Take the 2-minute tour ×
Musical Practice & Performance Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I perfectly understand the theory of voice leading when explained in most theory books about moving voices between chords in the shortest possible manner to give a smooth connection between chords.

But in practice I never can see/understand the voice leading in sheet music because the chords generally are arpeggiated with melodic/motivic figures interspersed and/or chord inversions thrown in between.

Can someone explain in a logical way how voice leading works when there are a large number of notes per chord and many choices.

I do realize that one can make a "reduction" and remove non-harmonic tones but even this tends to be lacking(over simplified) in many real world cases. (specially when there is confusion in exactly which note is non-harmonic)

The way I see it is there is a much more complicated effect going on than the simple rules given in (most) theory books. The same applies to pitch resolution. e.g., most examples are extremely simplified(quarter notes in 4/4) or musical examples are chosen to "prove" the theory(i.e., the picking and choosing fallacy).

share|improve this question
Could you provide an example passage where you find voice-leading difficult to apply? –  oliTUTilo Feb 6 '13 at 5:19
@oliTUTilo Pick just about any passage in any piece of music. As I pointed out, the oversimpled idea of voice leading is "A melody note moves the shortest distance to the next note" but much of music contains many melodies, instruments carrying the melodies, notes that are not important, notes that have delayed resolution, etc... –  AbstractDissonance Feb 12 '13 at 8:07
If you need to find an example then pick a random bar from some Haydn piano sonata and chances are you will have a good example. (there will be at least one note that doesn't seem to have voice leading, unless one explains it in some complicated manner such as some weird delayed and octave movement or voice transference) –  AbstractDissonance Feb 12 '13 at 8:10
Another good example tends to be on the acoustic guitar. The standard open guitar chords do not allow for proper voice leading yet is extremely common. Many times the chords go from 6 notes(open E, open G) to 4 notes(open D). The loss of notes is due almost entirely to the physical limitation/setup of the instrument and nothing else. (one could argue that the top voice is the most important in voice leading and the other inner melodies can skip around if necessary) –  AbstractDissonance Feb 12 '13 at 8:13

3 Answers 3

The rather strict rules of voice-leading as we might first be taught aren't meant to summarize the art. They are to be taken as a spring-board into a greater but harder to define understanding of music. It looks like you've had enough of those beginning exercises in simple 4-part homophonic part-writing.

Those patterns and "rules" of voice leading that we might be taught are supposed to be easier to apply and understand than the broader principles of actual practice. Composers don't always resolve tendency tones and might use more skips than your instructor would have preferred in an intro to voice leading class. But tendency tones are called tendency tones for a reason, and skips reduce our ability to hear the integrity of a voice, so they are solid concepts to understand, for example.

Most generally, voice-leading is just the way voices move about in a piece. Usually, good voice leading means that each voice feels smooth, atleast somewhat independent, at least somewhat interesting, and supportive of the background harmony and feel of the piece. Besides the standard ways we're first taught to voice-lead, it helps for voices to possess their own melodic or rhythmic aspects. You can look to contrapuntal devices. But I'm not aware of any hard-and-fast criteria.

I wouldn't be too stuck on removing "non-harmonic tones", as they are part of the actual progression of the voices (voice leading).

Let's use a phrase from Haydn's Piano Sonata in Eb (Hob XVI:49) to demonstrate some simple examples of nice voice leading (see Brendel's performance, segment ~0:35-0:47).


The blue lines connect notes in an independent voice. The green dot shows the entrance of an independent voice, while the red dot shows its exit. The orange dot shows the entrance of a voice as an entity that is largely subordinate to the top voice, and the orange lines emphasize this subordination.

Notice that on the third beat of the first seven measures the upper voice drops a step and then makes a substantial leap. This adds a feeling of unity to the voice in the phrase and adds melodic interest: nice voice leading. The step down resolves the suspension over the change in harmony on each third beat, and the jump up emphasizes the first beat of the next measure: nice voice leading. The middle voice enters on measure four to fill out the harmony to raise intensity, but also provides a bit of counter to the first voice: nice voice leading. It drops out at the end of measure five, temporarily reducing the intensity and shaping the phrases' mood. But it comes back in measure eight, and this time in a more supportive role to the first voice, really raising the intensity. In measure 9, the bass now has to get in on the escalation, doubling at the octave and rising up to meet the upper voices in a cadence. The upper voice harks back to its suspending-resolving ways of measures 1-7 by making the cadence metrically unaccented. Nice voice leading.

I'm not sure what subjective feelings of these (or any) were intended by Haydn, but the phrase sounds pretty cool to me, and it's largely due to the way he progresses the voices.

