[[For sake of brevity, I’m going to jump right into using chord symbols. If you need help with those, you can skim through this helpful chord primer.]]
The first and most basic question pianists should ask when they’re starting to read charts is “How should I voice these chords?”
Well, they may not use the word “voice,” but that’s what they mean. Voicing just means the particular way you play a chord. If the chord is C, you know you should play a C, E, and G somewhere, but there are quite a number of possible combinations of those notes you could play… and many of them don’t sound very good.
Remember, the point of this is to acquire a skill, not just understand a concept. So I’ll give you a couple rules for voicing chords, and then I’ll provide some examples for you to practice. Remember, these are very specific rules for basic chord voicings. You might break these rules later, but it’s best to follow them for now.
Basically all “rules” for voicing chords relate to a single principle: Don’t be muddy. Here’s how you play basic chords that are clear:
I’ll talk more about the bass line later, but it’s incredibly important. The bass dictates the harmony for everyone else, and it helps to drive the harmonic progression forward.
In general, you should play the bass exactly as written (at least for now). If it’s a G chord, you need to play a G in the bass. If it’s a D/A, you need to play an A in the bass.
If you’re playing with other instruments that use the lower register, you can’t change the bass note. If you’re solo, or playing with only upper-register instruments, you can change the bass—but just know that it will totally change the way the chord functions, so make changes thoughtfully!
Did I mention the bass line was incredibly important?
Remember playing this progression in your piano method books?
You probably learned to play it before you learned about inversions. The point of the exercise above is to create smooth voice leading between chords. If they were all in root position, they’d form a sequence of chords that was disjointed and odd-sounding… not to mention harder to play, because your hand would be shifting every time.
The same voice-leading principle applies when you play from a chart. Don’t just find a chord shape you like, lock your hand in that shape, and jump around to use that same shape on every chord. Instead, look for inversions that allow your fingers to move as little as possible. When you move from one chord to another, look for notes that are common to both chords.
This is the way your should start. As you get comfortable with basic voicings, you can make decisions to jump around, or add fills. But the default voicing should be one that moves the hand as little as possible (for now). This is important in the short-term, because it’s easier to play. And it’ll come up again later when we look at using the “soprano” (the top note of the RH) to create countermelodies. For now, just know that the top note of the RH tends to be noticeable to the ear, so it needs to be played in such a way that the soprano “melody line” makes sense.
Here are some examples of simple, written-out voicings. First, look at the lead sheet and try voicing the chords yourself. Just use whole or half notes—no rhythmic patterns yet. Then, play through the written-out version to see one possible way to voice the chords. Remember, there are multiple ways you could play these chords, but not an infinite number of possibilities!
Often the best way to learn is by imitation, and that’s very much the case here. As you play the written examples, listen carefully to the harmonies. This is an important part of training your ear to perceive what a good voicing sounds like. Learn to discern whether a voicing is muddy or clear.
PIANISTS: If you have suggestions about how to present this material, or if you have specific questions, I’d love to hear from you! You can add a comment by clicking on the link below (it’ll take you to the post on the Grace Music Facebook page).