Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. Today we will talk about voice leading and its role in Grateful Dead music.
Voice leading is defined as, “rules about melodic motions of voices involved in harmonic progressions.” Sounds complicated right? It’s not. The rules date back to the 1600’s when so much of composed (church) music was written for organ and choir. A choir might be quite large, but traditionally they were structured with 4 parts or voices (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) singing mainly triadic (three-part) harmony. The idea was to write music for the singers that was efficient, smooth, and singable. In other words, as the chords change, each voice in the chord needed to move to the next by either common tones, half steps, or whole steps. Musicians who utilize chords have experience in voice leading. Listeners, music without voice leading does not sound “good” or “right.”
This Western music tradition has remained intact. The art of writing melodies and chord progressions lies in the ability to be creative within this realm. The Grateful Dead were no exception for they thought about voice leading in almost everything they wrote. I’ll illustrate using two different songs. Let’s start with “Uncle John’s Band.” You can listen here:
The intro chords are G-Bmi7-C-D. Jerry Garcia plays a melodic figure that, if we look at the notes that fall when the chords change, descend through the G major scale b-a-g-f#. The b is the third of the G chord, the a is the minor seventh of the B minor chord, the g is the fifth of the C chord, and the f# is the third of the D chord. He’s filling them in with other scale tones, but this is the voice leading for what we might argue is the soprano voice of this progression. In contrast, the bass voice is ascending through the roots of the chords going g-b-c-d. The other notes are being filled in by the tenor and alto voices. When you put them all together, the net result is the four-chord progression that unmistakably sounds like “Uncle John’s Band.” Go listen again.
I’d like to analyze “Stella Blue” now. We will look at an interior voice, let’s call it the alto part. You can listen here:
The verse changes are E-EMaj7-Asus-A-Emi-C7-B7. You can hear Bob Weir’s part nicely panned slightly to the left. The alto voice in his guitar voicings, or second to highest string, play the notes e-d#-d-c#-b-bflat-a. Each corresponds to a functioning note from the chord progression listed. The e note is the root of the E chord, d# is the major seventh of the EMaj7 chord, the d is the fourth of the Asus, the c# is the third of the A, the b is the fifth of the Emi, the b flat is the minor seventh of the C7, and the a is the minor seventh of the B7. This can be heard during the verse :13-:47 and again at the end of the instrumental section 4:04-4:11. Try singing along to this depending line each time it happens within the song.
There are countless other examples, but these are just two that are easily noticed. Enjoy!