share|improve this answer
The example you show is rather simple and deceiving as the harmony changes on the 3rd beat which then supports the skip. The melody alone skips a bar line and this makes it seem like what are evading voice leading but in reality it is just a skip from a harmonic tone to another(since the chord has not changed). It's harmonic aspects would be better understood if the notation was shifted one beat(of course, the performance would change). While I appreciate the example I think it is a bit simpler than it looks(basically two voices which it's more difficult to find problems of voice leading. –  AbstractDissonance Feb 17 '13 at 4:22
Although, even in the figuration of the bass, we see that voice leading does not hold up under the standard rules or at least is hard to decipher(blindly applying the rules will lead to failure). Of course, if we treat the figuration as a compound melody then we can see the lower notes act like a bass and jump around from roots (E E B E B A E) while the tenor voice seems to move step whiles across chords but leaps inside chords(which is ok but it is difficult to see at first glance) –  AbstractDissonance Feb 17 '13 at 4:28
I think this piece, though, is rather deceptively. It would be better for a true 4 part harmony. Since, as you stated, most of the time the melody follows proper voice leading(And the bass jumps around) so in a two part texture you don't have much to work with. –  AbstractDissonance Feb 17 '13 at 4:29
--"The melody alone skips a bar line and this makes it seem like what are evading voice leading but in reality it is just a skip from a harmonic tone to another." I'm not sure I understand that sentence, but voices can skip to harmonically near or far tones and still retain integrity. --"..I think it is a bit simpler than it looks." How does it look? Maybe I'll add a more intense example. -- Are you concerned that voice-leading doesn't apply to the example? I guess I'm having trouble understanding your concerns. –  oliTUTilo Feb 17 '13 at 4:42
You do realize that the harmony changes on the 3rd beat and not the 1st beat(the last 2 eighth notes) I'm not saying the harmonic pulse changes on the 3rd beat but that the harmony changes(a bit different). | I - (V7) | V - (I) | I - (IV) | IV - (I) | Which then, the melody can see has a series of suspensions with the last eighth note of each bar resolving the suspension. The leap, is just a leap between two CT's. No big deal. If you try to analyze it transitionally(the harmony changing on 1 then the melody must be described in a much more complex way(a bunch of escape tones). –  AbstractDissonance Feb 18 '13 at 11:59

Voice leading allows harmony to not just serve as series of chords but as several lines of melody that form chords between them as they move.

For example:

enter image description here

You can see how harmonically, the same thing is being accomplished: C to Em. However, the way the second set of C to Em is arranged to accommodate less/easiest movement as possible is a great example of voice leading.

If you want a real-life concept, think about choral music. Composers who write successfully sung/popular choral music are always aware of voice Leading. Voice leading allows singers to more successfully sing in harmony because their melodic line is easier and moves logically all at the same time.

If you are wanting an applicable instance of Voice leading, I might recommend looking into Bach's extensive use of counterpoint, which in my opinion is a more advanced version of voice leading.

share|improve this answer
You have done nothing but give a very brief explanation of voice leading. It is way more complex than that and the things I'm talking about understanding generally involve voice transference(octave displacement resolution), hidden suspension resolution, auxiliary resolution displacement, etc... As I have said, I understand the "text book" voice leading which you give a synopsis of. In real world applications it generally is much more complex. –  AbstractDissonance Sep 28 '12 at 11:13
Correct, that is because it was meant for writing easier and more natural sounding music for singers/musicians. It isn't entirely applicable in this era of music. –  Sean Larkin Sep 28 '12 at 11:19
I'm not talking about modern music. Any cpp example would work. I don't have time now to find a good example but all you have given is a very basic explanation, but as I have said, I understand that just fine. At least, in most theory books say voice leading is very important and tend to give many conjured up simple examples. A few books will analyze a piece that is more complex BUT it seems like a rather artificial analysis without a strong theoretical foundation... essentially just trying to explain away NHT's any way they can. –  AbstractDissonance Sep 28 '12 at 11:24
"Can someone explain in a logical way how voice leading works when there are a large number of notes per chord and many choices." If your just look for an answer to this then you need identify two things: 1. Are these chords made up of multiple melodic voices? If so, do the melodies exhibit the basic principle's of voice leading? 2. If not, then it the principle of voice leading doesn't apply. –  Sean Larkin Sep 28 '12 at 16:49

To properly answer your question, it would be helpful to know the context of the voice-leading you're talking about. When I refer to context, I am of course speaking about which musical period.

For example, from your question, one could infer that you are speaking about early-classical voice-leading techniques since you referenced Haydn. However, voice-leading techniques of different musical periods (most notably those that came after the classical period) have different rules that had to be expanded in order to accurately handle the expansion of harmonic language.

In addition, some composers of the late classical and early romantic period (such as Beethoven for example,) were notorious and even created their careers in part by "breaking" not only the rules of voice-leading, but also of form and convention in order to create a fresh sound that would catch listeners by surprise.

In part, I believe that you answered your own question when you talked about "resolution."

Regardless of the time period, the appropriate voice-leading techniques used are largely determined by the way the composer wants to create resolution - whether it is harmonic progression or regression. When there are many notes to choose from, you have to look at how the notes change between the chords. Once you do that, you have to think about the way the music was written at the time it was written, and then you would also be wise to compare it to other works by the same composer. This is because composers tend to have certain stylistic "fingerprints" and if you see that a particular composer is doing something a certain way and it is consistent, then that makes it easier to analyze as there is a greater likelihood that it is a convention and less of a mistake.

Lastly, it's also important to know how and what was taught for voice-leading for the given time period. Some of these composers rejected their teacher's approaches once they themselves became established composers, while others strove to master the rules to the best of their ability - most notably J.S. Bach, Handel, and Haydn just to name a few.

Those three composers were masters of counterpoint and considered by many to have brought the forms of their tradition to the highest possible degree.

As a final thought, I would recommend looking at a wider variety of sheet music for more evidence of the treatment of voice-leading. Just because a chord is presented as an arpeggio does not mean that the composer cannot have smooth voice-leading to the next arpeggiated chord.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.