherubini, but Cherubini had only said that conjunct movement should be preferred.[5] Modern Schenkerians made the concept of "melodic fluency" an important one in their teaching of voice leading.[6] The rule had been given by Bruckner as the "law of the shortest path",[7] a law to which Schoenberg, who like Schenker had followed Bruckner's classes in Vienna, also referred.[8]

Melodic fluency plays a determining role in neo-Riemannian theory, which decomposes movements from one chord to another into one or several parsimonious movements in the voice leading. The parsimonious melodic movements, however, are read here between pitch classes instead of actual pitches, neglecting octave shifts: this allows for complex voice leading, as in the example hereby.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heinrich Schenker, Counterpoint, vol. I, transl. J. Rothgeb and J. Thym, New York, Schirmer, 1987, p. xxv.
  2. ^ Ibid., p. xxx.
  3. ^ See for instance Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, vol. II, Berlin, Königsberg, 1776, p. 82.
  4. ^ Heinrich Schenker, Kontrapunkt, vol. I, 1910, p. 133.
  5. ^ Luigi Cherubini, Cours de Contrepoint et de Fugue, bilingual ed. French/German, Leipzig and Paris, ca 1835, p. 7. Franz Stoepel, the German translator, used the expression Fließender Gesang to translate mouvement conjoint.
  6. ^ Allen Cadwallader and David Gagné, Analysis of Tonal Music, 3d ed., Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 17.
  7. ^ Anton Bruckner, Vorlesungen über Harmonielehre und Kontrapunkt an der Universität Wien, E. Schwanzara ed., Vienna, 1950, p. 129.
  8. ^ Schoenberg, Arnold, Theory of Harmony, trans. Roy E. Carter. Belmont Music Publishers, 1983, 1978 (original quote 1911). Page 39. ISBN 0-520-04944-6

Further reading[edit]