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How to Use Chord Voicing in Music

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 27, 2020 • 5 min read

Whether you're a solo musician or part of a band, there are nearly limitless ways to play a chord. When you change the order that the notes of a chord appear in, or when you change what octaves the notes appear in, you produce different voicings of the chord tones. Embracing different chord voicing techniques can go a long way toward elevating the quality of your music.



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What Is Chord Voicing in Music?

In music theory, voicing refers to the placement of notes in a chord structure. The notes of a chord can appear in a different order or in a different set of octaves. This principle applies to major chords, minor chords, dominant seventh chords, diminished chords, augmented chords, and others. In fact, the more chord tones you have to work with, the more interesting you can make your chord voicings.

An Example of Chord Voicing in Music

For instance, consider a C major chord (also known as a C major triad). The notes of this chord are C, E, and G. In root position, the C is the lowest note of the chord, and the E and G sound above it. However, you can re-voice this C major triad with E as the lowest note. This does not produce a new chord; it's simply a C major chord in first inversion. In music notation, you can write this chord as “C/E,” which means a C major chord with E in the bass.

If you voice that C major chord with G as the lowest note, you have C major in second inversion or C/G. You can also have third inversion chords if you have more chord tones to work with. For instance, you can voice a C7 chord—which has the chord tones C, E, G, and B♭—in third inversion if you make B♭the bottom note.

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How to Use Chord Voicing When Playing Music

The primary purpose of using different chord voicings is to facilitate voice leading. The principle of voice leading is simple: When cycling through a chord progression, you keep as many notes the same as possible and move notes that change in stepwise motion (up or down either a half-step or a whole step). For example, imagine you're looking at a chord chart that calls for an E minor 7 (Em7) chord followed by an A7 chord.

  • Begin with Em7 in root position and close position. This means that all the notes are as close to one another as possible with no leaps into a new octave; the notes of this Em7 chord are, in order: E, G, B, and D. You’ll now use voice leading to change the chord to A7, which has the chord tones A, C♯, E, and G.
  • Leave the E where it is. Since the root of Em7 is also a chord tone in A7, you can play the same E note when you switch the chord.
  • Leave the G where it is. Since the next note in Em7 (a G) is also part of A7, leave that note right where it is as well.
  • Move the B down to the A below it. B is the next note in Em7, but it isn't part of A7. Since it's only one whole step away from A, which is a chord tone in A7, you can move it in stepwise motion down a step.
  • Move the D down to C♯. The last note in Em7 is D, which is not part of A7. But it's only a half-step away from C♯, which is a chord tone of A7.

You now have an A7 chord with the notes in the following order: E-G-A-C♯. This is A7 in second inversion, written as A7/E.


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4 Chord Voicing Techniques to Use in Your Music

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Creatively using chord voicing techniques can make your chord progressions more interesting.

  1. Voice chords in open position. Most beginning piano players default to closed position voicings, where chord tones fall as close together as possible. Open position chords add space by spreading out the notes of a chord over multiple octaves. This results in a bigger, fuller sound with more harmonic overtones. (Note that guitars are tuned for open position chords, so this technique comes more naturally on guitars, particularly when you play chords that use five or six strings.)
  2. Try drop-2 voicings. In a drop-2 voicing, you start with a close position voicing and then drop the second note by an octave. Let's say you have a close position D minor 7 chord starting in the fourth octave. This means the notes would be D4-F4-A4-C5. To make this a drop-2 chord, drop the F down an octave to F3 and leave the other notes the same. Suddenly it sounds less like a Dm7 chord and more like an F6 chord—but if you’re playing alongside a bass player who’s still playing a low D, you’ll preserve the sound of a D minor triad.
  3. Try drop-2-and-4 voicings. A drop-2-and-4 is the same as a drop-2, but this time you'll also drop the fourth tone of a close position chord. In the example above, you'd not only move the F4 down to F3; you'd also move the C5 down to C4. Now your chord will be F4-C4-D4-A4. Try playing that and see if you like the sound.
  4. Don't play the root of the chord. If you're playing guitar or piano in a band, you don't actually have to play the root note of your chords—that's what bass players are for. If you're a guitarist who's supposed to play a C major chord, instead of playing C-E-G, leave the C out, and let your bassist cover it as a bass note. Then, use this as an opportunity to add a non-chord tone like a D (the ninth), an A (the thirteenth), or—if you want to get a little crazy—an F♯ (a sharp eleventh). Suddenly your chords sound a lot more interesting, and you can thank your bass player for picking up the slack.

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