I'm coming from a non-academic background and just trying to understand the rules of voice leading for pursuing a future composing career. I've always found difficulties in understanding this topic on paper and in practice, especially I'm a guitar player who's more into using ears and feel to compose in general.
Only recently I've read an article about presenting the progress of scale degrees on both the Chromatic Circle and the Circle of Fifths as geometric shapes like triangles and trapezoid, and it really made a lot of sense to me. I started analyzing chord progressions on both circles and just noticed the difference between them and the way they represent the shapes. Now I have these questions:

  1. Is this a good way to understand the topic or not? If not, what's the best way?
  2. What's the difference in practice between the two circles?

Thanks for answers

  • 2
    Can you post a link to the article? Oct 30, 2018 at 0:32
  • Technically, voice leading, is a counterpoint topic, while the circle of fifth is a harmony topic. Both topics overlap, but I think you are probably interested in the harmony and answered accordingly. Jan 23, 2019 at 23:06

2 Answers 2


These are the geometric diagrams I have seen...

enter image description here

Is this a good way to understand the topic or not? If not, what's the best way?

I suppose this is about personal preference and someone's level of aversion to staff notation. Personally, they don't help me know the shape of chords on the piano and they don't help me read notation, so I don't find them helpful. The other big problem is see is the diagram set labels 'chromatic' and 'circle of fifths' seem to confuse the harmonic difference of chromatic circle of fifths progression and a diatonic circle of fifths progression.

In the diagrams the difference is only about the order of tone going around the circle. The end result is different shapes that maintain the same symmetrical/asymmetrical qualities. But the set of diagrams labelled 'chromatic' is showing a diatonic progression. It is not harmonically a chromatic progression.

...Chromatic Circle and the [diatonic] Circle of Fifths ...What's the difference..?

I will continue explaining the harmonic difference, because this is what is important musically.

Both are harmonic sequences which is when a two chord pattern is repeated but the repeats transposed the chords up or down either diatonically or chromatically. Specifically, the circle of fifths is a two chord pattern of root progression by descending fifth which is then transposed down a step. Let's see some notation. The chords could be voiced many different ways, but here are some basic root position examples:

Diatonic Circle of Fifths

enter image description here

  • Note that in the bass F to B is an augmented fourth (inverts to a diminished fifth.) All of the root progressions are by fifths, but they are not all perfect fifths.
  • No accidentals are used, all the chords come from the same key (C major in the example)
  • several chord qualities are used: major 7th, minor 7th, dominant 7th, etc.

Chromatic Circle of Fifths

enter image description here

  • All of the bass progressions are by perfect fifth.
  • Accidentals are used because 1) a bass line of all perfect fifths eventually goes out of the diatonic notes of a key. You will see the difference at the point where F goes to B in the bass. When it's diatonic there are no accidentals. When it's chromatic accidentals are used as F# to B 2) all the chords are the same quality (dominant sevenths) chords don't occur like that diatonically so we must use chromatic spellings.
  • In a chromatic circle progression we do not necessarily use all dominant sevenths. It could be all minor sevenths or a variety of other chord types. The important point is that it is not the diatonic set of chords and therefore will be chromatic.

What's the difference in practice between the two circles?

With a complete diatonic circle of fifths, the harmony ends up right where it started, in some sense it is static, because it doesn't go anywhere new, it really just prolongs a phrase in the key. Here is a famous Mozart example (the F# is used, because the music changed keys from C to G major, but within G major the chords are all diatonic and just go from G to G.)

enter image description here

Sequences are also used to develop a motif by playing it over many harmonies. Here is one from Bach in minor where a neighbor tone figure in thirds and sixths is developed.

enter image description here

Another practice it to make a small chromatic change at the end of a diatonic circle to get into a new key. Here we start in C major, but then change dm7 to D7 which takes us into the key G major:

enter image description here

Of course a longer chromatic circle can be used to change key. But - changing styles from classical to jazz - it is common to see a short portion of the chromatic circle used for another purpose: the 'turnaround' at the end of a song. When a circle of fifths is inserted into other sections of a song it is sometimes called 'back cycling.'

enter image description here

So a re-cap of some common traits and uses is:

  • chord root progression by fifths, diatonic or chromatic
  • contrasting or similar chord qualities
  • the full sequence or a truncated segment may be used
  • can lead to a key change
  • can prolong a statement in one key
  • can develop a motif
  • can be used for a 'turnaround' or 'back cycling' in pop or jazz

I have a (jazz) piano background, but I've done a lot with voice leadings and think my answer may help.

I think about voice leadings as the progression of harmonies (i.e. the inner notes of a chord).

  • The melody is already defined
  • The bass line is also pretty well defined
  • The notes that make up the rest of the chord are more fluid, especially in jazz, and an important consideration when composing.

You say you're looking for "rules" ... there are certainly conventions about what sounds smooth and what doesn't. A general rules is not to do anything that doesn't sound smooth by accident - make sure you're doing it on purpose! Otherwise, just pick smooth leading arrangements. Also, the smoothest sound will usually be when the inner chord notes move in either direction by a whole step at the most, and a scale tone when staying in the same key.

The circle of 5ths is indeed a good example because the V-I progression is perhaps the most common and it's easy to have a smooth voice leading. I'm assuming you know some piano here for illustrative purposes - you'll have to do the mental gymnastics to see how this applies to guitar chords. I'm using 7ths because they help illustrate it better, but the same principles apply even to triads.

Let's consider a simple G7 chord is G-B-D-F, resolving to Cmaj7 C-E-G-B.

The power feeling of resolve here is from the dissonant G7's B-F tritone.

Smooth Voice Leading (same key):

  • If you move the trione B-F inward one scale tone, you get C-E.
  • In this essential example, both notes having a very smooth voice leading and this will sound like the end of a section or the whole piece.
  • Note that if your inversion has the tritone arrange as F-B, then the notes resolve apart from each other to E-C.

Less-smooth (but not necessarily undesirable) Voice Leading:

  • B-F => B-E (less powerful resolve, but still very vanilla)
  • B-F => C-G (doesn't highlight resolve, sounds empty w/out 3rd)

Not-so-smooth (often jumps more than one scale tone)

  • B-F => G-C
  • B-F =>E-C`

Smooth Voice Leading (new key)

If you're changing keys, then the 'scale tone' won't apply but use the concept mentioned earlier about moving the notes either a half or whole step. In this example, we're going from Cmaj7 to Ebmaj7

  • G is a common note between the chords, doesn't need to move
  • So my smoothest leading would be: E-B to D-B♭. This is assuming that the bass is playing E♭, so we don't need to repeat it and instead highlight the new major 7th (D).


SO that's all to say that normal and oft-used chord progressions have built-in smooth voice leadings to take advantage of, and other chord progressions can certainly have smooth leadings but it might take some thought. (Again, these are just a baseline for basic theory - you should occasionally break these on purpose in order to achieve the sound you want):

  • Voice leading refers to the relationship between the inner notes of chords that are next to each other in progressions
  • Don't make big jumps, stick to half and whole steps
  • Don't change the number of voicings between chords (i.e. adding a new note or taking one out)

Hope that was remotely helpful, didn't mean to write to much but it's hard to explain in text!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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