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I was recently told on one of my peices that I need to look more into voicing. While I have a vague idea of what this means, I was wondering if someone could give me an overview of what it is (really) and how I can get better at it. Feel free to get nerdy with it, I have Google ;)


The song is called Silver Linings and can be found with the other band stuff. It would be great if you could listen to it; I need the views and the comments hahaha

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Traditionally, when we write music (choral or instrumental), we conceive it as a number of voices (literally) that sing melodies, whether the piece is for choir or orchestra (the practice just comes from tradition, when the music written was nearly always for literal voices, and we still use the term because conventional practise still follows the same general procedures found in choral music). We can harmonize without proper voice leading if we want (for whatever insane reason), but the music is much more rich and deep when good voice leading is employed; i.e., giving each part its own independent, reasonably melodious line.

Voicing is just the positions the notes of the melody end up in relation to the others: the intervals they make and what harmony results. Notes could be indiscriminatingly thrown about to create harmony, but that ain't so great (see below), and the process of moving the voices from one voicing to another is called voice leading - good voice leading should produce convincing voicing.

Some examples


The example below is little chorale for four voices to illustrate my point (there may be a few mistakes in it, but it'll get the point across).


Each part has its own line to sing, the top and bottom (soprano and bass) voices having the most interesting parts, while the inner voices (alto and tenor) have less interesting but nonetheless singable and natural (i.e., not awkward) sounding 'melodies' (except for the move between the last two notes of the alto part, which I'll mention below).

In the mp3 file below, the piece is played first on the piano (sorry for the sounds... turn your volume down a bit!), then each voice's part is played on its own, before the entire thing is played again at the end.


Rather than point out what's not (or shouldn't be!) terrible, here, I'll just give you an example of bad voice leading:



This is the same example, but with the two inner parts changed for the worse. In the mp3 below, you'll hear that the harmony isn't the worst thing in the world when it's all sang together, and that the melody (the top voice's part) as well as the bass is unchanged, but you'll probably notice something's a little off with the movement of the two inner voices (played afterwards).


You'll hear that the alto and tenor 'melodies' are jumpy, jarring, and hard to sing. These were things that were avoided in the common practise period because, firstly, if it's hard to sing, it's hard to perform, and, secondly, giving each voice its own independent melodic movement added grace and beauty to the music, as well as giving us more worth listening to (besides just harmony). As far as I know, or can guess, it wasn't that they started off writing harmony and then said, 'Hey guys! What about this!?', it was more a case of beginning with melodies, and, when they thought singing of two melodies at the same time, they noticed that some notes sounded less harsh and more beautiful together than otherwise, which was (probably) the birth of the theory of harmony. Voice leading is mainly for the passage work in compositions, harmony comes to the fore a little bit when you want a clear-cut cadence (notice, in the very first example's alto line, the second last note sounds like it wants to move up to the tonic, but instead jumps down; this is to give a full chord at the end of the phrase, making it sound more final, and is a move frequently used by Bach).


In these very last (slight) alternations of the example, the tenor line is changed to make a point.




In this example, the tenor line moves in octaves with the bass (the lines mark where). This makes it sound less independent because it sounds like it's just copying the bass line. In this example, however, it does it just before a cadence and at the start of a phrase, making the tenor's individual line sound like it's 'dropping out' 'til the cadence, and only coming back in afterwards when it doesn't move in 8ves with the bass any more in the next phrase, which is something that's generally avoided but which is an effect you may want. This isn't a great example of it, but whatevs.

In this one, however,




the tenor 'drops out' for only a beat before coming back in, making it sound like it fell over and missed its cue, or something, which is something you probably don't want.

