Important things to know about altered chords

If you are following these lessons in order, you are now working on adding 7ths to your chords.  I want you to keep working on that, but need to give you some other information that will help you. Many pianists want to know what chords I use, but they do not understand that the actual chord is only part of the equation. When considering how to alter a chord, there are at least four factors you need to consider.  Don’t get overwhelmed–this is not easy, but you can learn to apply this lesson to your playing with a lot of practice.

Here are the four factors that influence the harmonization in your music:

  1. The actual chord itself (along with all color notes).
  2. The voicing of the chord. (where each note in the chord is positioned on the keyboard)
  3. The way each individual note in the chord is played.
  4. The chord progression (how each chord relates the chords before and after it)

It is very possible to play a chord that sounds awful but would work very well with a different voicing.  Likewise, lowering the finger pressure on one color note in a chord might make the difference in whether a chord works or not.  And obviously, a progression can set up a chord to work spectacularly or make it sound “jarring” and out of character.

This is a good time to bring up these factors because as you begin working on adding 7ths to your music, you will start noticing how a chord can sound either good or bad with very subtle changes.  Today, I want to discuss voicing in particular.

Don’t be discouraged if you cannot voice beautifully from the beginning.  This is an area that we can all improve on.  If you want to hear some bad voicing, listen to my first CD. Even now, I probably spend about 20 minutes each day working on improving my voicing.

There are a lot of chords that are possible for you to play, but there are also numerous voicings for each chord.  It can get overwhelming.  However, here are a few basic rules.

1) Normally, open voicing sounds better than closed voicing.

In closed voicing, the notes in a chord are played as close together as possible.  In open voicing, they are spread out.  Ideally, you spread the notes fairly evenly between the lowest and highest note played.  Here are a few examples of open and closed voicings.  The  first is closed, the second is open, and the third is open with a few color notes (6th and 2nd).

2) Avoid doubling notes besides the melody note unless you are trying for a certain effect.

This is difficult to do, and I break this rule quite regularly.  However, when you are playing complex chords, sometimes you get a much more open (and better) sound when you pull out the doubled notes.  Note this example.

The E is doubled in the bass in the first chord.  When you remove it as I did in the next measure, you get a better, more open sound.  In the third chord, the A is doubled and can easily be removed from the right hand as you see in the last measure.

3) Stop playing octaves.
If you have ever taken any hymn playing classes, you might have been taught a “block style” of playing hymns where you double the melody into an octave in the right hand and play octave, chord, octave, chord in the left hand like this:

There are way too many octaves here for my taste.  Frankly, octaves are boring.  Play 5ths in the left hand or 7ths or 10ths, but don’t play octaves.  I will get into much more detail on what to do in the left hand in a later lesson.  In the right hand, play 5ths, 6ths or 7ths or anything else that sounds good to you.  Here is the same song with less octaves.

Yes, I break my own rule about doubling notes in this example.  This style of playing is heavy and powerful (often used when accompanying hymns the congregation is singing) and doubling is basically unavoidable.

4) Closed voicing in the lower bass does not sound good.
Below the C below middle C, stay away from 3rds.  The higher you move your left hand on the keyboard, the tighter your voicings can get.

This chord sounds great in the first measure but if you drop it an octave, you have a messy sound.

At some point, I will start teaching you specific voicings for specific chords.  For the time being, just try to follow these rules.  Don’t expect it to happen overnight, but eventually your sound will improve.

Also, remember that rules are made to be broken.  There are always exceptions and you are in charge.  If you are looking for a certain effect, feel free to break any or all of these.

Practice strategy:
Continue working on adding 7ths to your music.  Work on three hymns in different keys.  Start consciously thinking about the voicing you are using work on applying these four rules.