I have for a long time been very confused about how the principles of voice leading taught in 4 part Harmony writing relate to music in general. The dogma seems to be that virtually all tonal music is conceived upon a chorale structure that consciously adheres to the principles in question, and this is the rationale invoked for it's study. After a lot of consideration I am very dubious that this is the case at all.

Take piano music for example. That is piano music that is not an obvious 4 part texture. It's true that you can, by often highly subject means, abstract out something resembling a chorale like texture, but I have a hard time believe that this abstraction had anything to do with the composition of the piece. In fact I would go so far as to say that considering the piece as a collection of interacting voices seems quite fruitless. While there undoubtedly can be a sense of horizontal relationship between notes produced by a consistency in texture, this relationship seems to be very incidental and the precise intervalic nature of this relationship to the surrounding other “voices” seems to be of very little importance at all.

It seems at though 4 part harmony has as much import on piano music as it does on rock, jazz or blues music. In fact many of the same textures and figurations can be found in these musics that are conceived of from an almost purely harmonic, textural perspective.

When looking at a score I find I seem to get a much better sense of how the music works and was created by considering the music “as it is”, rather than trying to uncover a reduced abstraction that satisfies some rules of rather specious relevance. And from a compositional perspective I feel that the concept of composing to a pre or simultaneously conceived voiceleading abstraction impossibly constrictive.

I wonder if I'm alone in feeling this way or is this, in fact, the general thinking on this matter? I'm quite happy to get into specific examples if anyone cares to. I thought I I'd just set out my stall first.

Thank you.

  • 1
    I'm not sure if there's a real question here - maybe you can clarify your question? My one thought is that I always assumed four-part harmony is taught partly for historical reasons and partly to show that harmony and melody are not two completely separate aspects of music. Mar 17, 2015 at 13:01
  • Well, I'm asking if others think I'm right. As I say the dogma in the texts is that virtually all tonal music is conceived upon a chorale structure that consciously adheres to the principles in question. I'm not really sure I believe this for the reasons I've laid out above. I'm assuming anyone who's studied harmony would have had to address this at some point and so I'd like to know what conclusions they came to.
    – Kazz
    Mar 17, 2015 at 13:29

3 Answers 3


The fact that your question already begins by calling the ideas "dogma," makes me doubt that you'll be very amenable to discussion, but in case other people reading this are curious:

1) In comments you claim to have learned this dogma from "the texts." "The texts" say no such thing; in fact, they say no single thing at all. There is a vast collection of theory texts, with a vast range of focus and pedagogical intent. Some aren't very good, some are great; some are old and benefit from immediacy but lack perspective, some are new and benefit from hindsight but occasionally devolve into less-useful abstractions. I've taught from the Kostka/Payne text, the Aldwell/Schachter, the Salzer/Schachter and the new Clendinning/Marvin text. These are some of the most widely-used and respected textbooks in tonal harmony, and absolutely none of them claim that composers conceived of their music as an elaborated chorale structure or that they consciously wrote music that adhered to the specific voice-leading conventions generally taught to undergraduates.

2) "Piano music" isn't a genre. Depending on the century, the country, the genre and the general time in a specific composer's life, you will find a huge assortment of harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and timbral techniques, obsessions and dogmas. Some will indeed essentially be elaborated chorale-like structures, some will have clearly contrapuntal origins that are obscured by ornamentation, and for some a voice-leading graph will be less explanatory. There are some general aspects of piano writing that make things like, for example, parallel fifths, a somewhat more common occurrence. However, it is true that if the piano music is being written in a common-practice tonal idiom during Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras in European music, most general principles of voice-leading will be adhered to more often than they aren't. This isn't because the composers were consciously following rules, it's because the general principles of counterpoint were baked-in; they are part of the DNA of common-practice tonality.

3) Principles of voice-leading are generally taught through 4-voice chorales, but that does not equate to a claim that all common-practice music is fundamentally based on four voices. Four voices is a useful number for pedagogical purposes—not so many voices that it's overwhelming, not so few that you have to constantly use incomplete triads and sevenths. It's also helpful in that it guarantees that many complex issues of contrapuntal doubling will come up organically and can be practiced. Furthermore, it's helpful that there's a lot of music written for four-voices that can be looked at for examples that don't stray as far from the exercises. None of this is the same thing as claiming that common-practice composers always start with a four-voice framework when composing, consciously or otherwise. It's a starting place for discussion of complex principles that isn't burdened by too many variables.

4) Musical analysis is not about reconstructing the compositional process for a particular work. It is about discovering potentially interesting or revelatory aspects of a piece that lie beneath the surface. My old theory teacher says it's about telling an interesting story about a composition, never about "explaining" it. Sometimes an earlier step in such analysis does involve boiling away surface ornamentation in order to get a better sense of the underlying structure—not because such details aren't important, just because it can help an analyst notice things that were previously more obscure. Most certainly, some analysts go too far and make assumptions that aren't borne out by the actual piece. Theorists argue constantly about what is too abstract and what isn't. But that doesn't mean the entire concept of fundamental voice-leading structure in common-practice tonality is wrong.

