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Voice Leading Tips for
Writing Better Progressions - Part 1
By Mike Philippov
Note: This article assumes some basic knowledge of theory on the part of the student; understanding of intervals and basic construction of triads is recommended.
Let me start with some examples:
Play this simple progression: Am, Dm7/F(or simply a Dm/F), Am/E, E7, Am. If you are like most guitar players, chances are you would probably play something like:
Now compare how the above progression sounds with this:
You probably noticed that the second progression sounds very final (much more so than the first progression), similar to something you would expect to hear at the very end of a piece. What is the difference between the 2 progressions above? The chords are exactly the same, so why does the second progression sound so much more final and cohesive (and convincing)? The answer is in the way the chords are voiced. In this article I would like to discuss some basic concepts of voice leading and explain how understanding the principles will greatly help you in your ability to write better chord progressions and songs.
When most guitarists begin to learn chords they learn “shapes” of chords that become very familiar and recognizable over time. While this is a workable approach in the beginning, it is bound to cause some problems in songwriting eventually. The problem is that a lot of guitarists will tend to rely on the familiar shapes they learned for chords but do not think very much about the NOTES WITHIN THE CHORD. In other words, guitarists typically only think about playing blocks of notes. This is easy to do on the guitar because of the symmetrical nature of the instrument. As I said above this is of course a workable approach and it has been used with great success by many. However there is a lot of value to be discovered by thinking about building chord progressions in a new way. Voice leading offers a new way to think about structure in your chord progressions. Allow me to explain what it is.
When I first began to study music theory with Tom Hess and later, at Indiana University Jacob’s School of Music, I learned new ways of thinking about building progressions. The “rules” (or rather accepted traditions) go back to old conventions of classical composition when there were no “chords” to speak of and most music was written for 4 voices (bass, tenor, alto and soprano). The music was written for each part individually forming a melody. However because of the way the parts intersected when they were written on the music staff, they formed blocks that eventually came to be known as chords. This is a very important concept. The notes of each of the 4 voices followed a melodic pattern when looked at horizontally (on its own, the soprano line was its own melody and the alto line was also its own melody, same as tenor and bass). When they were written on the staff, the first note of the soprano melody intersected with the first note of the alto melody and also intersected with the first note of the tenor and bass melodies. When I say intersected I mean that the first note of each of the parts was played or sung at the same time the listener heard a single sonority (sound that was made up by the intersection of the melodies). As the piece continued the melodies continued to intersect and form chords that made up the piece.
So what does this mean for us as guitar players? It offers a NEW WAY OF THINKING about writing chords. If you start treating your chord progressions as multiple melodies (rather than random chunks of notes), you will immediately add a new dimension to your music. Rather than thinking in blocks or shapes as guitar players tend to do, you now have a new skill at your disposal. The soprano melody (the highest sounding note of the chord) is especially important to pay attention to because it is what the listener typically hears most prominently. Along with soprano, the bass is the second most important note so attention must be paid to treatment of the bass melody.
At the most basic level, the conventions of voice leading call for smooth stepwise motion between the notes (voices). So if you follow this approach when writing chord progressions for guitar you will notice that your progressions will seem to flow much better and sound much better connected as well. Try to think of the chord progression as having multiple melodic lines within each chord.
To illustrate the point better, imagine that the A string (5th string) will be the bass part, the D string will be the tenor, the G string will be alto and the B string will serve as the soprano. Try to keep the notes for each part on its respective string. Now attempt to find as many ways to play any of your favorite progressions sticking to the rules described above (smooth melodic motion)
This means do not have wide leaps (intervallic jumps) in any of the parts. This is particularly true of the tenor, alto and soprano melodies (your D G and B strings). The bass is more free to make wide interval leaps. Also if you can try to keep common notes the same if you can. So lets say for example that you are switching from B major/D# to E minor.
Notice that I kept the note in the alto (G string 4th fret) the same when switching between the chords. (B is the root of a B major chord and is the 5th of the E minor chord)
Of course in order to be able to come up with progressions in the manner described above would require you to have a good knowledge of the fretboard because you will be forced to think of where the notes are that you need to get in order to form each chord. So learning the fretboard better is the added benefit of this exercise.
Earlier I mentioned that most guitarists rely on familiar shapes of chords to write their songs. The reason why a lot of times the progressions don’t flow well together (or at least not as well as they could) is because the intervals (distance) between the notes in the chords are spaced way too far apart (as opposed to following a melodic step wise motion).
There is a lot more to the topic of voice leading and taking the time to learn the skill will definitely pay off in giving you extra musical tools you can use for music writing. I recommend studying with a great teacher who can teach this subject well. Trying to learn music theory by yourself can only lead to confusion and frustration.
In part 2 of this article I will discuss some more specific guidelines that were usually followed in classical music.
Please feel free to e-mail me with any questions you may have regarding this article or guitar playing in general. I answer all e-mails so don’t hesitate to write. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. I reply to all e-mails.
Mike Philippov is a professional virtuoso guitarist, music composer and instructor. He is also a co-author of several instructional products, numerous articles and other free instructional resources available on MikePhilippov.com.
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About Mike Philippov
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Mike Philippov is a professional virtuoso guitarist, music composer and instructor. He is currently working on an instrumental CD that will feature music in the virtuoso neo-classical and progressive rock styles. Mike also teaches guitar, both privately as well as through guitar clinics. Mike is also a co-author of several instructional products including: a Backing Tracks CD “Improve Your Improv” as well as instructional courses: “The Ultimate Sweep Picker’s Guide”, and “Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist.”
Currently Mike is busy working on several projects including composing and recording a solo CD featuring music in the neo-classical and progressive rock styles as well as more instructional products that are in the works at this time. Visit www.mikephilippov.com to check out Mike’s playing and sign up for a free newsletter which is sent out periodically and contains helpful tips and advice for guitar players.
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