Most songwriters wouldn’t think of using classical composition techniques like voice leading in their songwriting. Modern songs typically use fairly simple chord progressions, so why over-complicate things with outdated compositional techniques? When you think about it, though, voice leading actually has a lot to offer, even in the simplest song settings.
The basics of voice leading
Though voice leading can sound complex, it’s founded on simple principles. In essence, voice leading is the art of identifying and enhancing melodic movement between chords. So while a typical musician might see a chord progression like C-G-Am as three distinct (but harmonically related) chords, someone with experience in voice leading might see not only those three distinct chords, but also three (or more) distinct melodies that flow from one chord to the next.
The best way to explore voice leading is to experiment with different chord inversions. In the example above, the most basic way to play the C-G-Am pattern would be to play each chord in its root position, using the lowest note from each chord to form the bassline. If you wanted to mix things up, however, you could play the G chord in its first inversion, using the B as the bass note. This would create a simple walking pattern in the bassline from the C down to the A.
This is probably something we’ve all played thousands of times without even thinking about it (especially if you play the guitar), and as we’ll see, this simple concept can take on many useful applications in contemporary songwriting. Here are a few examples to get you started.
1. Add linear movement to basslines
Ascending and descending basslines have become a fixture in contemporary rock and pop music, and this is largely thanks to the concept of voice leading. You can think of this application of voice leading as a continuation of the C-G-Am example mentioned above.
Jazz players will often think in this way – by limiting the movement in their hand positions to a minimum, they can play faster, tighter-fitting harmonies that move quickly and smoothly from one chord to the next. Even if you don’t play jazz, you can use this technique to create melodic basslines with more interesting harmonic content than basslines built around simple root notes.
2. Tighten up vocal harmonies
The concept of voice leading comes to us from the choral tradition, so it makes sense to apply this concept to vocal harmonies. While you will often hear choirs and vocal groups singing “chords,” most choral composers don’t think about chord progressions in the same way that a pianist or guitarist might. Instead, they see each voice (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) as its own melodic line that interlocks with the other individual melodic lines to create chords. This way, the vocal parts aren’t jumping around wildly from note to note, but moving smoothly from one note to another.
To harness this technique, the next time you’re working on vocal harmonies, try thinking of each voice not just as a harmonic element, but as its own melodic element as well.
3. Create and release tension
Singer/songwriter Andrew Bird describes voice leading as “finding the melody in a chord progression.” That’s exactly what he did with the bridge to his song “Roma Fade” from the album Are You Serious. On an episode of the Song Exploder podcast, Bird talks about how he played with chord inversions in the bridge while paying attention “not just [to] the outer voices […] but the inner voices.”
This helped him turn a simple three-chord progression into a tight harmonic line that “keep[s] the tension rising” in the lead-up to the chorus. Listen to how he achieves this in the video below, starting at around 1:14. Think of how else you could apply this concept to create movement and tension within your own simple chord progressions.
Voice leading has a lot more to offer than what’s mentioned here, but these methods should give you some good places to start if you want to investigate voice leading further. Once you understand the basic principles, you’ll start seeing applications all over the place.
Plus, you’ll get the added benefit of being able to simultaneously impress and annoy your bandmates by saying things like, “Let’s apply some voice-leading principles in that bridge to create some more tension within that IV-V-III progression.”
Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.