Some general guidelines for good voice leading and voicing

  • Writing natural sounding, easy-to-sing lines (even if it's for an instrument), since the integrity of the voice is more clear when it doesn't disappear from a range, jump into another, and then jump back - it's easy to follow. That being said, if it can sound like a single melody even with a lot of jumps (which would be the exception), then go ahead; and if the point is to make it sound like one voice playing a figure down there and another playing one up here, but you're using the same instrument for the two voices, then that's fine, if done correctly (convincingly).
  • As per above, avoid writing consecutive octaves between two voices. Traditionally, this rule applies also to parallel fifths and fourths* (thus giving the guideline: No parallel perfects), but people slacked on that one a bit, later (though I would avoid it in two voices or if it sounds like it's confusing the voices).
  • In passage work, don't move two voices in the same direction into the interval of a fifth, octave, or fourth (giving an even more general guideline: Approach all perfect intervals in contrary motion). This is usually pedantically handed out as a rule, but it, of course, has a point; so, if it doesn't make the voices sound less independent, ignore it. Generally, it does ruin it in pieces for only two voices or between the outermost parts in pieces for more than two. Note also that this is a counterpoint issue (for the passage work), and can be ignored(ish) at cadences.
  • Don't let one voice follow another for too long. This one's pretty obvious.
  • If two voices leap in the same direction, don't let the lower one go to a higher place than the higher voice just left. I think Bach lets the lower one go just as high (i.e., jump to the same place that the higher voice was at before) in his chorales, but avoids that in more contrapuntal pieces, but I dunno.
  • Leaving more than an 8ve between the alto and tenor lines can often leave a big empty sound because there's no sonorities in the middle, bridging the gap between the voices. Traditionally, the rule also applies to soprano, but, from experience, I gather that it's similar to the 8ves thing: if the soprano moves outside of the octave range and moves straight back it, it might not sound great; but, if you're writing for instruments, you might want to let the top voice rise really high above the rest of them.

Some disgruntled babblings

All the rules seem to basically follow an 'If... then... except when...' formula, and students might understand them better if they were given a little more like, 'Don't write consecutive fifths between two voices if it ruins the integrity of the voices', but that's as obvious as saying, 'Don't write bad music', so it's a bit like the two of them put together: 'Don't write bad music - by the way, consecutive fifths can ruin the independence of voices so watch out for that'. Rewriting things like direct fifths &c. when they don't sound as if they have a problem is a bit like not going outside on an unseasonably warm day in winter, 'cause winter is cold.

People like to shove these things in your face telling you they're the rules; but that's stupid. Things like parallel 5ths &c. were avoided for a reason, so, if that reason isn't apparent in your piece (i.e., if you break a 'rule' but don't hear the usual bad result), then you've come across an exception. The best way to find these things is to experiment at the piano (or with anything that can play two or more voices) and notice the bad results of breaking these rules vs. the good ones; that way you'll notice the difference when it comes time to ignore mindless pedants. As an example, in the bad version of the example, someone might point out that you have parallel 8ves between the bass and the tenor; but you don't: the jumpy, nonsensical tenor line doesn't give the impression of a single voice, so its integrity can't be ruined.

Read and learn about these things, but experiment yourself; don't believe what someone tells you if it doesn't make sense to you. You probably won't find what I said about the tenor dropping out and coming back in in any textbook, but I think it can sometimes be used legitimately, because I tested it out at the piano. There are numerous examples of composers 'breaking the rules' (why they're called rules if they're broken is beyond me), but they wouldn't have done it if it sounded bad; the rules are there to prevent bad sounding things, if it doesn't sound bad, you haven't broken the rule. In his famous textbook on counterpoint, Fux mentions a certain move between two voices that constitutes moving into an 8ve in contrary, stepwise motion, towards each other (a quick Google image search gives this - the move occurs between the two outmost voices) as being prohibited, but he doesn't know why, and so leaves it up to the discretion of the student whether to avoid it or not (he later prohibits a similar move, where the upper voice leaps to the 8ve instead of stepping to it, and my guess is that, since people agreed that that didn't sound so hot, some theorist took it to it's logical conclusion and banned that sort of motion altogether).

On a side note, orchestration is basically setting the four voices to different instruments of the orchestra; so you could have the 1st violin and flute playing the soprano line, the 'cellos and double basses playing the bass line, the 2nd violins doubling the soprano line at the 8ve, or third, or fourth, &c. You can write the parts out first and orchestrate them or do it in your head - whichever; it just depends how smart and/or experienced you are.

They're my angry, rambling views. Hope they were helpful and/or not all lies.

*The exception to the fourths thing is: if two voices move in parallel fourths, another voice must move in parallel thirds below the lower voice (which also creates parallel sixths with the upper voice).

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