Voicing (music)

In music theory, voicing refers to either of the two closely related concepts of:

  • How a musician or group distributes, or spaces, notes and chords on one or more instruments
  • The simultaneous vertical placement of notes in relation to each other[6]

It includes the instrumentation and vertical spacing and ordering of the musical notes in a chord: which notes are on the top or in the middle, which ones are doubled, which octave each is in, and which instruments or voices perform each note.

Voice leading of secondary dominant progressions
Various voicings: V/V-V-I progression.  1st ,[1]  2nd,[2]  3rd,[3]  4th,  5th[4] and  6th[5]


The following three chords are root-position C major triads voiced differently:

C triad
Close position  Play 
C triad open position
Open position  Play 
C triad with doubling
Open position, doubled fifth  Play 

In these examples, all three voicings above are in root position. The first is in close position (the most compact voicing), while the second and third are in open position (that is, with wider spacing). In triadic chords, close root-position voicing is the most compact voicing, with the notes in major third intervals and the root in the bass note. Close and open harmony are harmony constructed from close- and open-position chords, respectively.

Many composers, as they developed and gained experience, became more enterprising and imaginative in their handling of chord voicing. For example, the theme from the Andante movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s early Piano Sonata No. 10 (1798), presents chords mostly in closed position:

Beethoven Sonata 10 andante
Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 10, Andante

On the other hand, in the theme of the Arietta movement that concludes his last piano sonata, Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111 (1822), Beethoven presents the chord voicing in a much more daring way, with wide gaps between notes, creating compelling sonorities that enhance the meditative character of the music:

Beethoven Arietta
Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32, Arietta: Listen

Philip Barford describes the Arietta of Op. 111 as "simplicity itself… its widely-spaced harmonization creates a mood of almost mystical intensity. In this exquisite harmonization the notes do not make their own track – the way we play them depends upon the way we catch the inner vibration of the thought between the notes, and this will condition every nuance of shading."[7] William Kinderman finds it "extraordinary that this sensitive control of sonority is most evident in the works of Beethoven's last decade, when he was completely deaf, and could hear only in his imagination."[8] Maurice Ravel’s Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant from his 1908 suite Ma Mère l'Oye exploits the delicate transparency of voicing afforded through the medium of the piano duet. Four hands can cope better that two when it comes to playing widely-spaced chords. This is especially apparent in bars 5–8 of the following extract:

Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant
Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant. Listen

Speaking of this piece (which also exists in an orchestral version), Austin writes about Ravel’s technique of "varying the sonority from phrase to phrase by telling changes of register."[9]

The two chords that open and close Igor Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms have distinctive sonorities arising out of the voicing of the notes. The first chord is sometimes called the Psalms chord. William W. Austin remarks:

The first and last chords of the Symphony of Psalms are famous. The opening staccato blast, which recurs throughout the first movement, detached from its surroundings by silence, seems to be a perverse spacing of the E minor triad, with the minor third doubled in four octaves while the root and fifth appear only twice, at high and low extremes... When the tonic C major finally arrives, in the last movement, its root is doubled in five octaves, its fifth is left to the natural overtones, and its decisive third appears just once, in the highest range. This spacing is as extraordinary as the spacing of the first chord, but with the opposite effect of super-clarity and consonance, thus resolving and justifying the first chord and all the horror of the miry clay.[10]

Stravinsky Psalms opening and closing chords
The chords that open and close Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms

Some chord voicings devised by composers are so striking that they are instantly recognizable when heard. For example, The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives opens with strings playing a widely spaced G major chord very softly, at the limits of audibility.


Sousa - %22Washington Post March,%22 m. 1-7
Octave doubling in John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post March", m. 1-7[11] Play .
Debussy - Sarabande from Pour le Piano (For the Piano), m. 1-2
Non-octave doubling in Debussy's Sarabande from Pour le Piano (For the Piano), m. 1–2[11] Play .

Melodic doubling in parallel is the addition of a rhythmically similar or exact melodic line or lines at a fixed interval above or below the melody to create parallel movement[12] while octave doubling (and doubling at other intervals, also called parallelism[11]) of a voice or pitch is a number of other voices duplicating the same part at the same pitch or at different octaves. The doubling number of an octave is the number of individual voices assigned to each pitch within the chord. For example, in the three images in the introduction above only one pitch is doubled, the G in the rightmost image (above).

