Voice leading is the art of moving from one chord note to the next, often (but not always) with as little motion as possible. The choices we make in connecting our chords can help to define our musical styles, and give a common chord progression an uncommon sound. (I learned about voice leading from a plethora of great artists, but I give special credit to jazz guru Charlie Banacos.) In Part I of this lesson, I’ll begin with one of the most common types of chord progressions found in a myriad of jazz, pop, Latin, and R&B songs, the venerable ii-VI-VI progression. In Part 2 next month, we’ll delve into more advanced techniques involving slash chords, the blues, Latin vamps, and more.


Ex. 1. No Voice Leading
Ex. 1 is what a musician who is new to seventh chords might play if he or she saw these chord symbols on a lead sheet. Notice that the chords are in root position, make no use of upper extensions like ninths, 11ths, and 13ths, and there’s no attention to voice leading at all.


Ex. 2. Two-Note Voicings with Left-Hand Roots
To introduce some, let’s play ii-V-I progressions with the chord’s root in the left hand and two-note voicings in the right, as in Ex. 2. Notice the voice leading here: the seventh (F) of the ii minor chord (Gmin7), moves to the third (E) of the V dominant chord (C7), and the seventh (Bb) of the V dominant chord moves to the third (A) of the I major chord (Fmaj7). After you get comfortable with this in all 12 keys, you can add more chord tones, but often, two-note voicings are all that you need, especially when accompanying guitar or other polyphonic instruments.


Ex. 3. Keeping Common Tones
Ex. 3 uses a voice leading tool known as keeping common tones to facilitate smooth motion between chord changes. The top note is the same for each voicing, i.e. it’s common to each chord. In addition, the structure here has the same properties as in Ex. 2 with regard to the movement of thirds and sevenths, and includes the color tones of the ninth, 11th, and 13th.


Ex. 4. Chromatic Melody on Top
Ex. 4 takes this same chord progression, and with those same color tones I’ve created a chromatic scale with the top voice of each chord, using the notes F, F#, G, and Ab, which are scales degrees 7, #11, 9 and b5 of each respective chord.

Chords as Melody

“When moving from one chord to another, every note counts. Each note should help the progression stand as a melodic statement in its own right,” says Clifford Carter, who has appeared with James Taylor, Betty Buckley, and Brian Ferry. Most recently, he can be heard on Michael Franks’ Time Together and saxophonist Bill Evans’ Dragonfly.