Musicianship Resources

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Introduction to strict voice-leading

The study of the theory of Western music involves three main components: voice-leading, harmony, and form. Voice-leading deals with the relationship of two or more musical lines (or melodies) combined into a single musical idea. Harmony addresses the rules or norms for combining chords into successions. Form addresses the rules or norms for the combination of phrases and other small musical units into larger units—including whole movements and works.

We will address all three of these facets of musical theory. However, of the three, voice-leading is the most fundamental. Thus, we begin our study of music theory, then, with strict voice-leading, or counterpoint.

Twentieth-century musician and theorist, Heinrich Schenker, wrote:

The purpose of counterpoint, rather than to teach a specific style of composition, is to lead the ear of the serious student of music for the first time into the infinite world of fundamental musical problems (Kontrapunkt, p. 10).

Following this line of thinking, our early voice-leading exercises will not be in a specific style (classical, baroque, romantic, pop/rock, etc.). Instead, these exercises will eliminate important musical elements like harmony, orchestration, melodic motives, formal structure, and even many elements of rhythm, in order to focus very specifically on a small set of musical problems. These other elements of music will be introduced one-by-one as we progress through the course (and into future courses).

Also, note Schenker's expression "lead the ear." These are not pencil-and-paper exercises. Rather, they must be performed—with voice and/or keyboard, often with a partner—so that the ear, the fingers, the throat, and ultimately the mind can internalize the sound, sight, and feel of good (and bad) musical lines, and good (and bad) combinations of musical lines.

The specific method we will use is called species counterpoint—so called because the study progresses through stages, or species, where one or two new musical "problems" are introduced. This approach has existed in some form since the early seventeenth century. The specific method we will use is very close to that articulated by Johann Joseph Fux, in his Gradus ad parnassum (Steps to Parnassus, 1725). Master composers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries have used this method, or some variation on it. While Fux proposed five species, moving from two-voice combinations up to six- and eight-voice combinations, we will focus on species one through four, in two voices only.