Voice Leading part I

A comment I’ve gotten a couple of times in the last several months is along the lines of “but we use figured bass to teach voice leading/part writing! How will our students learn these valuable skills without it?”* This weekend, I’m planning on having a discussion about voice leading specifically with some friends and colleagues, and maybe testing out some ways to teach it.

How do these definitions sound?
Voice leading: this is a linear idea, however, we often use it in harmonic (vertical) context. It is the idea that certain pitches want to go certain places in context (of harmony), but there may be different rules based on the time era/genre one is trying to imitate. Commonly associated with Bach-style chorales or Palestrina-style counterpoint in academic writing. Also applicable anywhere linear motion is important. Some rules are more flexible than others, and “breaking” rules is usually used for expressive purpose – thusly one must know the rules first in order to know why to break them. (Chromatic voice leading and parsimonious voice leading are a context we won’t be getting into much at this point.)
Part writing: the practice of writing short excerpts based on chords to practice voice leading rules. Usually four voices, either chorale style or keyboard style.


First, background info you need to know to do part writing: spell chords, read bass clef, know how chords relate to keys – or as I think of it: basic function. Often when I’m teaching part writing, one of the hardest steps is getting my students to spell the chords correctly from the Roman numeral – especially if it is in an inversion. However, this is a background step.
Additionally, spacing and doubling concepts must be covered, but these can usually be condensed: double the bass note unless it’s a tendency tone, if you can’t double the bass for whatever reason, double the root. Spacing: these rules can be explained by human vocal ranges, which leads to the common spacing rules  – no more than an octave between voices, except the bass can go lower if need be. Visualizing this at the keyboard may help.
Let’s look at the different things that we do when we’re part writing.

part writing


Here are the rules of voice leading I usually teach my students:
1) Resolve tendency tones
2) keep common tones
3) move by step (or smallest available interval)
It’s important to do them in that order. It gives one much less to think about then the list of 12 or more “errors” that are commonly put in text books. A final rule is added
4) check for parallel 5th and 8ves when two chords have adjacent roots (P, D)
These first three rules generally cover almost every “error” that we are reminded to not do: resolving tendency tones gets rid of frustrated LTs and 7th as well as melodic augmented intervals, common tones and moving by step generally avoids spacing, overlap, doubling and voice crossing issues. When we can’t move by step, there is usually a third available close by. The caveat in rule 4 is important, because if we move only by step, parallels happen all over the place in specific instances. When this rule is introduced, we explain that it is better to have a “wrong” doubling than to have parallels.

Another important part of advanced voice leading is deciding which chords to put where. part writing 2

Here’s an exercise where I might ask students to insert chords in between the given pillars and make a logical progression. This is something that I definitely think that Functional knowledge does better. I see this outline, and think: “ok, so we need a tonic expansion in the first bar, then a predominant expansion. Probably a deceptive resolution to the first dominant to keep the phrase going, and with that set-up, I might as well do the Phrygian half cadence.” Functions now make it easy to choose: tonic expansion? Let’s find another chord with T in it, tV or tR. Predominant, let’s change that up with a chromatic chord – pR#6. Deceptive resolution to keep the phrase moving means tV. Phrygian half lets us use the p in inversion. Without chromatic chords, the exercise may seem a little repetitive, but it lets students try different predominant expansions, and resolves the same chord in different contexts.

Once students have conquered insertion exercises, if they want to continue on to writing their own phrases with less information given to them, they certainly can. Having the functional pillars gives them something to aim at, and after that different phrase expansions become a composition exercise more than a theoretical one.

I’ll have a second post on Voice Leading next week, after our discussion.

ALERT  – Rambling and thinking aloud:
I’m not sure how a system of abbreviations that relates everything back to the bass necessarily helps students learn what a tendency tone is – at least in this system the tendency tones are the same numbers every time, no matter the inversion. I think that especially the type of voice leading we usually want students to learn is entirely harmonic, and a root-based, functional framework makes that easier in most cases. Additionally, not only do we discuss harmonic functions of T P and D, but we have also been discussing phrase functions and different levels: passing chords and such. So how chords function in the phrase (in addition to how chords function in the cadence) are both embedded in learning how to spell chords. By the time they get to part writing, it shouldn’t be a problem. Also, we can start part writing early, because day one is cadences.


*We don’t need to get into the discussion of whether or not part writing and voice leading are valuable; I like them and I’m assuming that I’ll have to include them in my system if I want others to recognize it as legitimate.

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