Voicing 101

I am playing a lot these days and one of the things I am working on is voicing. I spend a lot of time playing charts of voicings, drilling them until they become instinctive. It is not fun work; in fact, it is one of the most mundane things I know to do on the piano. But it is also very necessary.

Voicing is a term musicians use to refer to how notes in a chord are positioned. We all know that a C7 chord includes the notes C, E, G, and Bb. But there are hundreds of ways you could voice a C7. Here are some examples:


The truth is that some of these sound good and some of them are horrible. So here is the first thing you need to know: it is just as important to know how to voice a chord as to know what notes belong in the chord in the first place. The right notes voiced wrong sound like wrong notes.

Here is something else you should know: the more complex the chords you want to use, the more important voicing is. It is normally easy to voice a triad. Once you get to 5-6 note chords, it is not so easy. Here is a challenge for you: voice an A7 underneath this melody note (yes that is a C natural):


This is actually a tricky problem. Your first instinct might be to tell me that I have made a mistake because C# is the third of the A7 chord rather than C natural. But there is a way to make it work and it is a beautiful and complex sound.


Now, you might wonder if it is necessary to get this complex and the answer is no. You can stick with triads if you want. But if you want the best harmony available to you, you are not going to use triads. You are going to use chords that require the kind of voicing you see above. Not only will the chords be complex but the melody note is going to be off the beaten path in relation to the chord. It won’t be the root, third or fifth of the chord. In this A7 example, the C natural is the #9 of the chord.

Like I said, learning voicing can be a long, mundane process. If I showed you the chart I am currently working through, you would probably ask me why I am torturing myself. But getting started with voicing can be fairly simple and I am going to give you a few rules to help.

1) Follow your ear. As the great Duke Ellington said, if it sounds good, it is good. Let your ear be the judge of how you should voice.
2) Spread notes out. Note how the notes are far apart in the A7 example above? We call that open voicing and it is much easier than closed voicing where the notes are crammed together. Almost all of my music is based on open voicing.
3) Avoid doubling unless you have a reason for it. With the possible exception of the melody note, no note in the chord needs to be doubled. It is not necessarily wrong to double but it creates problems.
4) Watch for muddiness at the bottom of the voicing and too much tension on top of the voicing. In general, if you are going to put notes close to each other, it should be in the middle of the voicing. We all know that intervals smaller than a fifth sound bad in the low bass. Tight intervals that include the melody note often don’t sound good either.

This is just a start. If you want a lot more information, you might buy Reharmonization or take an online class in harmony with me. If you don’t want to go that far, just don’t ignore voicing completely. It will make or break you as a performer.