Voice Exchange: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you like to sing? Have you ever sung in a choir? If so, you might have experienced voice exchange. In this lesson, learn about a music theory term called voice exchange.

What Is Voice Exchange?

Many people enjoy singing, either by themselves or with a group. In vocal choirs, they often sing different parts. Women sing soprano and alto lines, and men sing tenor and bass, with the soprano voice being the highest and the bass the lowest. Over time, many composers have written music for choirs, and some of that music has used something called voice exchange.

Voice exchange is the repetition of passages with notes of a chord shifting through different parts or voices. The change between voices happens simultaneously. It's an idea discussed in music theory or the study and analysis of how music is constructed.

Voice exchange is used in vocal music with more than one voice. You won't find it in a chant, where everyone sings the same melody, and you'll never find it in a single solo line. Voice exchange is found in medieval music that uses polyphony, or the combining of two related but non-identical musical lines. Polyphony developed during the medieval period. You'll also find voice exchange in English music from the 1200s and in much of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach wrote a lot of his vocal music in counterpoint, in which two or more independent melodies are sung at the same time. You'll sometimes see it referred to as contrapuntal music, and it's related to the earlier development of polyphony.

Before we discuss some examples of voice exchange, there's another term you should understand. To make music more interesting, composers use chords. A chord is a combination of three or more notes played or sung at the same time. Basic chords have three parts: the root or first note of the chord, a third or the second note of the chord, and a fifth or the third note of the chord. The names 'first', 'third' and 'fifth' come from the notes' positions relative to each other on the written scale.

Types and Examples of Voice Exchange

Throughout music, you can find many examples of voice exchange in vocal music. It often occurs between two voices. This is called double voice exchange, and it happens when the shift in the notes of the chord transfer between two voices, say between a bass voice and a soprano. But voice exchange isn't limited to two voices. Triple voice exchange happens when that shift occurs between three voices, say between bass, tenor and alto.

Here's an example. Let's say a soprano is singing a passage from a Bach motet with the root chord of C. In this chord, the 3rd is an E, and the 5th is a G. While the soprano sings the C, a bass sings the G in a lower octave. Then, as the music moves, the soprano shifts to the G and the bass shifts to the C. They do this at the same time, which means they have exchanged the notes of the chord. Now imagine this process repeatedly happening in a musical passage, resulting in whole phrases based on different vocal parts. That's double voice exchange.

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