Generating Chord Voicings: A Practical Approach

Originally Published in Canadian Musician Magazine, Jan/Feb issue 2011

One of the most important aspects of jazz piano playing is the subject of chord voicings. My students often ask, “how do I come up with my own voicings while not breaking the rules”. The solution lies in seeing and hearing beyond the chord symbol .

Rather than viewing the chord symbol as a stable shape, it is more beneficial to view the symbol as a harmony containing a pool of notes. The question then becomes “how do I combine the best possible combination of notes from this pool to best represent the current harmonic situation”. These situations include: interpretation of melody, playing counter-melody, or providing harmonic information to an improviser. This allows the musician to in turn ask other important questions when generating chord voicings “how do I avoid conflicts with the melody and bass”, “how do I avoid harmonically stagnant shapes”, “how can I use consonance and dissonance to drive the momentum of a piece of music.

The following exercises are designed to give you a straightforward and practical approach to generating your own chord voicings which can be applied easily to real life playing situations. The focus is on executing simple concepts with an extremely high level of accuracy. This approach relies heavily on listening to the distinct sound of each chord that you generate. Using these concepts listed below will ensure that you will always have something interesting to play on a chord that you may have seen thousands of times.

Exercise #1 basic:

For ease of learning all of the exercises are written representing the harmony of a Bb major 7th chord. These exercises can however be applied to any harmony tonal or modal. It is also extremely beneficial to write down these exercises as you go along, paying special attention to the chords that you are naturally drawn to. Over time you will collect of book of etudes that you can refer back to.

In this first exercise we harmonize the scale diatonically in 2nds up to the octave in parallel unisons.

example 1

This may seem excessively simple but it lays the groundwork for the steps that will follow. Practicing these diatonic chords slowly allows you to hear and memorize the distinctive sound of each chord above the bass note (reach over and play a low Bb with the pedal). You should be actively using your ears during this process. Another benefit of this first step is that it allows you to work out your fingerings in the more complicated keys. You should be using fingerings that allow you to play both legato and staccato, piano and forte with ease. The chords should also be practiced as broken chords and cross-hand arpeggios.

example 2

Exercise #2 harmonize:

In the second step we move on to harmonizing the chords by stacking two of the same intervals on top of each other at least perfect 4th apart. These chords should also be practiced as broken chords and cross-hand arpeggios.

example 3

These voicings should sound very different from the first exercise. You should be making written notes about which of the chords sound stable and which chords want to move toward resolution. Or in other words, which chords are consonant which chords are dissonant.

Exercise #3 layers:

Layers are simply combinations of two different diatonic intervals stacked at least a perfect 4th apart.  These layered voicings should be practiced in stepwise motion, broken chords and cross-hand arpeggios.

example 4

A variation of this exercise is to invert the intervals in EACH hand. Practice alternating between the original chord and the inversion as solid chords and as broken triplets. This will improve dexterity as well as giving you a an ideal of how the chords sound when played melodically.

example 5

You will notice that the ideas in these exercises will find their way into your playing after a short while of practicing. You may also notice that your ears have become much more engaged to what is happening around you in playing situations. This technique of developing chord voicings presents dozens of voicings which may seem overwhelming at first. You don’t have to feel like you have to master everything all at once. Choose some of your favorites and master them well. A good guideline would be 1 harmony per week for exercise #1 and 2 chords from the same harmony per week for excercises #2 and #3. This approach will ensure that your ideas will fresh and that practicing will always be challenging and rewarding. Have fun!