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The Poor Man's Guide to Voice Leading

What this means to us in the 21st. century

Our chords have become way more harmonically advanced since the Baroque period, for this reason the way we resolve our chords has also changed. Many of the chord voicings we use these days don't even contain 5ths or even roots for that matter. Regardless, the four types of contrapuntal motion remains the same. The concept of "keeping the common tone" still plays an important part in voice leading.

Parallel 5ths - Parallel motion wasn't really considered cool back in the Baroque days. Especially parallel 5ths and Octaves. Other intervalic parallel motion such as 3rds or 2nds, etc. was considered okay. The reason that parallel motion wasn't cool is simple, the separate notes in the moving chords should move around in different directions or at least not the exact same distances to create a sense of melody inside the harmony or at least to create some musical interest. Everything moving in identical intervals is boring to the ear. As we will find out later, sometimes parallel motion can be used very effectively to lead chords together, but for now let's concentrate on the more traditional form of voice leading.

What is proper voice leading? - Hmm....probably, when a chord changes to the next one, one voice should stay the same (if it is present in both chords), you might say "keep the common tone." Another voice moves up and another down. This is an example of what I think is pure perfection when it comes to voice leading: a standard blues turnaround. Check out how the top voice stays the same, the note on the second string moves up in half steps and the note on the fourth string moves down in half steps.

A blues turnaround like the one in the last example probably came into fashion in the 1930's or so. Funny how some blues cats made a musical statement that would have made Bach proud. Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson definitely didn't study music theory in college, did they? I guess it's safe to assume that all these music theory rules are really universal musical laws already known by the ear.

Let's take a look at the different kinds of motion in action. What kind of motion is taking place in the following examples?

Ex. 1) Only one kind of motion going on here, what is it?
Ex. 2) Only one kind here also, what kind of motion do you think it is? Compare the sound of this one to the last example.
Ex. 3) Two types of motion going on here, what are they? Hint: look at the top note in both chords and then the ones below.
Ex. 4) Two types here too, what are they?

1. Parallel motion
2. Similar motion
3. Oblique and parallel motion
4. Oblique and contrary motion

A few examples of good voice leading

Ex. 1) This is a standard ii -b5sub- I chord progression. Notice how the top voice remains constant through all the chords. What's going on with the other voices?

By keeping the common tone as your top voice, you make almost any chord lead to the next, even if theoretically it doesn't make any musical sense. Proper voice leading can free up your chords and keep you from being stuck with the same old standard chord progressions. Listen and analyze some of Wayne Shorter's or Herbie Hancock's tunes. Ever wonder why so many of their songs are written without key signatures? Why is it that the songs they have written aren't bound by set keys?

Ex. 2) This example shows how by keeping the common tone as the upper voice while resolving the inner voices downward chromatically you can make a maj13th chord resolve to a major chord a half step below.

Ex. 3) Now I'm going to turn into a hypocrite. This next example shows how to use parallel motion as an effective tool to connect your chords.

This is basically a VI - II - V - I that you use as a turnaround in a Bb blues. The thing that makes this thing work is the bassline. If the bass notes were also moving down chromatically the whole thing would sound stupid. Oh yeah, I included the roots as a reference but you can just let the bassist handle them.

Copyright 2002-2003 Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author
Native New Yorker, long time studio musician and session guitarist Chris Juergensen is in constant demand as a sideman, front man and clinician. He currently divides his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles where he continues to write, record, play and teach at Musicians Institute. He has released three solo CDs to date plus two published instructional books. Visit his website

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