Playing Changes Part 3: Inversions and Voice Leading

The Playing Changes series presents and expands on concepts from my book, The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony published by CMA Press.

Index of Playing Changes articles

Voice leading is how individual parts move as the harmony changes. Having a mastery of voice leading is the key to playing smooth melodies through chord changes.

Root Position and Inversions

A chord is in root position when the root is the lowest voice. If the third, fifth, or seventh is the lowest voice, the chord is in an inversion:

In chord symbol notation inversions are notated as slash chords, which express a chord over a bass note. For example, C/E is a C major triad with an E in the bass. (Roman numeral notation uses a system called figured bass, which is not shown in these examples.)

Voice Leading

Compare these two progressions:

All the chords in the first example are in root position. In the second example, IV is in second inversion and V is in first inversion. This allows each of the three voices to move no mare than a whole step, which is an example of smooth voice leading. The second example would be much easier to sing in three parts.

For an example of exemplary voice leading, listen to J.S. Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” from The Well-Tempered Clavier:

Simplifying the rhythm allows you to see the smooth connections between each of the five voices:

Strategies for applying voice leading to jazz standards will be the subject of future Playing Changes articles.

Next in the series is “Playing Changes Part 4: Primary Chords.”

Index of Playing Changes Articles

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– ST

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