Let’s Play #5 – Spread Out Chord Voicings
by Jerry Kovarsky
Last column we learned about using inversions to connect chords using good voice leading (moving notes to their closest “neighbour”). We used voicings that kept all the notes in a small range, easy to play with your right hand. They are good for keyboard-emulating sounds, brass and general synth sounds, to name but a few. When you want to use a string sound, or a pad, you might want to spread your notes out across a wider range, to create a more full and spacious sound. Here are some approaches to use.
An Easy Approach
For a root position triad, you can take the middle note (in this case the 3rd) and move it up an octave.
We can take the same approach with the inversions of the triad: here we again take the middle note from the first inversion triad (in this case the G, or the 5th of the chord) and can move it up an octave.
Likewise, here’s the 2nd inversion triad, and we’ll take the middle note up an octave, which in this case is the root.
Used In Context
When we use these more spread triad voicings in a song we still want to observe good voice leading, so we try to move the notes to the closest note in the next voicing. Here’s a basic chord progression to apply this to:
Let’s start out using the first spread voicing I showed you, with the 3rd moved to the top:
As you can see, whenever there are common tones between the two chords we keep the note position the same, and only move the one or two notes needed to spell out the next chord.
Next up, we’ll start with the C triad in the 1st inversion with the G moved up the octave, and follow good voice leading as we go.
This last example starts with the C major triad in the 2nd inversion, with the root up the octave.
A Two-Handed Approach
If you want to spread the notes out even further you can play two-handed voicings, taking the bottom note from the above examples and moving it down an octave. This works great with string parts, as the lowest note moves down to the cello, or double bass range. Note that these only work if the lowest note doesn’t clash with your bass part/bass player.
Using Spread Voicings With Seventh Chords
We can apply the same concepts to seventh chords; with a fourth note we get an additional inversion possibility, and of course, many more chord qualities to learn and apply this to! We’ll start with the root position 7th chord, with the 5th (G) dropped down an octave.
Next up is the 1st inversion of the chord, with the 7th (B) dropped the octave.
Here is the 2nd inversion, with the root dropped an octave:
Finally, here’s the 3rd inversion with the 3rd dropped an octave:
Spread 7th Chords Used In Context
Here is a colorful and slightly jazzy/neo-soul chord progression, which we can apply these spread 7th voicings to.
We’ll start with the root position C minor7 with the 5th drooped an octave, and then follow good voice-leading throughout the progression.
This next version starts with the Cm7 in its first inversion, with the 7th (Bb) dropped an octave.
Next up, we start the Cm7 on the 2nd inversion, with the root dropped an octave.
One more to go! Here we start the Cm7 with its 3rd inversion, and the 3rd is dropped an octave.
With every chord voicing you have a choice: to go to the very closest notes, or to move slightly up or down to another inversion so your chords occupy different areas of the key range. There are no “voicing police” who will come take you away for making a different choice than I showed above! These types of spread voicings are a great addition to your toolkit, and will add a nice sophistication to your music.
Note: Some of these 7th voicings I showed you are referred to as Drop 2, and Drop 3 voicings etc. in jazz theory and teaching. I chose not to use those terms as I think they are confusing. You can search out the terms and read more about them if you wish.
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.