Beethoven, Mozart et al, most certainly weren't consciously writing in terms of voice-leading principles as taught in a theory class. They didn't have to. It was in their ears, their fingers and their muscle memory. Composition instruction in those days in Europe began with intensive contrapuntal instruction—generally starting with two- then three-voice Species Counterpoint and then moving on to four-voice chorales and beyond. Some of the rules they learned and taught would be immediately familiar to a modern-day student, some wouldn't. Mozart thought that it was important to introduce double-neighbor figures in Third Species, Fux thought it was irrelevant to proper counterpoint. The point was never any one specific rule, but rather a keener understanding of how two or more independent voices interact. By the time they were writing their own pieces, they no more had to consciously avoid doubled leading tones and parallel fifths than they had to consciously keep breathing. It was part and parcel of the music. When they had an idea that ran counter to the principles, they used it; exceptions abound and are often the most interesting parts of a composition. Nevertheless, a firmer grasp of how their music functions structurally by default is enormously helpful to understand both the basic and the exceptional segments of their music.

  • I really couldn't have hoped for a better response than this. You've really hit the nail on the head here. What it really comes down to for me is an understanding of how the music was composed. I was under the impression the aim of these texts (I'm familiar with both the Aldwell/Schachter, and the Kostka/Payne) was to demonstrate the theoretical tools, principals and methods used to compose CP tonality. But, if I understand you right, they are really about a type of analysis that is not concerned with how the music is “made” but rather how it “works” on some more abstract level.
    – Kazz
    Mar 17, 2015 at 22:41
  • I wish this made clear in the texts, I'm looking through the Kostka/Payne right now and can't find anything that says this, it gives quite the opposite impression in-fact. I do admit I find the idea of analysis as an end unto itself, divorced from composition to be quite a strange one, and that such a large amount of time and effort devoted to it stranger still.
    – Kazz
    Mar 17, 2015 at 22:43
  • So is the conclusion to be made then that the study of texts such as Kostka/Payne or Aldwell/Schachter are really of no use from a compositional perspective and are really only meant to address the needs of those who wish to purse the more abstract notion of how the music “works” rather than the practical needs of those who wish to understand how it was “made”?
    – Kazz
    Mar 17, 2015 at 22:43
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    Quoting from Kostka/Payne: "Voice leading (or part writing) may be defined as the ways in which chords are produced by the motions of individual musical lines. A closely related term is counterpoint, which refers to the combining of relatively independent musical lines. Naturally, the style of voice leading will depend on the composer, the musical effect desired, and the performing medium. However, there are certain voice-leading norms that most composers follow most of the time, and our study will concentrate on these norms." [Emphasis mine] Mar 17, 2015 at 23:12
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    I think you've generally misconstrued my answer. Why do you think that studying composition in a manner deeply similar to how these composers learned composition doesn't lead to an understanding of how their own music was composed? Analysis helps you understand a piece better, and understanding music makes you a better composer. The goal is a better understanding of some types of music, which is precisely how one starts learning how to compose. The fact that great masterworks are light years beyond basic counterpoint studies doesn't invalidate basic study, it's why it's a starting point. Mar 17, 2015 at 23:17

The point of voice leading is not to make chorale style four part harmonies, but to understand what makes melodic line independent while while harmonically making sense. Although you can study it in any piece, it is much more effective when you are writing lines you want to be independent.

If you look a piece that has one melody and some harmony, you're not really getting a taste of what voice leading is. Sure almost every piece of music has it even in harmonies, but in most cases without a second melody or really focusing in on the independence of each of the harmonies the reason for doing it becomes lost.

When studying voice leading you do 4-part chorale style harmony because the effects are easy to hear and see. With only four voices used for the same duration, at every chord change you should be able to distinguish between the voices and avoid excessive dissonance. If you can't do voice leading with chorale style harmony doing it when you need to make to melodies independent or want to make each instrument in a composition stand out will be next to impossible.

Listen to inventions or fugues to get an understanding of what it means for melodies to be independent yet harmonically dependent and what good voice leading creates.

  • Thanks for the answer. Your answer makes perfect sense in that the less independance a voice is intended to have the less relevant the voice leading principles are, however, this does not seem to be the dogma from the texts. As I say the dogma is that the voiceleading principles are of fundamental importance to even homophonic music and are adhered to in a consciously contrived fashion in virtually all tonal music, no matter the texture. This is what I am taking issue with rather than if 4 part harmony is good for learning about writing independent voices, which is a separate issue.
    – Kazz
    Mar 17, 2015 at 14:52
  • @Kazz they are, but like I said you are looking in the wrong places. Voiceleading is in everything, but you most likely won't notice it in a pop song or any song with one melody nor does it make sense to make everything into 4 part chorale that however does not mean it does not exist. Does everyone think in those terms? No, but theses pricipals always show up and are fundamental.
    – Dom
    Mar 17, 2015 at 15:08

I had the same impression of voice leading as you, until I studied the lessons at http://openmusictheory.com – there, they approach the subject a bit differently. They discuss how figured bass and voice leading were originally a useful way for keyboardists to accompany singers, much like a modern lead sheet or Hal Leonard songbook.

Thus, that style of music is historically more of an improvisational technique than a compositional technique. However, successful improvisation requires a solid understanding of compositional and voicing fundamentals. Therefore, learning how to read and execute figured bass is a good practical way to instill those fundamentals.

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