Musicianship Resources

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Voice-leading in contemporary Christian worship music

The purpose of our study of voice-leading in contemporary Christian worship music is to enable you to take a lead sheet (melody and chord symbols) to a worship song and from it produce two other vocal parts (alto and tenor) that are readily singable and make good counterpoint with the melody and the bass line.

Vocal ranges


The melody for a worship song will be sung by men and women, with vastly different vocal ranges. It is important that it is singable by the entire congregation, not just the leader.

As much as possible, keep the melody between C4 and D5 (C3 and D4 for men). Do not go below A3 (A2 for men) or above E5 (E4 for men), and use that expanded range only when absolutely necessary. (In your assignments for this class, the melody will be given, but in your future work, keep this melody ideal in mind when writing songs or transposing existing songs.)


As much as possible, keep the alto line between G3 and A4. You can extend it up to C5, but do so sparingly.


As much as possible, keep the tenor line between C3 and E4. You can extend it up to G4, but do so sparingly.

The bass line

We will be composing with three vocal parts. However, the lead-sheet chord symbols will provide us with a bass line as well. Treat the bass line as a fourth voice for the purpose of chord completion, doubling, and avoiding illegal parallel and hidden/direct intervals. However, it will remain unsung.

Invertible parts

Because the melody will be sung by people of both genders and, thus, in multiple octaves—and occasionally, the tenor and alto parts may be sung in different octaves as well—you must take extra care to avoid bad parallels. Specifically you must always avoid parallel fourths between the upper voices.

This new prohibition on parallel fourths can be understood with a simple example. If the melody and alto make parallel fourths as written, when the melody is sung an octave lower, it now makes parallel fifths with the alto. While parallel fourths in a three- or four-part texture sound fine, parallel fifths can be jarring, and we want to avoid their occurrence when our arrangements are sung by full congregations or with different gender combinations in the leading ensemble.

Always treat the bass line as the lowest voice. Thus, parallel fourths with the bass are acceptable (though they usually only result from weird harmonies, so you won’t see them often).

Overlap and voice-crossing

As in classical keyboard- and chorale-style writing, we want to avoid voice overlap and voice crossing. However, in pop/rock and contemporary worship music, melodies often include larger and more frequent leaps than chorale or keyboard melodies. As a result, we need to be more careful about voice-crossing and overlap. So devote extra attention to this in order to avoid jarring-sounding arrangements or parts that are difficult to sing.

Also, since we will be typesetting the tenor part on a different staff from the alto part, it is easy to miss voice crossings between the alto and tenor. Always be careful to check those parts for overlap. Working at the keyboard will prevent this error to a large extent.

In some melodic situations, it will simply be impossible to harmonize each melody note with a complete chord and avoid voice overlap. In such situations, it is fine to make an incomplete chord (doubling two, or even all three, voices at the unison) in order to avoid overlap. When such situations arise, try to minimize the impact of the incomplete chord. For example, make an incomplete chord in a place where there are multiple melody notes to a single chord; this way all chord tones can be sung by some part before the chord change, even if they don’t all sound at the same time. Also, in situations where a melody note is short, low, and on an upbeat (i.e., a pickup), and is followed by a large upward leap to a long note on the beat, put the unison/incomplete chord on the short, low, pickup note rather than the high, long, downbeat.

Syncopation and chord realization

Syncopation almost always involves an early arrival of an otherwise typical rhythmic figure. When the melody is syncopated, the alto and tenor parts should take the same rhythm. In general, vocal parts should involve pitches that belong to the chord indicated by the lead-sheet chord symbol (or well behaved embellishing tones). However, when syncopations happen across a chord change, the syncopated notes should belong to the following chord. For example, if chords change every downbeat, and a syncopation causes the melody (and inner voices) to arrive one eighth note before the downbeat, the vocal notes should be evaluated as either chord tones or embellishing tones of the chord that arrives on the downbeat. The melodies you will encounter will probably already be composed in such a manner, and following this rule will result in better, more natural sounding harmonizations.

Chords other than triads and seventh chords; pedal dissonances

The worship music we will explore does not contain any new chords relative to our study of harmonic analysis, but it will contain chords we have not encountered in keyboard-style voice-leading. They also contain a new dissonance type (which is part of these new chords). The dissonance type is the pedal tone dissonance, and the new chords are suspended-4th, suspended-2nd, and added-9th chords.

The suspended-4th chord (sus4, or simply sus; thoroughbass figure is 5/4, or simply 4) is typically encountered in one of two ways. The first is with the fourth above the bass/root resolving down over the same bass note to the third, making a triad. Thus, the fourth is a true suspension (4–3), and the voice-leading is identical to a 4–3 compound cadence in keyboard-style. This typically happens, like in keyboard-style classical music, over scale-degree 5 in the bass (D5 or V), or over scale-degree 1 in the bass (T1 or I).

The second common occurrence of a sus4 chord is with the fourth above the bass functioning as a pedal tone. A pedal tone is a non-functional tone that is a common tone with both the preceding and following chords. Typically, that common tone is a functional consonance (trigger or associate) of the preceding and following chords, and it is only a dissonance for the sus4 chord. The pedal tone and its preceding and following common tones should always occur in the same voice; in other words, a single voice will have the same note for all three chords. In this usage, the sus4 chord almost always occurs with scale-degree 5 as its root/bass.

The second above the bass in the sus2 chord (thoroughbass figure of 5/2) and the added-9th chord (add9; thoroughbass figure of 5/3/2) almost always functions as a pedal tone, as well, with bass and fifth being functional consonances. It typically occurs with scale-degree 4 as the bass/root (though occasionally scale-degree 1). Whether a sus2 or add9 is used usually depends on which is easiest to finger on the guitar; the chords are functionally identical (and interchangeable in the vocal parts or at the piano).

Following is an example, typical of pop/rock music, including both the sus2 and the sus4 in their usual positions.

In the Csus2 chord, the second above the bass (D) is a pedal tone. It is non-functional (scale-degree 5 is neither trigger, associate, nor dissonance of S), it is preceded by a common-tone D (associate of T) and followed by a common-tone D (trigger of D). In the Dsus4 chord, the fourth above the bass (G) is a pedal tone. It is non-functional (scale-degree 1 is neither trigger, associate, nor dissonance of D), it is preceded by a common-tone G (associate of S) and followed by a common-tone G (trigger of T).

(Those of you who play guitar will recognize this chord progression as well as the fixed G and D in the two upper-most voices. It is a very common way to play these chords in the key of G major on the guitar: strings 1 and 2 held on the third fret for every chord.)


When typesetting arrangements in this style, put the melody in voice 1 (stems up) of the the top staff, using a treble clef. The alto part should be voice 2 (stems down) on that same staff. The tenor part will sit on its own staff below that, typically with a treble clef with a little 8 underneath it (meaning that the notes sound an octave lower than on the regular treble clef). When working on your arrangements, it will be helpful to transcribe the bass line given in the lead sheet symbols on a third staff (bass clef) for the purpose of checking your voice-leading and listening to your harmonies as you work. Delete this staff before submitting your assignments.

Lead-sheet chord symbols should also be included in your arrangements (copied from the original lead sheet). Put these in “staff text” in MuseScore or NoteFlight (the same tool used for thoroughbass figures in keyboard style).

Lyrics will also be required. They will involve the lyric tool, which we have so far been using for functional bass.

Video demo

In the following video, I walk through arranging the opening phrases of "We Fall Down" by Chris Tomlin.