Voice leading exercises

Players of non-chordal instruments tend to think about chord changes very differently than chordal instrumentalists do. A pianist or guitarist is usually much more aware of how chord changes are connected to one and other because they are constantly creating chord voicings that move from change to change. The strong chromatic and stepwise motion between chord changes is the glue that binds strong chordal progressions together. Voice leading is like the veins and arteries that move the harmonic blood through the chord progression. Without strong voice leading between changes chords sound choppy and disconnected to each other.

It's just as important for horn players to be able to create strong voice leading lines as it is for harmonic instrumentalists. Strong voice leading lines give a solo powerful forward motion and a sense that you're really playing though the changes, rather than just puttering around on top of the changes. Voice leading exercises are a great way to get beginning players to understand chord progressions and navigate through them. I find that beginning players are usually pretty stressed when they first try to blow over changes. They find it hard to relax and think calmly when first attempting to improvise. The voice leading exercises that I have them do gets them focused on creating simple melodic lines with strong forward motion.

  • Play whole notes on chords that last a full bar, half notes for two beat chords, ect. Pick a chord tone on the first chord of the tune, it doesn't matter what chord tone you choose. On successive chord move down in half-steps or whole steps, depending on what would make the strongest line. Make sure you're not playing avoid notes, such as a natural 11 on a Major or Dominant or a root on a Major 7th chord. If there's a dominant 7th chord that is going down a fifth in root motion to the next chord then feel free to add any alterations you like, such as b9,#9, #11, b13. Remember that you may add a #11 to any Major or Dominant chord at any time. If you can not move down in half or whole-steps then stay on the same note. Each new chorus try starting from different chord tones on the first chord of the tune. The Jobim Aebersold (vol.98) works well for these exercises.
  • Pick a note to start on like exercise #1 and play one note per chord except this time try to stay on the same note if at all possible, that is if that next note works well over the chord. If you cannot repeat the note you are playing then move down by a half-step. If the note a half-step below isn't good then move down by a whole-step. This exercise gets you to be more aware of common chord-tones from chord to chord and helps you create suspensions.
  • For this exercise move upward by half-steps or whole-steps instead of down. Like before if you cannot move up then stay on the same note.
  • Now try playing two notes per chord using the guidelines from one of exercises above. Try starting with two notes that are close together, then space these note further apart (one octave or even two octaves). Next try making these two notes move in contrary motion. You might want to do this set of exercises over a ballad so you have more time to think about the notes you are choosing.
I like to think of these voice-leading lines exercises as a way to learn to build sturdy framework that will support the rest of your solo. Once you learn to hear and play these strong leading lines your solos will become more solidly melodic and have more compelling forward motion. The voice leading lines can also become anchor points that hold together more complex lines and give them more harmonic cohesion.

1 comment:

MonksDream said...

Hi David,

I like these extensions of guide tone line excercises. It seems like one could take it a step further and use a melodic structure like 1-2-3-5, altering as few notes as possible through the chords to help build "melodic intuition" or some such thing.