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Voice-Leading is the process of determining how individual, independent voices should move through harmonic and melodic entities, forming a cohesive whole. Voice-leading was one of the primary concerns of common-practice composers, and is still of concern in modern jazz and pop music. The voice-leading to be dealt with in this article is characteristic of the classical and early romantic periods, meant to provide a homogenous texture that also ensures the individuality of each voice. Less conservative historicist and contemporary practices are not bound by the guidelines discussed.

Historical Evolution and Significance of Voice-leading: A (very) brief overview

Early Music

The Early music period (circa 500 - 1400) saw the development of modern and common-practice musical concepts such as harmony and voice-leading. During the evolution of monophony chant, voice-leading as we consider it today, involving more than one voice at the same time, was nonexistent. Similar Early musical practices, such as fauxbourdon, that imply voices moving in constant parellel movement, are also deprived of voice-leading, as they concern but one actual voice with a consistent, consonant, harmonization.


The Rennaissance (circa 1400 - 1600) and the period leading up to it, characterized by their rich use of free Polyphony, were periods in which voice-leading were key; in fact, the harmonic content of most of the works written during that period was justified by the melodic motion of the voices alone.


Counterpoint, applying concepts such as tonality and harmony to a polyphonic style, was prevalent during the Baroque period (circa 1600 - 1750). Strict rules and principles governed counterpoint; in effect, the quasi-entirety of voice-leading guidelines are derived from the principles of counterpoint perfected by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Classical period

Following the gradual decline of strict counterpoint, music in the Classical period ( circa 1725 - 1825) still followed a number of guidelines pertaining to voice-leading, albeit less rigorous than those used in counterpoint. The principles of voice-leading used during this period were to set the bar for around two hundred years.


The Romantic period of music ( circa 1800 - 1925 ) followed essentially the same voice-leading guidelines as those used in the classical period. However, these guidelines were subject to a gradual process of experimentation and adventure that were to lead to their ultimate destruction in the mid-20th century. The general idea to retain is that of the rules and guidelines previously established being progressivley dismantled.

20th Century

With the end of romanticism and the emergence of "modern music" (term used here to describe all types of music being written and produced in the current epoch), voice-leading began to assume different forms. However, in general, most concert music written today that employs the concepts of harmony and/or tonality repsects certain traditional procedures of voice-leading (film music being a notable example). Other types of music, such as dodecaphony, pioneered by the late Arnold Schoenberg, or the experimental music of the 1950's and 60's, abandoned many concepts of voice-leading that were previously respected. The conclusion to be made is that as musical concepts are used more and more to produce sound, ambiance and impression, the less important voice-leading becomes. On the other hand, the more and more these same concepts are used in a functional manner, the more important the guidelines of voice-leading become.

The SATB Choir

Voice-leading exercises are commonly realized within the specific format of the SATB choir (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass). This is due to the chorus being the dominant music ensemble at the time the rules of harmony were formulated in the sixteenth century. Specifications of each voice are given below, from lowest to highest:


The bass is the voice that has the lowest tessitura, and is one of, if not the most important voice of the four, defining the inversion of any chords present and being clearly distinguishable from the overall texture over the course of any exercise.


The tenor voice resides above the bass and under the alto. Being an inner voice, it is of less immediate melodic concern than the soprano or bass.


The alto voice resides just above the tenor and under the soprano. It is also an inner voice, providing harmonic support rathe than melodic interest.


The soprano is an outer voice, along with the bass. It is the most audible voice and its melodic content is of high concern when it comes to voice-leading.


The ranges of the four voices are shown below. The whole notes represent a basic acceptable range, while the filled-in noteheads indicate attainable extensions. It must be noted that these ranges are not absolute, and that many professionnal vocalists are capable of attaining greater range than what is indicated in the following example. However, for the purpose of voice-leading exercises, only the "safe" ranges shown below should be used:


Static harmony

The principles of voice-leading that apply to a static harmony (i.e. one chord singled out) are not concepts of voice-leading per se. However, it is important, when dealing with problems of voice-leading, to know how to arrange chords for the SATB choir in a manner that produces a satisfactory effect. Three core concepts that apply to a static harmony are positioning, tone doubling and inversion.


A triad arranged for SATB choir can, for obvious reasons of range, not comprise an immediately adjacent root, third and fifth. Thus we must deal with the "positioning" of a chord, or the location of one voice's chord tone in relation to the other voice's chord tones, and to the sounding voice's range.

Close position

A chord, when written for SATB choir, may be in close position. This is when the chord tones of the soprano, alto and tenor are spaced as closely together as the harmony permits. Below, a Bb Major triad is shown in close position:


Open position

A chord when written for SATB choir, may also be in open position. This is when the chord tones of the soprano, alto and tenor are spaced so that an additional chord tone may be inserted between two voices. Below, the same Bb Major triad in open position: the spacing of the soprano and alto allows a D, the third of the triad, to be inserted between the two voices.


Distances between voice's chord tones

To ensure a homogenous texture that is safe range-wise, one must follow certain guidelines pertaining to the distances between different voices. They can be summarized as such:

  • The distance between two adjacent voices should not be greater than one octave, save for the Tenor and Bass, who may be two octaves apart or more;
  • One should minimize the number of voices in extreme ranges at one time.

A G Major triad in root position is shown below, badly positioned: the soprano and alto are too far apart, and the tenor and soprano are in too extreme a range for safer choral writing:


A more acceptable configuration would be as such: