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The Poor Man's Guide to Voice Leading

I'm going to walk you through some of the basics of voice leading in this lesson. When playing through the examples, try to use your fingers rather than a pick. Using your fingers will help separate the notes and help you to hear the individual notes in the chords. Classical genius Segovia once said in an interview that to play with a pick robs the guitar of it's polyphony. So give it a shot!

The lessons I learned about voice leading while studying classical music in college haven't changed since Bach. We have learned to stretch harmony, melody and rhythm but voice leading still generally works the same way.

The four types of contrapuntal motions

Parallel motion - Both voices move in the same direction the exact same distance.
Similar motion - Both voices move in the same direction any distance.
Contrary motion - Both voices move in opposite directions.
Oblique motion - One voice stays the same while the voice moves in one direction or the other.

Ex. 1 - This example of parallel maj 3rds.
Ex. 2 - An interval of a major 3rd. moves up to an interval of a minor 3rd.
Ex. 3 - Both voicings are moving in opposite directions to form a perfect 5th.
Ex. 4 - This example of oblique motion demonstrates how one voice stays the same while the upper voicing moves up to form a perfect 4th.

So far we have only dealt with two notes at a time. The same principles hold true for chords also.


The first thing you start working on in your music theory class in college is four part harmony. You start by analyzing and writing Bach Chorales. Although it is four part harmony (chords with four voices), it is mostly triads with one of the notes doubled somewhere in each of the chords. Bach was adventurous compared to his predecessors, he used a dominant 7th chord as a V chord from time to time. A dominant 7th chord has a tritone (diminished 5th) inside of it that kinda scared musicians back in those days so Bach may have been considered a rebel amongst his peers, Ex: G7 = G B D F, the tritone is B-F. Play the interval and see if it scares you. Bach was also a master of counterpoint, the art of writing two melodies on top of each other.

Dominant chords usually got resolved to the tonic chord this way back in Bach's days. At least I had to resolve them this way or my Theory II teacher would get angry at me and threaten to call the Baroque police:
Some rules or at least some standard practices for the *Baroque period (Key:C):

1. The b7 in the V chord (F) moves down to the 3rd of the I chord (E)
2. The root of the V chord (G) stays as the common tone (if possible) in the I chord (G)
3. The 3rd of the V chord (B) moves up to the root in the I chord (C)
4. The 5th of the V chord (D) goes either up or down to the 3rd (E) or down to the root (C) of the I chord

*A lot of music historians tend to believe that the Baroque period ended with the death of Bach. Another famous Baroque period composer was Vivaldi (an Italian). Before the Baroque period we had the Renaissance. The Classic period begins with Bach's death and pretty much gets going with Mozart. While both Bach and Vivaldi wrote sacred music (for the church), Mozart started writing music for the common people (operas) in German (so people could understand what the hell was going on). The classic period ends with the death of another great German composer, Beethoven. After that we get into the Romantic period. Tchaikovsky and Wagner are some names associated with this period. After the Romantic period we move into the 20th century, which we left behind recently.

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