Bach - Gigue from English Suite no. 1 in A Major, BWV 806, m. 38
J.S. Bach – "Gigue" from English Suite no. 1 in A Major, BWV 806, m. 38  Play .

Parallelism destroys, creates, or maintains independence of lines; for example, in deference to the practices of his day always requiring and desiring a degree of independence in all lines, in Bach's "Gigue" from his English Suite no. 1 in A Major, BWV 806, m. 38 note that neither thirds (at the beginning) nor sixths (at the end) are maintained throughout the entire measure, nor any interval for more than four consecutive notes, but rather that the bass line is given its own part.[11]

The Italian sixth moving to V.  Play  Note that the third of the first chord (tonic, C) is doubled.

Consideration of doubling is important when following voice leading rules and guidelines, for example when resolving to an augmented sixth chord never double either notes of the augmented sixth, while in resolving an Italian sixth it is preferable to double the tonic (third of the chord).[13]

Some pitch material may be described as autonomous doubling in which the part being doubled is not followed for more than a few measures often resulting in disjunct motion in the part that is doubling, for example, the trombone part in Mozart's Don Giovanni.[14]

Drop voicings

One nomenclature for describing certain classes of voicings is the "drop-n" terminology, such as drop-2 voicings, drop-4 voicings, etc. (sometimes spelled without hyphens). This system views voicings as built from the top down (probably from horn-section arranging where the melody is a given). The implicit, non-dropped, default voicing in this system has all voices in the same octave, with individual voices numbered from the top down. The highest voice is the first voice or voice 1. The second-highest voice is voice 2, etc. This nomenclature doesn't provide a term for more than one voice on the same pitch.

A dropped voicing lowers one or more voices by an octave relative to the default state. Dropping the first voice is undefined—a drop-1 voicing would still have all voices in the same octave, simply making a new first voice. This nomenclature doesn't cover the dropping of voices by two or more octaves or having the same pitch in multiple octaves.

A drop-2 voicing lowers the second voice by an octave. For example, a C triad has three "drop-2 voicings": reading down from the highest voice, C E G (the G has been dropped an octave), G C E, and E G C, which can be heard as the voicings supporting the first three melody notes (following the introductory phrase) of the Super Mario Bros. video game theme.

These are the drop-2-and-4 voicings for G7: (reading from the top down) G D F B (F and B have been dropped an octave), F B D G, D G B F, and B F G D. Various drop combinations are possible, given enough voices, such as drop-3, drop-2-and-3, drop-5, drop-2-and-5, drop-3-and-5, etc.

See also


  1. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p. 269. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  2. ^ Benward & Saker (2003), p. 274.
  3. ^ Benward & Saker (2003), p. 276.
  4. ^ Benward & Saker (2009). Music: In Theory and Practice, Volume II, p. 74. Eighth edition. ISBN 9780073101880.
  5. ^ Benward & Saker (2009), p. 74.
  6. ^ Corozine, Vince (2002). Arranging Music for the Real World: Classical and Commercial Aspects. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay. p. 7. ISBN 0-7866-4961-5. OCLC 50470629.
  7. ^ Barford P. (1971, p. 147) "The Piano Music – II" in Arnold, D. and Fortune, N. (eds) the Beethoven Companion. London, Faber. p. 146.
  8. ^ Kinderman, W. (1987) Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. Clarendon Press, Oxford. p. 64
  9. ^ Austin, W. (1966) Music in the 20th Century. London, Dent. p. 172.
  10. ^ Austin, William W. (1966, p. 334) Music in the 20th Century. London, Dent. p. 334.
  11. ^ a b c d Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, p. 133, Vol. I. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  12. ^ Benward & Saker (2009). Music in Theory and Practice: Volume II, p. 253. Eighth Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  13. ^ Benward & Saker (2009), p. 106.
  14. ^ Guion, David M. (1988). The Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697–1811, p. 133. Musicology: A Book Series, Vol. VI. Gordon and Breach. ISBN 2-88124-211-1.

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