Instructor
John Proulx
Quick Tip
Intermediate
10:34

Learning Focus
  • Technique
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
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At a basic level, melody and harmony describe two different musical concepts that are generally considered to be opposites. However, professional musicians don’t think of melody and harmony as separate musical realities at all. Instead, they understand that melody and harmony are always intricately intertwined. In today’s Quick Tip, 10 Voice Leading Techniques for Piano, you too will discover how to approach harmony from a melodic perspective. You’ll learn:

Intro to Voice Leading for Jazz Piano

When beginner piano students first start learning to play chord progressions, they often think of each chord in the progression as a single sound. For example, if they are playing a ⅱ7→Ⅴ7→Ⅰ▵ progression in C major, then they assume that they must learn three chord sounds…Dm7, G7 and C▵7. Most often, beginner students learn these chord sounds in root position. Next, they apply these chord sounds to the chord progression by playing the chords in the specified order. The result looks something like this:

Sample 2-5-1 Progression with Poor Voice Leading

Example of 2-5-1 chord progression in C Major with root position chords. This example contains poor voice leading because all of the notes resolve by a leap each time the chord changes.

This is a reasonable starting point for a beginner. However, the truth is that a chord is not a single sound at all. Instead, chords are made up of individual notes that have their own tonal tendencies within the key. In other words, notes in a chord are like little magnets that are drawn toward the nearest resolution whenever the harmony changes. Therefore, a more natural way to play the progression Dm7→G7→C▵ would be something like this:

Sample 2-5-1 Progression with Good Voice Leading

Example of 2-5-1 chord progression in C Major with smooth voice leading.

As you can both see and hear, arranging the notes is this manner results in a smoother sound with closer movement each time the chords change. In music theory, we call this voice leading.

What is voice leading?

In composition and arranging, voice leading describes the intentional consideration given to the manner in which individual notes (or “voices”) move from one chord to the next. Characteristics of good voice leading include smoothly connected chords with minimal movement and individual melodic lines that possess a singable melodic contour.

General guidelines for good voice leading include the following:

  • Think of 7th chord tones as containing 4 individual voices: soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
  • If two adjacent chords contain one or more common tones, it is most desirable to retain the common tone(s) in the same voice part.
  • Notes that are not common tones should resolve with close movement, especially stepwise motion, although skips of a 3rd are also acceptable.
  • Disjunct or unnecessary leaps should be avoided in the upper voices. Leaps in the bass line are acceptable and do not compromise voice leading that is otherwise strong.

“The process of leading each note of one chord into each note of the next chord is called voice leading.”¹

—John Valerio, jazz pianist, composer and author

10 Piano Voice Leading Techniques for Major 2-5-1s

In the previous section, you discovered what we mean when we refer to voice leading in jazz harmony. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at how we can use various chord extensions and alterations to create as many as 10 different voice leading possibilities on a basic 2-5-1 chord progression.

If you’re a PWJ member, be sure to download the PDF lesson sheet and backing track that appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Want to learn how to play these voice leading techniques in another key? No problem! PWJ members can easily transpose the lesson sheet examples into any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Alright, let’s check out our first voice leading technique.

Voicing Leading Technique #1 (7→3→7)

The first jazz piano voicing leading technique that John covers in today’s lesson is a 7→3→7 technique. These numbers refer to the chord tones that are in the uppermost voice. For example, on the Dm7 chord, we’ll put the 7th on top, which is the note C. Next, for the G7 chord, we’ll put the 3rd on top, which is the note B. Finally, on the C▵7 chord, we’ll put the 7th in the uppermost voice, which means we’ll keep the note B on top. In fact, the jazz standard “I Should Care” opens with this exact voice leading.

To add even further harmonic expression, John has created additional inner voice movement by voicing the Ⅰ chord as C▵7(♯5) and then resolving it to C▵13. This creates movement from the note G♯ to the note A in the “alto” voice.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #1

You may have noticed that the direction of the melodic line in this example is descending. In the next example, you’ll learn how to create an ascending melodic line from the same starting point.

Voicing Leading Technique #2 (7→♯11→9)

Our second jazz piano voicing leading technique uses a 7→♯11→9 ascending melodic line. It begins with a Dm7 chord with the note C on top. Next, we’ll play a G7(♯11) and place the note C♯ on top, which is the ♯11. Finally, we’ll end on a C▵9 with the note D on top. However, just to keep things interesting, John goes to a Cº9 first before resolving to the C▵9 to create inner voice movement in the alto and tenor voices.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #2

Pretty cool, huh? Next, we’ll explore additional possibilities by starting with a different note on top.

Voicing Leading Technique #3 (3→7→3)

Our third jazz piano voice leading example features a descending melodic line that uses a 3→7→3 technique. Therefore, we have the note F on top for the Dm7 chord. Next, we’ll keep that F in the melody for the Ⅴ7 chord; however, John voices it as G7(♭9♯11) for extra tension. Finally, we’ll resolve the F in the melody down to the note E over the C▵9 chord. Then we’ll create additional inner voice movement by switching to a C6 voicing.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #3

What if we want to start on the note F but create an ascending melodic line? That’s what we’ll do next!

