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Chord voicings for jazz keyboards.
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Ever wondered why your C7 didn't sound as cool as those played by Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner?     The answer is mainly in the chord voicing and the additional tones.   This article helps in moving from 'stacks of thirds' to more modern voicings and is intended as a summary to facilitate practice of different voicings of most chords met by jazz pianists.   Excellent detailed material is referenced at the end of the notes.   Anyone with an interest in understanding chords and voicings is strongly urged to purchase the references for a fuller explanation of the theory and development.

The text and musical notation of this article is © Jazzorg Ltd. 2005, except where the copyright is acknowledged elsewhere.   Copies of these notes may be downloaded at [this link] , subject to the Jazzorg Licence 2, described under the 'Copyright' menu tab.       You can discuss or comment on this item in the forums.


Introduction.   [TOP]

ImageThe student jazz pianist, confronted by conventional chord descriptions (e.g. Cm7, F7alt, Bb7(#9) etc.), generally begins by voicing these as stacks of 3rds (major or minor), often in the root position.   However, most 'shapes' based on incremental 3rds now tend to be replaced by 'modern' voicings, which utilise other intervals such as 'tritones' (augmented 4ths) and perfect 4ths to enhance the 'musical interest' of the harmony.   These 'modern' voicings also tend to include 'bite' tones of 9ths, 11ths and 13ths (flattened or sharpened as necessary).   Additionally, well-chosen chord shapes can contribute to improvement of 'voice leading' (the 'smooth' transition from chord to chord).   Attention to voice-leading can also simplify technical requirement by minimising finger movement, at the same time avoiding the aspiring jazz pianist's dysfunctional tendency to leap from root to root.

Another consideration is that, in present-day jazz, the bass (acoustic or electric) is omnipresent so that the chord roots can generally be left to the bass-player.   As a result, many of the modern voicings omit the root (and the 5th).   Where a pianist is playing without bass and drums, a root-based voicing will possibly be required and examples are included.

In the use of the subjective word 'modern' there is an implied 'style' in the selection of the voicings for this summary.   However, at the very least, they can be regarded as a first move away from 'stacked 3rds in the root position'.

The performance framework for the jazz pianist usually devolves into 3 broad areas:

  • Playing an improvised piano solo, accompanied by bass and drums, where predominantly left-hand chords are supporting a right-hand 'horn' type melody line.
  • 'Comping' (accompanying) as part of a rhythm section to support a vocalist, band or another instrumentalist, in which case the pianist can voice chords with 1 or 2 hands.
  • Playing solo piano without bass and drums

The notated examples are split into the first two approximate groupings.   The 'Left Hand Chords' for solos, are generally 4-tone chords frequently omit the root/5th and leave the right hand for the melody line.   Some 3-tone chords are shown using 4th intervals or 'fragments'.   The 'Comping' chords require 2 hands and frequently omit the root/5th ('left hand' voicings are, of course, not precluded from 'comping').   For 'Solo Piano' chords, where there is no bass accompaniment, root voicings may be required and some examples are included.

The illustrative examples of voicings are shown for C-root chords and will, of course, need to be transposed for other roots.   However, it is likely that the student will learn the chords by the shapes and/or the succession of intervals to enable 'sight reading' from chords to finger shape and position.

A few common progressions (e.g. II, V, I) are shown as examples of using the voicings, paying attention to voice-leading and minimising finger movement.   The example voicings are, of course,not exhaustive and some experimentation with other voicings of the progressions is recommended as,indeed, are other progressions.

Format.   [TOP]

Naming Chord Tones.   Against each note in a chord is shown
the name of the tone in the chord (e.g. 5th, b9th etc).   For clarity, the tonic, 3rd, 5th and 7th are shown as 1, 3, 5, 7 even if these are voiced in the 8th (octave), 10th, 12th, or 14th positions, respectively.   The 9th, 11th and 13th are shown as 9, 11, 13 even if they are 'clustered' with other notes as 2nd, 4th and 6th (except 6/9 chords) respectively.   Where necessary, the names of the tones are preceded by b or #.

