What are the differences in meaning and usage between “voice-leading”, “part-writing”, “polyphony” and “counterpoint”?

According to Wikipedia:

  • Voice-leading is “the term used to describe the linear progression of melodic lines (voices) and their interaction with one another to create harmonies, according to the principles of common-practice harmony and counterpoint.”.
  • Part-writing redirects to Voice-leading, yet there it says that “Voice leading practices can be codified into rules for pedagogical purposes. In these settings, ‘voice leading’ is often synonymous with ‘part writing,’ …” — that suggests that it is not always synonymous!
  • Counterpoint is “the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent (polyphony) yet independent in rhythm and contour.
  • Polyphony is a “musical texture … that consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody”.

The currently accepted answer to another question clarifies that counterpoint is polyphony obeying certain rules, so the main issue is how “voice-leading” and “part-writing” fit in. A summary in one place of how all four terms are used, in different contexts if necessary, would be helpful.


Voice-leading is the set of rules for writing parts; part-writing is synonymous. These rules are descriptive procedures based on the last thousand years of observing musical practice.

Counterpoint is a slightly more general term enclosing the voice-leading rules and some stuff about style.

Polyphony is the practice of thinking of music in terms of combinations of melodies rather than as succession of chords.

All these terms are rather broad; a single piece of music may be written polyphonically with differing "rules" pertaining to the succession of harmonies.


Voice-leading and part-writing are generally the same. Voice-leading generally describes how separate parts (=voices) are supposed move relative to each other. Examples of rules are that the leading tone should always solve, if you're writing for four voices, which note of the chord can be doubled, etc.

Counterpoint is a practice that falls under voice-leading. When practicing counterpoint, you generally don't really look at how you want the melodies to form a dynamic harmony, but you're rather focussing on how to create two (or more) melodies that do work and cooperate together, but also have strong independent identities.

To round this all up, counterpoint is a way of polyphonic writing (= having multiple melodies which all have a strong independent identity. They usually all have each different melodical and rhythmic lines) and voice-leading or part-writing is generally the theory of how these melodies should move relative to each other.

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