Voicing Leading Technique #4 (3→7→♯11)

Jazz piano voice leading technique #4 creates an ascending line with the melodic formula 3→7→♯11. Just like our previous example, we’ll start with the note F over our Dm7 chord. Next, we’ll play G7(♭9♯11) again which keeps the note F in the melody. However, for our final chord, we’ll resolve the melody upward to F♯ and voice the Ⅰ chord as C▵13(♯11). This voicing features a polychordal construction that contains a D major triad in the right hand over a C▵7 chord shell in the left hand.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #4

Voicing Leading Technique #5 (5→9→5)

Voicing technique #5 uses a 5→9→5 melodic formula. This puts the note A as the starting note over Dm7. Next, we’ll keep the common tone A in the melody as the 9th of G13. However, before resolving to the Ⅰ chord, we’ll switch G13 to G9(♭13). This creates inner voice movement in the alto voice from the note E to the note E♭. Finally, we’ll resolve to a C6/9 voicing with the note G on top.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #5

Voicing Leading Technique #6 (5→♭9→5)

Voicing technique #6 is similar to the previous example, except than now we’ll use the melodic formula 5→♭9→5. This creates a melodic line that descends chromatically. We still begin with an A in the melody over Dm7. However, when we get to the Ⅴ7 chord, we’ll voice it as G7(♭9) with the ♭9 in the melody—the note A♭. Finally, we’ll resolve to a C▵7 with G in the melody. This chromatic melody is featured in the jazz standard “Ain’t She Sweet.”

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #6

Next, we’ll explore an ascending chromatic melody that begins from the same starting point.

Voicing Leading Technique #7 (5→♯9→7)

Jazz piano voice leading technique #7 features an ascending chromatic line that uses a 5→♯9→7 construction. Just like our two previous examples, we’ll begin on a Dm7 chord with an A in the melody. Next, we’ll play a G7(♯9♭13) with the ♯9 in the melody, which is technically the note A♯. However, this note will most often be spelled enharmonically as a B♭ because it makes the upper structure for G7(♯9♭13) easier to recognize. For example, this polychordal voicing features a simple E♭ major triad over a G7 chord shell. Finally, we’ll resolve to a C▵13 with the note B on top.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #7

Voicing Leading Technique #8 (9→13→9)

Our next voice leading example uses a 9→13→9 construction in the melody. Therefore, we’ll begin on Dm9 with the note E on top. As we change chords, we’ll keep the note E in the melody, which becomes the 13th of G13(♭9). Finally, we’ll resolve the note E down a whole step to D, which is the 9th of C▵9. Notice also the voice leading from A to A♭ to G in the inner voice.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #8

Voicing Leading Technique #9 (9→♭13→9)

Voice leading technique #9 is similar to the previous example, except now our melodic formula is 9→♭13→9. As you’ll see in the example below, adding the ♭13 to the Ⅴ chord creates a melodic line that descends chromatically. Once again, our first chord is a Dm9 with an E in the melody. However, for the Ⅴ chord, our melody note is now E♭—the ♭13 of G7(♭9♭13). Finally, we’ll resolve to the same C▵9 as in the previous example with the note D in the melody.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #9

Voicing Leading Technique #10 (11→♭9→13)

Our final voice leading example features a chromatically ascending melody based on the melodic formula 11→♭9→13. This means that we’ll begin on a Dm11 chord with the note G in the melody. Next, we’ll play a G7(♭9♯11) with the note A♭ in the melody, which is the ♭9. Finally, the melody resolves up a half step to the note A, which is the 13th of C▵13(♯11). Notice that each of the voicings in this example feature a polychordal construction. In other words, the right hand is plays upper structure triad for each voicing.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading Technique #10

Wow, you just learned 10 unique voice leading techniques for a major 2-5-1 chord progression! Next, we’ll apply these principles to a familiar jazz standard.

Piano Voice Leading Application on a Jazz Standard

In this section, we’ll apply many of the voicing leading techniques we’ve just learned to the familiar jazz standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Cole Porter. Specifically, we’ll be playing a bossa nova piano accompaniment groove beneath the melody of the A section.

The example below features the chords for A section of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” in C major. Notice that each system begins with a major ⅱ-Ⅴ-Ⅰ progression in C. In addition, each system ends with a quick secondary ⅱ-Ⅴ progression that leads back to the ⅱ chord. Therefore, this is the perfect tune to try out some of the voice leading techniques that we’ve just learned. In fact, each voice leading application has been labeled for you in the score by number so that you can compare them to the previous section. Notice that the use of different voicing leading techniques keeps our voicings from sounding repetitive and monotonous.

Jazz Piano Voice Leading on I've Got You Under My Skin

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on 10 Voice Leading Techniques for Piano. Now you know how view harmony from a melodic perspective, just like a professional jazz pianist.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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¹ Valerio, John. Jazz Piano: Concepts and Techniques, Hal Leonard, Milwaukee, 1998, pp. 14.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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