TonalityGUIDE - basic tonal music theory and analysis for undergraduates
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Introduction to tonality More about the TonalityGUIDE analysis tool kit Clefs, note labels, intervals and transposition
chord identification understanding voice-leading style awareness

The ToolKIT, which is accessible from all pages of the site, outlines the three main analytical skills that aims to develop. It also links to a short introduction to the study of tonality as well as a reminder of some basics (note and interval labels, clefs and transpositions).

Understanding Voice-leading

See my new site for advice on Bach chorales.

Introduction general characteristics interval succession resolution of tension embellishing progressions

Voice-leading describes the way in which individual parts or 'voices' interact, creating and embellishing the progression from one chord to another. Although being able to identify chords allows you to describe chord progressions, it does not help the description of how the music moves from one chord to the next. Voice-leading characteristics are at least as important as harmonic language in distinguishing the tonal styles of different composers.

The importance of voice-leading even in music that is essentially chordal (as with the Bach chorales that dominate the examples of harmonic progressions) can be demonstrated by trying to reconstruct a piece of tonal music from a written description. If you knew about chords but had no knowledge of voice-leading and were asked to write the chord progression II6/5 - V - I, your attempt might look something like the following:

Voice-leading is sometimes presented as a set of rules, but it is better to think of it as a set of characteristics specific to a certain style. You would never find the above example in a piece of music by Bach because the voice-leading is uncharacteristic of his writing. A style is partly defined by its typical voice-leading characteristics, and conversely a discussion of voice-leading rules is almost meaningless without reference to style (see the section on style in the Toolkit).

The characteristics of a particular voice-leading style can informally be broken down into four overlapping categories:

These categories are best introduced by rewriting the above sequence of chords in order to make it more like a Bach chorale. A few points relevant to this short progression are discussed here and more on each of the four categories can be found by following the relevant links.

Two general characteristics of the Bach's voice-leading style are not followed in the example at the tope of the page:

  • it is usual for at least one part to move in a different direction but in this extract all the parts move in the same direction
  • it is characteristic for the individual voices in a Bach chorale to move predominantly by step (i.e. in tones and semitones) but here all the voices move in large leaps

The example can be rewritten, taking these two characteristics into consideration:

Although the voice-leading in this example superficially looks more like Bach's chorale style, it is still highly uncharacteristic of his writing.

It includes a succession of intervals between two voices that is generally avoided in this style:

  • the Bach chorale style very rarely contains parallel fifths (two voices moving in parallel a fifth apart) such as those between the bass and tenor voices in the first two beats of the example

The way in which the dissonance is resolved is also uncharacteristic of Bach chorale writing:

  • there is a general prescription in the style of Bach's time that sevenths should resolve downwards by step, but in this example the c1 in the tenor part of the first chord (the seventh of the D minor chord) moves upwards

The next example changes the progression again so that the parallel fifths are avoided and the seventh resolves downwards:

Notice that the convention is to name the voices in chords as if the music was for choir:
top voicesoprano
second from topalto
second from bottomtenor
bottom voicebass

The final example adds two embellishing progressions to the soprano voice. Embellishing progressions are decorations of the basic harmonic progression that may go against the guidelines on resolving dissonances in various ways

  • in the original example the seventh of II (the d2) is part of the chord. Here the top line is rewritten so that the seventh appears as a passing note. Even as an embellishment the seventh must still resolve downwards in Bach's chorale style
  • the soprano line also now includes an anticipation of its final note in the previous quaver (c2)

    An understanding of voice-leading allows us to describe tonal music more accurately. Parallel fifths and unresolving sevenths are obviously no bad thing, but their presence or absence might help us understand more precisely the differences between the styles of various composers.

    Voice-leading and Rules
    The most famous set of rules for voice-leading appear in the book on species counterpoint written at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Johann Josef Fux (Gradus ad Parnassum, 1725). It essentially codifies the style of the sixteenth century Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. The book is particularly notable because, among the many composers it influenced are Haydn and Beethoven.

    Fux's voice-leading rules aimed at creating a fluid and elegant contrapuntal style that represented an aesthetic ideal for many composers and writers. By the end of the nineteenth century, as tonal music continued to change, teachers and theorists found themselves in the slightly odd position of recommending a set of rules for counterpoint and then showing how composers in fact broke most of them in one way or another.

    This 'breaking-the-rules' approach is still prevalent today (you might have been taught about sonata form in this way), and can be a very useful way of thinking about how music works. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that there are no rules that describe exactly how any musical style operates. The history of tonality is not a seamless progression from the strict rules that Fux suggests in Palestrina's style to the apparent lack of rules in pre-serial Schoenberg.

    The Tonality GUIDE tonal music analysis tool kit
    information and orientation as you browse around
    chord identification
    understanding voice-leading
    style awareness

    © Copyright Thomas Pankhurst

TonalityGUIDE - Tonal Harmony and Voiceleading - Table of Contents