Voice Leading Triads

The Study of Voice Leading

This is an important chapter. This study combines elements of the fields of arranging and composition, all applied on the guitar neck.

Another word for “chord” often used is “voicing”. Both these terms mean the same thing.
A “voicing” is a grouping of different “voices” (notes) played together.

Consider the chord progression in following example.


Each note in each chord could be assigned to 3 girls singing.
Following example shows how this would look like transcribed.


The combined voices form chords, each chord being sung by 3 different voices; hence the term: “voicings”.

The study of “voice-leading” is the study of how to efficiently connect the voices (notes) of consecutive chords. “Efficiently” in this case means: with the least amount of motion between the chord tones. This is another way of saying: “voice-leading is the study of how to move to the closest version of the next chord, by connecting the notes of both chords by step rather than by leap”.

The sonic result of voice leading is that it sounds like you are weaving a tapestry of sound, as opposed to jumping all over the place like an elephant walking through the chord progression (which is how bar chords for example sound like).

There is nothing wrong with playing bar chords or all root position chords of course, but knowing about voice leading will further deepen your musical understanding.

The intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” for example is a classic example of how cool, structured and interwoven voice-led chords sound. If you consider that the first 3 chords in that intro are A- going to E and then back to A-, then try to strum these 3 chords using the first A- and E chords you ever learned on guitar.

You will see my point about “sounding like an elephant walking through the progression” when you hear the difference between the chords being strummed vs. the voice-led chords in the recording sounding like a tapestry of sound. The voice-led chord changes sonically sound very “tight” and “together”.

When people would try to describe the sound of this intro, very often they use the analogy: “classical”. This is not surprising considering that a large part of the study of classical composition and harmony is based on 3 and 4-part choral (as in: “choir”) writing, which governs following principles:

  1. Only move the notes in the chord that need to move in order to get to the next chord.
  2. Move these notes the shortest way; which typically means “by step” or the most by 3rd interval if necessary.
  3. If a note in 1 chord is also in the following chord; then that note sustains from 1 chord into the next. A note that is to be found in 2 consecutive chords is called a “common tone”.

Voice leading is very important in the arrangements of all the instruments in classical music.
It is for that reason that the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” indeed tends to have a classical feel to it.

Voice leading is also HEAVILY used in jazz comping to create coherent harmonic soundscapes behind the soloist.

Practice Voice Leading in Cycles

The best way to practice voice leading and to memorize voice-leading principles, is by practicing the chord changes in cycles.
With triads, each cycle consists of 21 chords: 7 chords in a scale times 3 inversions per chord.
When you hit your starting chord again, you completed the whole exercise and from here the cycle starts over again.

There are only 6 cycles because there are only 6 possible chords you can move to in a scale. You cannot move onto the chord you are on, because you are already there.
Following 6 cycles, cover EVERY possible harmonic motion: FROM every possible chord TO every possible chord in a scale.

The bulleted text for each cycle, explains how to voice lead that cycle. These are the directions explaining how to voice-lead.
If for example you follow these directions:

  • Chords move down the neck (while you are thinking up the scale)
  • The chords move from: Root position ⇒ 2nd inversion ⇒ 1st inversion

    You will notice that your chords move up in 2nds through a scale. Indeed these are the directions for cycle 2.

    Start with cycle 3. That is the easiest cycle: only 1 note moves. You almost already see your next chord under your finger tips as you are only 1 note off of finding the next chord shape.

    The 6 Voice Leading Cycles

    Helpful tip: for added practice, DO NOT look at the below lines of chords mapped out for each cycle. Instead: rather than reading the below order of chords, try to figure out what your next chord is as you go. That way you also get better at intervals.

    Example: C E- G Bdim D- F A- C

    This information is mapped out for each cycle as a reference only. When you refrain from looking at this, you get an extra exercise out of practicing cycles: training interval recognition.
    By putting in the hard work counting out the interval steps to figure out what your next chord is, in no time you will be able to recite cycles of 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths and 7ths.

    1. Cycle 2 (chords move up in 2nds)

      C D- E- F G A- Bdim C

      1. Chords move down the neck (while you are thinking up the scale)
      2. The chords move from: Root position ⇒ 2nd inversion ⇒ 1st inversion

    2. Cycle 3 (chords move up in 3rds)

      C E- G Bdim D- F A- C

      1. 2 common tones stay and connect following chords,
      2. 1 note moves down: root of chord moves down and becomes the 5th of the following chord.


    3. Cycle 4 (chords move up in 4ths)

      C F Bdim E- A- D- G C

      1. 1 common tone stays and connects 2 consecutive chords: root stays ⇒ becomes the 5th in the next chord)
      2. 2 notes move up

    4. Cycle 5 (chords move up in 5ths)

      C G D- A- E- Bdim F C

      1. 1 common tone stays and connects 2 consecutive chords: 5th stays ⇒becomes the root in the next chord)
      2. 2 notes move down

      This is exactly the opposite motion of cycle 5 (4ths and 5ths are inversions of each other). Cycle 5 is cycle 4 backwards.

    5. Cycle 6 (chords move up in 6ths)

      C A- F D- Bdim G E- C

      1. 2 common tones stay and connect the 2 consecutive chords,
      2. 1 note moves up: the 5th of 1 chord moves up and becomes the root of the following chord.

      This is exactly the opposite motion of cycle 3 (3rds and 6ths are inversions of each other). Cycle 6 is cycle 3 backwards.

    6. Cycle 7 (chords move up in 7ths)

      C Bdim A- G F E- D- C

      1. Chords move up the neck (while you are thinking down the scale)
      2. The chords move from: Root position ⇒ 1st inversion ⇒2nd inversion

      This is exactly the opposite motion of cycle 2 (2nds and 7ths are inversions of each other). Cycle 7 is cycle 2 backwards.

    After you practiced cycle 3, then do cycle 6, cycle 4, cycle 5, cycle 2 and cycle 7.
    Cycle 2 and 7 are the hardest ones because there are no common tones; all notes move.

    You want to do these 6 drills every day. This is an amazing way to further improve your fret board knowledge. Your understanding of music in general is going to improve trough those exercises. This is also a great exercise to finally put the diminished triads you learned to good use.

    Here’s how to do the cycles:

    Hit me up anytime at [email protected] if you have any questions, or if you would like to book a lesson.

    You’re on your way to becoming a great guitar player.
    Have fun! 🙂


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    Leave a Comment

    1. Jorge Mora Says:

      Hey, thanks for the info. My name is Jorge from Ecuador (South America). It is kind of hard to find books or more detailed info on triad cycles. I was wondering if you have any any handout or something with all these cycles written? Maybe just the Major scale only? ( I can adapt it to other scales).

      Also you start in cycle 2, What is the cycle #1?

      Willing to pay for the info! Thanks

      January 22nd, 2020 at 9:29 am
    2. vreny Says:

      I just sent you an email. 🙂

      March 17th, 2020 at 9:44 pm