Accidentals.   In the musical notation, accidental sharps (#) are applied to 5ths, 9ths and 11ths in a major context.   Accidental flats (b) are applied to 3rds, 5ths, 9ths and 13ths in a minor context.   Accidental flats (b) are always applied to a 7th.   Accidentals also reflect the chord description.   Double-accidentals (e.g. bb) , or accidentals that result in an enharmonic natural, are replaced by their perhaps more familiar, but less precise, enharmonic equivalents, except where the double-accidentals are diatonic to the key.

Intervals between tones.   Intervals between tones are indicated by the number only for major /perfect intervals, prefixed by 'm' for minor intervals and 'T' for the tritone interval (augmented 4th).   The intervals are indicated to show the 'shape' of the chord, which then may be applied to other roots.

Grouping of Chords.     'Tonic' chords are those that provide the listener with the 'rest' position of a key (e.g. a minor 7th, unlike minor 6th, does not provide a 'tonic' feel to the key).   Augmented chords (#5) are not shown as a separate group but are included in the altered dominant 7ths group.   Suspended chords are treated separately since they do not imply a resolution like a dominant 7th.   Suspended chords are regarded as containing 11th tones; however they are still described by the conventional 'sus' or 'sus4'.   Altered dominant chords are those where the 9th and/or 5th and/or 11th are sharpened/flattened.   The use of the description b5 has been replaced by the more modern nomenclature of #11, except in half diminished chords (e.g. Cm7(b5)).

Timbre and Register.   [TOP]

The 'timbre' of a sound is its 'richness' or 'quality' (sometimes described as 'sonority').   In selecting a chord the pianist must choose where, on the piano, he/she will strike the notes for the best 'sound'.   Too high in the register and the result may be 'thin'; too low and the chord may be 'muddy'.

As a general rule for best timbre:

  • In the Left Hand voicings shown, the lowest note in a chord would be the C below middle C (C') and the highest note would be the A above middle C (a').
  • In the 'Comping' voicings shown, the lowest note in a chord would be the C below middle C (C') and the highest note would be the G, a 12th above middle C (g').   The increase in range over the left hand chords is due partly to the additional harmonic density (5-tones or more) of the chord.

Where a voicing would take the chord beyond those limits,' inversions' of the chord components may be required.   The 'inversions' shown for any chord can still be identified as 'shapes' and the pianist can select the appropriate shape for the required root and timbre.   (When a chord omits the root or other tones, a re-ordering of the tones in the chord cannot be strictly described as an 'inversion'.   However, the term is used, in these notes, to indicate a re-ordering of the constituent tones of a chord.)

Of course, 'timbre' is a matter of taste and it is your choice - the suggestions above are a guide.   As a general rule, the more 'open' chords, using 4ths, tritones or octaves in the lower register, tend to be more forgiving of use where the lowest note is below C'.   However, sounding tones making 'soft' dissonant intervals with the root or 5th (e.g minor 2nd) too low in the register may conflict with the bass.   For example, the use of a voicing where B is the lowest note of a C chord, will conflict with the bass player if he is playing C next to the B (a safe solution is for the pianist to use C instead of B).

Of course, the musical context may require the general 'timbre' rule to be totally ignored - nothing is immutable.   Additionally, in selecting a voicing, the pianist simply may want to get his left hand out of the way of the right hand (e.g. dominant 7ths in the lower register may be played using only the tritone of the 3rd and 7th, giving the right hand more room for melody).

Selecting a Voicing.   [TOP]

Performance selection of a voicing.     Among the factors which affect the selection of the chord voicing are the:

  • Musical context e.g. the style or how the voicing will affect the overall sound of the performance.
  • Direction of the harmony before and after the chord.
  • Convenience of a hand position.
  • Register and position available without impinging on the soloist, band, vocalist or the pianist's other hand.
  • Register for best timbre.
  • Highest Tone requirement (soprano voice) of the chord required to play a particular melody note.

