Voicing: A pianist’s secret sauce

I mentioned voicing a few weeks ago in a blog post and that generated a lot of email so I want to talk about voicing today. I will cover what it is, why it is important, and a few general concepts that will help you start improving in this area.

Voicing is a one of those ideas that can be a bit hard to wrap one’s head around. In the context of the piano, essentially it refers to the way that the notes of a chord are distributed by the hands across the keyboard. Most pianists never think that too much about voicing because it is a topic rarely taught and largely ignored. We are trained to think in terms of chords and we are taught what notes belong in which chords, but rarely are we taught how to actually play those chords on the piano.

These are all CM7 chords but they are all voiced differently.


Now that you know what voicing is, let’s talk about why it is something that should be on your radar if you play the piano. This is where I am going to say some things that may surprise you. Let’s start with two basic thoughts.

  • Your voicing more than almost anything else will define your overall sound and style as a pianist.
  • Your voicing will often determine whether your music sounds “right” or “wrong.” That is even when you are playing the “right” chord. In other words, the “right” chord voiced wrong will often sound wrong.

For some of you, this is starting to sound rather depressing because you thought it was important to just know how to play the right chords to support the melody. Sadly, that is not the case. Not only do you have to play the right chords but you have to voice them right.

If you want a demonstration of this, just play the four voicings above on your piano and note the huge difference in sound between them. Those are all CM7 chords with a melody note of E but they sound incredibly different.

Here is a general principle: the more complex the chord, the more important the voicing is. If you only play triads, voicing is still important but not nearly as important as if you are playing 5-6 note chords such as a dominant 7th with some color notes.

So how do you intentionally learn to voice? There are probably several ways but I will tell you how I learned it. Several years ago, for a few months, I lived voicing. I walked around with a notebook that contained voicing formulas (more about those in a minute) and quizzed myself to memorize them. I also spent time at the piano every day practicing voicing formulas built on all 12 possible roots.

Then I started playing lead sheets and applying the voicing formulas to the songs. I did that for a long time and eventually I got to the place I am now. Today, I can look at a lead sheet, immediately and subconsciously analyze each melody note to determine the voicing formula that applies and play the voicing automatically.

There is nothing magic about it. It is just like learning any other skill. You have skills that you do at that level too (driving is a good example). Voicing is not necessarily a harder skill than any other but I will readily admit that the learning process is tedious and somewhat boring. That being said, I don’t know of many other investments that you can make at the piano that will make a bigger impact on your music.

Let me tell you what I mean by voicing formulas. Essentially, when look at a lead sheet, you see melody notes with chord symbol above them. There are two important things to note:

  • the chord itself
  • the relationship of the melody note to the chord

In the example above, we have a CM7 chord and the melody note is E. In my mind, I need to recognize that E is the third of the CM7 chord. And so, in my mind, I need to have a formula for a major 7th chord where the melody note is the third of that chord.

I have multiple formulas for that scenario but a simple one would be this. I can play 1 and 5 of the chord in the left hand along with 7 and 3 in the right hand. I have to do that starting on the right root (C) so I play C and G in the left hand and B and E in the right hand. In other words, a decent voicing for that scenario is the second one above (though I would usually play the right hand an octave lower).

Of course, voicings get quite complicated. for example, a typical voicing I use when playing a dominant chord where the melody note is the root of the chord is this: LH 1-7, RH b9-3-13-1. That would mean that if playing a C7, I would play C-Bb in the left hand and Db-E-A-C in the right hand.

You might wonder if I discuss this (and give voicing formulas) in any of my courses. The answer is yes. Reharmonization is the course where you get tables of voicing formulas. If you want a very intensive discussion of harmony (voicing is just a piece  of it), buy that course.

If you don’t want to buy the course, I will give you a few simple tips for voicing.

  • Spread the notes out. Spreading the notes out is called “open voicing” and in general, open voicing is going to sound way better than closed voicing. In the example above, the first voicing in particular is very amateurish closed voicing. You don’t want to do that.
  • Try to evenly distribute the notes between both hands. Don’t fall into the trap of putting the chord in the left hand and the melody in the right hand.
  • Avoid close intervals especially around the root and the melody note. In other words, if you are going to put notes close together, it is best to do it in the middle of the voicing rather than the top or bottom.

I could talk about voicing a long time and I have only scratched the surface but hopefully, this will get you going and help you understand its importance. Focus on your voicing if you want a sophisticated sound. It will make all the difference.