Voice leading

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Voice leading for four-voice dominant thirteenth chords in the common practice period.[1] About this sound Play 

In musical composition, voice leading is a musical arrangement for any type of voicing where each musical note transitions to the next in a smooth, harmonious way.[2][3]


Voice leading is the relationship between the successive pitches of simultaneously moving parts or voices. For example, when moving from a C triad in the root position (a chord played, from the lowest pitch up: C–E–G) to an inverted F chord based on the same lowest pitch (C–F–A), one might say that the middle voice rises from E to F while the highest voice rises from G to A, this being a way to "lead" those voices. Instead of considering the two successive chords separately, one focuses on the "horizontal" ("temporal" or "linear") continuity between notes in each voice. (Similar considerations apply to homophonic as well as polyphonic music.) When arranging in the Baroque, Bach-like style of harmony, the parallel movement of voices in octaves, in fifths, or in unison is to be avoided. However, popular and jazz music often contains voices moving in parallel octaves. A concern for easy voice-leading (easy, that is, for singers to read and follow) often leads to a predominance of stepwise motion and may assist or replace diatonic functionality.

In traditional contrapuntal Western music, voice leading is generally derived from the rules and patterns typical of counterpoint.

Voice leading may be described as parsimonious if it follows "the law of the shortest way"[4] moving as few voices as few steps as possible and thus often retaining "common tones." Anti-parsimonious or circuitous voice leading is "voice leading between trichords that avoids double common-tone retention, thus requiring at least two instrumental voices to move to different pitches."[5]

An auditory stream is a perceived melodic line, and streaming laws attempt to indicate the psychoacoustic basis of contrapuntal music. It is assumed that "several musical dimensions, such as timbre, attack and decay transients, and tempo are often not specified exactly by the composer and are controlled by the performer." An example of one law is that the faster a melodic sequence is played, the smaller the pitch interval needed to split the sequence into two streams. Two alternating tones may produce various streaming effects including coherence (perception as one unit), a roll (one dominates the other), or masking (one tone escapes perception).


The four basic voice leading principles in first species according to Fux:[6]

  1. From one perfect consonance (P1, P4, P5, P8) to another proceed in contrary or oblique motion.
  2. From a perfect consonance to an imperfect consonance (M3, m3, M6, m6, M10, m10) proceed by similar, contrary, or oblique motion.
  3. From an imperfect consonance to a perfect consonance proceed in contrary, or oblique motion.
  4. From one imperfect consonance to another proceed in contrary, parallel, similar, or oblique motion.

Motions among consonances (Fux)
PerfectContrary or obliqueContrary or oblique, also
ImperfectContrary or obliqueContrary or oblique, also
similar or

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Benward & Saker (2009). Music in Theory and Practice: Volume II, p.183-84. Eighth Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  2. ^ Baerman, Noah (2003). Big Book of Jazz Piano Improvisation, p.19. ISBN 978-0-7390-3171-1. Emphasis original.
  3. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.149. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  4. ^ Schoenberg, Arnold. Theory of Harmony, trans. Roy E. Carter. Belmont Music Publishers, 1983, 1978 (original quote 1911). Page 39. ISBN 0-520-04944-6
  5. ^ Hisama, Ellie M. (2001). Gendering Musical Modernism: The Music of Ruth Crawford, Marion Bauer, and Miriam Gideon, p.153-154. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-64030-X.
  6. ^ Benward & Saker (2003), p.153-54.

Further reading[edit]