It is worth noting that often the 'simplest' voicing of a chord may be desirable.   For example, supporting a dense piece of harmonic writing (e.g. a 5-sax soli) with 'hip' piano voicings can result in conflict with the writer's own passing chords and voicings.   To avoid this, some writers 'rest' the piano in these circumstances or, even, pace Gerry Mulligan and Lennie Niehaus, dispense with pianists altogether.   (Not good for gig prospects).   Vocalists, too can have intonation problems and may like straight-forward chords without bite notes, well away from the voice register.

Required Characteristics of 'modern' voicings.

  • The voicings shown, generally include the 3rd and 7th of the chord since it is these tones which impart the fundamental 'flavour' to a chord.
  • In terms of effect on the chord 'flavour', the 5th is considered the most expendable tone; the Root slightly less so.   (This is particularly acceptable where a bass is supporting the harmony).
  • Root-based shapes, based on incremental 3rds, are the least desirable, in the implied 'style'.
  • The inclusion of 9th and 13th tones are desirable, in the implied 'style' to provide a 'bite' to the chord sound.
  • The minor 9th interval is regarded as an unacceptable dissonant interval except on dominant 7th roots.
  • 'Soft dissonant' intervals (e.g. minor 2nd) are less agreeable in the highest 2 tones of a chord and, therefore, these intervals are generally confined to the middle and lower tones of a chord.   Chords having an interval of a 3rd or 4th between their highest 2 notes have a better 'ring'.
  • To sustain the 'best' harmonic density, it is desirable to avoid the doubling of tones in a chord.   As a first approximation, only the highest tone (soprano voice) is permitted to be doubled.   (An example solution is that one of the doubled tones in a voicing can be replaced by the root or 5th).
  • Additionally, 'best' harmonic timbre precludes any internal interval in the chord greater than a tritone (#4).   (An 'inversion' would be applied to sustain the timbre)

Chord substitutions.     In considering chord substitution, we are concerned more with simplifying or enhancing the chord choice, rather than examining re-harmonisation to change the chord flavours and harmonic context.   In general, we are permitted to select substitute chords which do not contribute dissonant tones to the specified chord, but retain the specified chord's 'flavour'.   On this basis, the following general inferences can be made concerning chord substitutions:

  • A major triad, major 7th and major 6th (e.g. Cmaj, Cmaj7, C6) are mutually interchangeable.   Similarly, a minor triad, minor triad with major 7th and minor 6th (Cm, Cm(maj7), Cm6) are mutually interchangeable.
  • A minor 7th is interchangeable with a minor 11th. (e.g. Cm7, Cm11)
  • 9th and 13th tones can be added to any chord without affecting the specified chord 'flavour'.   The 13th on a minor 7th chord may be slightly more dissonant (you decide….).   Of course, these substitutions cannot be made where altered 9th and/or 13th tones are specified in dominant chords (e.g. #9, b9, #5 (b13))

If the arrangement or the soloist is doing things that don't permit the above substitutions (e.g. unilaterally flattening all the dominant 9ths), a hasty review of the substitution rules might be necessary...

In identifying a voicing in your mind, one authority suggests that you do not consider it in an 'analogous' fashion.   For example, the voicing of the Cm7 at chord 11 can be viewed as Ebmaj7, but it is better in the context of a C root chord to identify it, in your mind, as Cm7.   (After all, it is also Fsus, when the bass player is playing F).   It might be a moot opinion, however, because another authority invites you, for example, to 'think Db7 for G7alt' and another to learn altered voicings by 'knowing' the right hand as triads of polychords (one chord on top of another).   Take your pick.

Bearing in mind the above, we can arrive at a selection of voicings (there are others, of course), which cover most performance requirements.   However, to reduce the initial learning (and practice drilling) load, we can select a few, which particularly lend themselves to good voice-leading whilst retaining the desired characteristics listed above.

These 'notable' chords are shown numbered and would be a good place to start on practice.   Chords with 4th intervals are also highlighted, because of their 'modern', 'open' sound.

Voice Leading.   [TOP]

Some convenient deductions can be made in employing the voicings, which give rise to good voice leading.   In general, for maximum 'smoothness', semitones represent the best tonal movements, within the harmony.

