14. Voicing

In the previous videos and since the beginning of this series, we've talked a lot about chords, tonalities, and modulations. But we haven't talked that much about how exactly to lay down the notes that make all those chords. So it is now time to talk a bit about this.

In the 5th video, the one about chords and triads, I said that you could mix the order of the notes that make a chord, it will stay the same chord. 
But the order of these notes still have an importance. Especially the lowest note, the one at the bass, which will define the state of that chord. This is what we call an inversions.

Let's take a CM chord as an example, which is made of C E and G. As it has 3 notes, it can have 3 positions: with the C at the bass, with the E at the bass or with a G at the bass.

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If the root note C is at the bass, then we say that the chord is in its root position. It is not inverted.

The first inversion is when the 3rd is at the bass, then we call that a 6 chord. Because if the third of the C chord, E, was the root note of that chord, it would be accompanied by its 3rd G and its 6th C. This is the first inversion of CM.

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Then the second inversion is when the 5th of our chord is at the bass, we call that a 6/4 chord. Because if the G was our root note, it would be accompanied by its 4th, C, and its 6th E. This is the second inversion of CM.

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The order of the notes above the bass doesn't really matter as it is the lowest note that define the inversion.

When you are writing a harmony, the way the notes of your chords are laid out, the voicing, is something you want to keep in mind, because there are some things that generally preferable to do or to avoid. Here are 5 tips to write better voicings:

Number 1:
If, in your chord progression, two consecutive chords have some notes in common, then these common notes should generally be played at the same pitch, by the same voices in the harmony.

For example if I have a progression that goes CM Am. 
Here I have written the 2 chords on 4 voices, bass, tenor, alto and soprano. Here is the CM chord with the notes C, E, G and C, and here is the Am chord with a A, a C, a E and a A.

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As you can see, the notes C and E are common to the two chords. So I should generally extend a C and a E from the first chord. Here the C played by the soprano and the E played by the tenor. I can also extend the C played by the bass.

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Number 2:
When you spread the notes of your chords on different octaves, it is preferable to keep the notes of the harmony gathered to have only one line apart that plays the melody. You may not notice it when all lines are played by different instruments, so the best example may be a choral of 4 voices. See here if I have this chord progression, it's preferable to either gather the harmony in the basses to have the melody in the trebles, or the harmony in the trebles to have the bass a bit apart. Instead of splitting this into two groups. 

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Number 3:
When you go from a chord to another, it's preferable to set different movements to the 5th and the root notes of each chord.
For instance if my chord CM is followed by Am, and I write them like this, you can see that the fifth and the root note both go in the same direction, downward, and by the same interval. So we say they are parallel. And parallel fifth (so parallel notes that are separated by an interval of fifth) are often to avoid.

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This of course depends a lot on the style of music you are writing in. In rock music, we often use power chords, which are only root notes and fifth that we transpose in the same disposition, so there are parallel fifths everywhere. But it is something to keep in mind when you write an arrangement as Parallel fifth was a forbidden movement is classical music.
So a good disposition for our CM and Am could be this. Which also follow the first tip, by continuing the note C.

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Number 4:
If a note of your chord needs to be doubled - if you have a 4 voices playing a 3-note chord for example - it's often advised not to double the 5th. Because when you double a note in a chord, you emphasize its role.

If you double the 3rd, you'll emphasize the fact that it is major or minor, which is the character, the colour of the chord.
It is often the best choice but it depends a lot on your composition and what you want to push forward.

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If you double an extension note, a 7th for instance, you emphasize the tension that this 7th creates, and this note will then need to be resolved.

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If you double the root note of the chord, you emphasize the chord that you're playing. Which is kind of the same thing than doubling the fifth, except doubling the root note is often better.

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Number 5:
The bass plays a lot on how we hear a chord, so putting an extension note at the bass, like a 7th, a 9th or a 11th, is often to avoid. It is often better to put at the bass the root note, the third or the fifth, as it is better to put a note at the bass that have a strong tonal role.

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Overall try to consider each note of your harmony as a separate voice. And try to avoid big gaps between notes so it is easier to sing each line. Because in a harmony that works well all together it's even better when there're made of lines that can work well on their own.
Trust your ears, if you find something that sounds really good but defy the "rules", maybe you should stick to it. Your ears are your best allies.

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