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).

  • Could you provide an example passage where you find voice-leading difficult to apply?
    – oliTUTilo
    Feb 6, 2013 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...
    – user2691
    Feb 12, 2013 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)
    – user2691
    Feb 12, 2013 at 8:10
  • 1
    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)
    – user2691
    Feb 12, 2013 at 8:13

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 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.
    – user2691
    Feb 17, 2013 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)
    – user2691
    Feb 17, 2013 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.
    – user2691
    Feb 17, 2013 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, 2013 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).
    – user2691
    Feb 18, 2013 at 11:59

The trick with voice leading is that the concept of voices is meant to be somewhat more abstract than most people realise.

It is no accident that voice leading is traditionally taught in four voices. One of these is the bass voice, which is unique, and obeys its own set of rules, because of its need to frequently sing/play the root of the chord. The remaining three voices represent each of the three tones in a triad, which must each move in certain ways relative to each other. In traditional voice leading instruction, these voices are treated as literal voices, that will sing actual melodies made up of the pitches that voice leading dictates (note that there are often multiple options).

As an example, when moving from a triad to another triad whose root is up a fourth, ignoring the bass line, the traditional patterns are: Common tone (the root of the first chord is kept to be the fifth of the second chord, and the third and fifth of the first chord both step up to become the root and third of the new chord, respectively); Contrary to the bass (all three notes move downward to the nearest chord tone - the third must actually skip down to become the fifth of the next chord); Tertian Leap (a combination of the last two: the root of the first chord is kept common to become the root of the new chord, but the fifth falls to become the root of the new chord, and so the third must leap all the way to third of the new chord in order that the new chord has a third - in traditional voice leading, the chord must always have a third); and Triple Root (again, a combination of the first two, where the third rises and the fifth falls, both to become the root of the new chord, but the root skips down to become the third of the new chord - there is no fifth, which - unlike the third - can sometimes be omitted).

There are a couple of points to this. First, these patterns are just ready-made combinations that happen to avoid the true voice leading errors (of which there are only a few). No parallel fifths or octaves (if both chords are in root position, that means that in the upper voices, the root should never move to the root, the fifth should never move to the fifth), the chord must always have a root and a third, and should usually have a fifth.

Second, the voice leading of a voice partly determines and is partly dependent upon the other voices. For instance, if the melody moves from the fifth of the chord up to the third of the next chord, the other two voices will most likely move as in the common tone patter (though atypical voice leading is possible if no rules are broken - however, this often makes proper voice leading in subsequent chords more difficult, which is part of why the patterns are used).

Most importantly, though, the voices aren't real. They are artificial constructs that are created by the patterns. It might be more accurate to call them "group chord-tone tendencies". It doesn't really matter if there are voices, or how many there are. What matters is how to move the various combinations of notes. The guitar is a perfect example. In spite of preceding comments, the guitar is actually surprising good at voice leading - as long as you don't care about the number of voices (which are all artificial anyway). The traditional chord shapes mostly don't cause parallel motion (though barre chords do). Suppose you were going to move from an E major chord to an A major chord. In the E major chord, the root (E) is on both the fourth string and the first string, and in both cases, it stays common to become the fifth of the A major chord. It is important to keep in mind that these are not two different voices, they are two instances of the same voice. The third of the E major chord (G#) is on the third string, and it rises to become the root of the A major chord. The fifths of the E major chord is on the second string, and it rises to become the third (C#) of the A major chord. The same tone is also on the fifth string; once again, it is just a second instance of the same voice (not another voice), but this time it doesn't follow its partner,, it disappears, and the root from the sixth string moves up to the fifth string to become the new root (this is a bass line, and follows different rules). There is absolutely nothing wrong with the duplicated voice or with the voice that disappears. All that matters is that the notes themselves move according to one of the acceptable patterns.

To be fair, I should say that a single note that is doubled might be able to move in different directions. For example, after the triple root pattern, the new chord has three roots (one is in the bass) and no fifth. In this case, the two upper roots must move differently in order to avoid parallel octaves and in order to get a complete chord in the next chord. In the case of the guitar, a true fifth voice may even show up, where multiple voice leading patterns are used at the same time, as long as there are no parallel fifths. But a root still will not move to another root (other than the bass note or in inversions), and the fifth still will not move to the fifth.

The guitar makes another useful point. These chords need not be strummed all together. They are often arpeggiated, meaning that they are played one after another, melodically. When you do this, you are not creating a melody. The notes themselves remain as representatives of the imaginary voices, and even though they might occur on opposite ends measures, several beats apart, they should still move according to these patterns. Suppose you arpeggiate the E chord from the bottom up to the top, and then the A chord from the top down to the bottom. On the page, it looks like a melody that skips its way up and then back down, but in reality, it is multiple voices that are still connected to each other across the distance, as though all the notes were being played together. And remember, the voices can enter and leave at any time, they can be doubled or lose their doubles at any time. And if the notes are far enough apart, the voice leading doesn't really even matter.

When an actual melody does contain a leap, in a way, it is like the melody is moving from one "voice" to another - remember, these voices are abstract, not literal - and it takes on the voice leading tendency of the new voice it has moved into. At any given moment, as a chord is about to change, the melody can be assigned to one of these abstract voices, and must move according to the rules; if it was previously on the fifth of the chord, it can move to the root or third of the new chord, but traditionally not to the fifth (it does sometimes happen in other styles of music, but this is simply because the rule about parallel fifths is style-specific, and not universal). Once this note moves, any other notes that may happen to move at the same time, or nearly the same time, must move in ways that fit the patterns - or drop out. If you pick "any random bar from Haydn", you should be able to see that this is so.

In the special case of guitar with, say, power chords, or bar chords moving in large leaps in parallel, we still have a kid of voice leading, it is just a different kind. A classical theorist might call it poor voice leading (lots of parallel fifths and octaves), but that is stylistically okay in most modern popular music. More sophisticated theorists may suggest that certain voices are simply shifted up an octave and then move correctly; this is a bit of a conceit, but it suggests another way of thinking about voice leading. Imagine a kind of graph paper or template paper that you could write on. Suppose you have a G chord. On your template paper, you would have faint watermarks of all the possible notes of the G chord (GBD) in all possible octaves lightly highlighted, with faint arrows showing all the places they could go to when the chord changes. With the understanding that anywhere a note can go in its own octave it can also go in other octaves (and so not showing all these octave possibilities), the paper would show a repetitive, wallpaper-like pattern all the way down as each voice reappears in subsequent octaves. In a way, this wallpaper is implied underneath all music, and the melody, rather like finding a way out through a maze, just traces out some of those arrows.

In summary, voice leading does not apply to true voices, but rather to notes that represent abstract voices. In a piano part that uses two hands, even though it looks like there are only two voices, in an abstract way, there are four voices, and the piano parts weave their way in and out of the various abstract voices, and when the chords change, the notes must move according to the patterns for whatever voice they happen to be in at that moment. Consider Bach's Cello suites, for instance. Only one instrument, usually only one note at a time, so it looks like one melody, but really, it is jumping around between abstract voices, and they all move as though they were a choir (I promise you this is true, I have spent a great deal of time tracing them out to verify).


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.

  • 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.
    – user2691
    Sep 28, 2012 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. Sep 28, 2012 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.
    – user2691
    Sep 28, 2012 at 11:24
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    "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. Sep 28, 2012 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.

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