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Chords are the basic building blocks of your songs.

How you put them together and arrange them into progressions are important choices you’ll make while writing a song.

Even if you’re just getting started with music theory, you probably already know a handful of basic chords.

But if you’ve ever tried to learn one of your favourite songs note-for-note, you know that many of the best sounding chords go beyond the basic shapes.

The secret to interesting chords is good chord voicings. They’re the fine details that give each new chord in a progression its own personality.

In this article I’ll explain what chord voicings are, how they work and the best ways to use them in your music.

What are chord voicings?

Chord voicing refers to the order of the individual voices within a chord, the color tones added, which chord tones are doubled or omitted and the spacing and octave position of each note.

Choosing good voicings is an important aspect of music arranging and composition.

Choosing good voicings is an important aspect of music arranging and composition.

When you write for a group of instruments or even a single harmonic instrument like the guitar or piano you need to choose your voicings to fit the song, arrangement and playing style of the music.

Chord spelling

The most basic voicing for any chord is called close root position. That’s when a chord is written as a group of thirds stacked up directly on top of each other.

Here’s a root position C major triad to help you visualize it:

To change the voicing, you have to rearrange the order of the notes or change their spacing.

To do that, you need to remember the names of the notes that make up that chord.

The unique set of notes that identifies a chord is called its spelling.

The unique set of notes that identifies a chord is called its spelling.

A chord with the same spelling has the same letter name and quality, even if the order of notes is jumbled up or separated by octaves.

Practice spelling out different types of chords as you play or write to help you get a handle on it.

Spacing

The simplest way to change the voicing of a chord is to separate the notes in different octaves.

The simplest way to change the voicing of a chord is to separate the notes in different octaves.

It’s easy if you think of a pianist playing notes with their left and right hands.

They could put the root of the chord in a low octave with their left hand, and the other notes in a tight grouping with their right hand.

Or they could spread the notes out evenly, using both hands to distribute the chord tones across the octaves.

When the notes are spread out over several octaves it’s called an open position chord.

Open position chords sound slightly more hollow, but the extra distance between notes can give certain intervals a sweet, ringing quality.

Close position sounds blocky and dense but have a more coherent sound due to their tight spacing.

Doubling

Let’s continue with the pianist example. A basic triad has only three notes, but the piano player has five fingers on each hand.

That means they can play more than three notes in the chord as long as they don’t change its spelling.

The pianist can choose to double some notes to emphasize the role they play in the chord.

For example, instead of playing only the low root note, the pianist could double it an octave up with another finger on their left hand.

Now the chord has an extra stable sound that’s perfect for enhancing the feeling of “home” that comes from resting on tonic harmony.

You can double any of the other notes in the triad, just be careful how they interact with the rest of the chords in your progression

Hot tip: You can sometimes omit the fifth of the chord in your voicings. This is possible because the fifth doesn’t contribute to the chord quality like the root, third or seventh does. If a voicing sounds too rich or dense, removing the fifth can sometimes help.

Inversions

The next way to improve your voicings is using chord inversions.

Inversions are chords with the same spelling arranged in a different order.

Inversions are chords with the same spelling arranged in a different order.

If you need a refresher you can check out our guide to inverted chords for an in-depth look, but here are the basics.

Root position is the basic form of a chord with the root note in the lowest voice.

First inversion uses the third of the chord in the lowest voice, and moves the root up an octavec major first inversion

Second inversion uses the fifth of the chord in the lowest voice, and moves the other voices to fit.

Seventh chords contain four notes, so they can have a third inversion with the seventh in the lowest voice.

c major 7 inversions chord voicings

Each inversion has a slightly different sound that can play different roles in a composition.

Each inversion has a slightly different sound that can play different roles in a composition.

They’re most often used to preserve smooth voice leading between chords, but they can also add a unique flavour to any chord in your progression.

Experiment with inversions to see how the different positions affect the basic character of the chord.

Voicings and extensions

So far we’ve talked about triads and seventh chords. Add chord extensions to the mix and your voicing possibilities get even more interesting.

If you need a refresher on extended chords, head over to our overview to jog your memory.

Extensions are colour tones you can add to a chord to make it richer without changing its overall quality.

When it comes to voicings, the 9th, 11th and 13th intervals you add to your chords are equivalent to scale degrees 2, 4 and 6.

That gives you many different choices for voicing extended chords. The options can get pretty complicated, so the best way forward is often to rely on your ears.

When several extensions are bunched up together with chord tones, they form highly tense structures called tone clusters.

Even when a chord is tightly compact with close intervals that make it appear dissonant, it can still be a deliberate voicing decision that sounds great in context.

Voicing concerns

Developing your signature chord voicings is one of the most satisfying ways to be creative with music theory.

But even if you stick with the classics, you have to know the basics of chord voicing to make good arrangements for your songs.

Now that you know how to get started with chord voicings, get back to your DAW and keep working on your progressions.