  • Lowering the b7 in a minor 7th voicing a semitone, creates an unaltered dominant 7th voicing of the root an interval of a 5th below the minor 7th root (e.g. Cm7/F7).   This is very useful in II-V-I movements
  • Conversely, raising the 3 in an unaltered dominant 7th voicing a semitone, creates a minor 7th voicing of the root an interval of a 5th above the dominant 7th root (e.g. C7/Gm7).
  • Lowering the 3 in an unaltered dominant 7th voicing a semitone, creates a minor 7th voicing of the same root (e.g. C7/Cm7).
  • Conversely, raising the 3 in a minor 7th voicing a semitone, creates an unaltered dominant 7th voicing of the same root (e.g. Cm7/C7).
  • Particularly useful is that if a 'shape' (succession of intervals) is applicable to more than one chord on one root, then it follows that the chord itself is applicable to other roots (but in a different role, defined by the root).   Taking the previous example of the Cm7 voicing (chord 11), this can also be Ebmaj7 and Fsus, depending on the bass player's root.   In appropriate circumstances (e.g. Cm7/Fsus), therefore, the chord need not be changed and the harmonic movement is defined by the bass player.

Altered Dominant 7ths.   [TOP]

One of the nastiest challenges is what do with the available permutations of altered dominant 7th chords.   Firstly, what is an 'altered chord? We can tabularise the options as follows, remembering that we can choose a chord, which retains the flavour of the specified chord and does not contribute any dissonant tones (minor 9th interval).   The triads can be played in any inversion.   On Comping C9, moving RH up 1/2 gives C alt; LH down 1/2 goes to 13 of root a 4th up.   Try the II-V-I with b9 on the V (also options of #9, #5/#9, b9/#11)

Altered Tone(s) Chord Options
9 only C13(#9) or C13(b9)
11 only C13(#11)
5 only C7(#5))
9 and 11 C13(#9,#11) or C13(b9,#11)
9 and 5 C7(#9,#5) or C7(b9,#5)
11 and 5 C9(#11,#5)
9 and 11 and 5 C7(#9,#11,#5) or C7(b9,#11,#5)

Left Hand Chords.   [TOP]

The 'notable' voicings of the tonic major are the chords numbers 1 and 7.   Chord numbers 2 and 3 are built on 3rd increments and chord number 5 tends to be more useful as a minor 7th shape built upon the 7th tone (in the case of chord 5, being Am7).   For 7th chords, the 'notable' chords are mostly built from the 3rd or the 7th as the lowest tone (this tone is not the root of the chord.)

Comping Chords.   [TOP]

The voicings shown in the examples of comping chords are regarded as 'equally useful' so that none is described as a 'notable chord'.   In the minor 7th options, using the 11th as the lowest tone moves the m7 shape into a good voice-leading position for a following dominant 7th in a II-V-I.

Example Progressions.   [TOP]

The notation is shown as semibreve duration harmonic 'movements'.   However, in real life, the chords can be of more or less duration and may occupy more or less than a bar.   Roots are indicated by a slash notehead and are for guidance only; they are not intended to be played as part of the chord.

Bibliography.   [TOP]

Title Author Publisher ISBN £ (2003) Comments
Jazz Theory Book, The Levine, Mark Sher Music 1-883217-04-0 35 Its all here. Scales, Harmony, repertoire. The current best ‘how to do it’.
Jazz Piano Book, The Levine, Mark Sher Music 0-9614701-5-L 30 Excellent Reference for Pianists. Deals with Harmony, Scales, Voicings, the Lot.
Voicings for Jazz Keyboard Mantooth, Frank     13 Development of voicings and progressions not based on incremental 3rds
Hearing The Changes Coker, Knapp and Vincent Advance Music 15 Analysis of common progressions
Contemporary Piano Styles Mehegan, John Amsco 0-8230-2574-9 17 One of a series of 4 books.   Includes references and terminology from other 3 books, implying that you have to buy all 4.   Moderately useful.Jazz Piano Chord Voicing

Fig. 1 Notated Example Voicings (1).   [TOP]


Fig. 2 Notated Example Voicings (2).   [TOP]


Fig. 3 Notated Example Progressions (1).   [TOP]


Fig. 4 Notated Example Progressions (2).   [TOP]


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