Voice Leading Errors: Definition & Types

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  • 0:04 Voice Leading Errors
  • 0:47 Unresolved Tension
  • 3:14 Mixing Voices
  • 4:38 Hidden Fifths & Octaves
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Voice leading can be tricky, and there are some common errors that can easily occur. In this lesson, we are going to examine these errors and see how they can negatively impact a composition.

Voice Leading Errors

It can be hard to get a group of people to cooperate. Sometimes, it just feels like there's just too many voices. Music theory can feel the same way. As a composer, it's your job to take multiple musical lines, or voices, and make them work together.

Voice leading is the interaction of melodic lines, an important concept for composers to understand. By following the rules of voice leading, you ensure that each voice will be heard and contribute to the harmony without becoming irrelevant, lost, or dissonant. However, this is easier said than done. Let's examine a few voice leading errors that can turn a harmonious symphony of voices into an uncooperative gabble.

Unresolved Tension

Western music is defined by the buildup and resolution of musical tension. Some progressions create this tension, while others bring the composition back to a place of tranquility. You might remember this characteristic being discussed when everyone was obsessed with Adele's hit single, ''Someone Like You.'' This balance is what makes music enjoyable. But what happens when you leave that tension unresolved? With multiple voices, all of which need resolution in a cooperative and harmonious manner, it can be easy to overlook one line and leave it unresolved.

This becomes especially problematic with tendency tones, those that almost always resolve in the same way. The most significant of these is the leading tone, which is the seventh note of the scale. So if we're in the key of C, B would be the seventh note and therefore the leading tone. Leading tones create dissonance and lots of tension, which results in incredibly satisfying resolution. However, when left unresolved, that tension never fully dissipates and the music can feel unfinished.

It's extremely important to resolve leading tones in the outer voices, the highest and lowest, since those are generally those that carry the main melody and are best heard. An unresolved leading tone can work with an inner voice, but it should generally be avoided. It's really only okay if you have a really valid reason, like creating a chord that's necessary for the harmony.

The number seven is also important within each chord. Your average chord is a triad, using the first, third, and fifth notes of that chord. For example, a C chord contains C, E, and G. However, we also often use seventh chords with the seventh note, which adds a little extra tension and drama. A C7, therefore, would be C-E-G-B. That B against the C creates dissonance and begs resolution, which almost always has to come from a step down into the next chord. If there are leading tones in this chord, the result is a pattern of resolution. First resolve the seventh by moving down a step, then resolve the leading tone by moving up a step (or down a third if in an inner voice and it's necessary), then resolve everything else. That procedure is a good way to avoid unresolved sevenths and unresolved leading tones.

Mixing Voices

The next set of common voice leading errors involves mixing voices. In good voice leading, each voice stays in its relative position. The soprano line always has the highest note, the bass the lowest, and so on. This helps keep each line distinct.

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