Let's Play #4 - Chord Voicings - Modal Electronics Skip to content

Let’s Play #4 – Chord Voicings

Learn how to distribute the notes of a chord within one or across two hands
by Jerry Kovarsky

Introduction

Now that we’ve established a library of chord types (see both the Triad and Seventh Chord previous columns), let’s talk about various ways to play them. We call the way we distribute the notes of a chord within one or across two hands a chord voicing. 

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Using Inversions

In the last two columns I always showed you the chords with the root, or the name of the chord at the bottom of the stacked notes. This is called the root position of a chord, or chord voicing.

If we take that bottom note (C) and move it to the top of the “stack” we get the voicing shown below, called the first inversion triad.

Move the E up to the top of the voicing and we get what is called the 2nd inversion triad:

Listen to the sound of the root position major triad and its 2 inversions:

We can do the same thing with seventh chords: now there are three inversions, since we have four notes in the chord. Root position:

1st inversion:

2nd inversion:

3rd inversion:

Listen to the sound of the root position major seventh chord and its 3 inversions: 

Using different inversions of a chord will change the color of your sound/part, and you might choose one so the top note of your voicing supports/doubles a melodic line, or choose one so that the melodic line falls in the middle of your voicing, so you “surround” the part with a nice voicing.

Another reason I will choose different inversions (and areas across the keyboard) is so my part will start nice and low in range, giving it a warm, darker sound. Then as the song builds/progresses I’ll move up to higher inversions to build excitement.

But the most important reason to learn and use inversions is so you can move smoothly between different chords in a song. If you always used root position chords your part would jump around, and that is usually not desirable. As an example, here is a simple chord progression, not unlike so many (too many?) pop songs today:

If we play it using all root position chords, it comes out like this:

C
Am
Dm
F

Here is what it sounds like: 

It works, but it sounds jumpy, and none of the chords seem connected to each other. Now let’s see how using inversions can work better. The basic idea is to find the nearest note to move to from one chord to another, and if there are common tones between the chords then stay on that same note. This concept is called voice-leading.

If we start out with the same root position C triad, it shares two common notes with the Am (the C and the E), so we can just move up the G to an A, and we have the first inversion Am triad.

C
Am

From there, the A note is common between the Am and Dm chords, so by keeping that we find that the root position Dm chord works nicely. 

Dm

Then the F and A notes are common between the Dm and the F, so we move the D down to a C and use the 2nd inversion F triad. Nice and smooth!

F

Here is what it sounds like: 

If we start with the C triad using the 1st inversion, the next choices will be different, but using the same idea of looking for common notes between the chords we get this option:

C
Am
Dm
F

Here is what it sounds like: 

Finally, let’s look at how the voice-leading works if we start with a 2nd inversion C major triad.

C
Am
Dm
F

And this is what it sounds like:

Using Inversions / Voice Leading With 7th Chords

The same concepts apply as we add more notes to our chords. Here is a chord progression using 7th chords (and some fancier chords!) to show how it can work out.

And here are the voicing possibilities:

Cm7
F7
Abmaj7
G7#5
Gbadd2
Fm7b5
Bb7
Ebmadd2

Here is what it sounds like: 

Cm7
F7
Abmaj7
G7#5
Gbadd2
Fm7b5
Bb7
Ebmadd2

Here is what it sounds like: 

Cm7
F7
Abmaj7
G7#5
Gbadd2
Fm7b5
Bb7
Ebmadd2

Here is what it sounds like: 

Cm7
F7
Abmaj7
G7#5
Gbadd2
Fm7b5
Bb7
Ebmadd2

Here is what it sounds like: 

While there is no hard rule that you must always move to the closest adjacent notes, being able to play chords this smoothly is an important skill to work on. We’ll continue this concept in the next column. Happy practicing!

Jerry Kovarsky

Jerry Kovarsky is highly respected  in the music industry. For more than 30 years, he worked as brand manager, product manager, marketing director, product developer, and product demonstrator for Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboardist, synthesist, and author of Keyboard for Dummies, Jerry passionately advocates for making music with keyboards. After studying at the University of Miami and graduating from William Peterson College with a BA in Jazz Studies, an opportunity to demonstrate early portable keyboards sidetracked his professional aspirations. More recently, Jerry writes about technology and keyboard musicianship for numerous outlets. He likes living at the intersection of technology and art and has returned to his musical roots, performing, recording, and teaching on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

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