Playing from charts, part 1: Introduction and stylistic function
August 6, 2018
“Sovereign Ruler”: anthem for SATB, piano, strings
August 14, 2018
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Playing from charts, part 2: Basic chord voicing

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Part 1: Introduction and stylistic function

Basic chord voicing

[[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.

Principle #1: Harmonic clarity

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:

  1. Avoid triads. Yeah, that’s right. What I mean is, you should only occasionally play triads in root position (1-3-5) in the right hand, and NEVER in the left hand. Instead…
  2. Favor open voicings. An interval of a 3rd is ok, but it’s better to build chords with other intervals. And generally speaking, the lower the pitches, the further apart they should be. Close harmonies might sound ok around middle C, but those same harmonies will sound bad an octave lower.
    1. The right hand can play 3rds. But 4ths, 5ths, and 6ths are better (even 2nds! I’ll talk more about added notes later).
    2. The left hand should only play a single note, a 5th, a 7th, or an octave (That’s a rule for now, while you’re learning basic voicings. Or if you’re da bomb, you can play a 5th and a 10th.)
  3. A little bit of thirds goes a long way. Are you seeing a theme here?? The third of a chord is, harmonically-speaking, sweet and crunchy. It doesn’t take much until the chord sounds saturated. Multiple thirds can start to sound too thick, even if you’re playing solo. And if there are other instruments in the mix, it will certainly be too muddy. Which leads to one last important rule…
  4. Chords in 1st inversion should omit the 3rd from the right hand. If you’re playing a C/E, that chord is in first inversion. That means the 3rd of the chord, E, is in the bass. In that case, DON’T play an E anywhere else in the chord. Same thing for, say, D/F#. The F# is the 3rd of the D chord, and it’s in the bass, so it shouldn’t be played anywhere else in the chord.

Principle #2: Bass is boss

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?

Principle #3: Inversions are your friend

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.

Come, We That Love the Lord

Beautiful Savior

Come, People of the Risen King



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).