Voice Leading for Rock Piano

Voice leading. Maybe you’ve heard that term before in musical circles and not fully understood what it means. Voice leading is not just an interesting topic discussed by musicians, it is an absolutely essential part of playing rock piano. And as luck would have it, you’ve come to the right place. Because in this article we’re going to fully explain what is meant by the term “voice-leading,” offer a clear explanation of how and why it is used, and show you some examples.

Voice Leading: What Is It?

Let’s break this down one word at a time. The term “voice leading” likely came from choral music, which is generally written for four voice types: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. But believe it or not, the term “voice” in music refers to the part played by any and all instruments, not just the singer or vocalist. So in an orchestra, for example, the violins are considered a “voice,” the clarinets are considered a “voice,” the trumpets are a “voice.” You get the idea. You can have many “voices” within a particular ensemble without ever having a true vocalist.

When we talk about “voice leading” we’re talking about the way the individual voices (i.e., instrumental parts) interact and work together to create certain aspects of the music. These aspects include the melody, harmony, and chord progressions. The voices “lead” us from one chord to the next in a smooth, connected way that uses relationships between each passing chord.

So now we know that voice-leading refers to the way in which notes (played by various instruments) move from one chord to the next. But why is that important for rock pianists?

Voice Leading: How Is It Used?

We’re talking specifically to rock pianists now. Let’s say you’re in a band and you’re going to rehearse a tune. Someone passes out the sheet music. It’s a lead sheet that only has chord symbols written on it. Maybe it looks something like this:

voice leading 1

What do you play?

Maybe you’re accustomed to playing something like this:

voice leading 2

The thing to notice about the above example is that every chord is in root position. There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing the chords in this way… but, there’s not much voice leading being used. Why? Because the chords don’t really connect from one to the next. Everything jumps in constant root position with no consideration of moving smoothly (meaning, by small distances) to the next chord. Voice leading requires recognizing relationships between the notes of these various chords. For us rock pianists, that means being able to play INVERSIONS of chords.

In the example below, we’re going to play the same chords, but now we’ll use inversions of each chord to smoothly move from one to the next. This requires finding common tones between chords, or finding particular spellings of chords that are close in proximity (usually no more than a whole-step) to the notes of the next chord.

voice leading 3

This is actually a very common pop-rock progression which moves down the major scale outlining diatonic chords, and it comes right from our lesson on James Taylor’s tune “Your Smiling Face.”