Voicing (music)

Last updated

Various voicings: V/V-V-I progression.
, 2nd
, 3rd
, 4th
, 5th
and 6th (help*info) Voice leading of secondary dominant progressions.png
Various voicings: V/V-V-I progression.
Loudspeaker.svg 1st , Loudspeaker.svg 2nd , Loudspeaker.svg 3rd , Loudspeaker.svg 4th , Loudspeaker.svg 5th and Loudspeaker.svg 6th  

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


  1. How a musician or group distributes, or spaces, notes and chords on one or more instruments
  2. The simultaneous vertical placement of notes in relation to each other; [5] this relates to the concepts of spacing and doubling

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.

Vertical placement

The following three chords are all C-major triads in root position with different voicings. The first is in close position (the most compact voicing), while the second and third are in open position (that is, with wider spacing). Notice also that the G is doubled at the octave in the third chord; that is, it appears in two different octaves.

Voicing (music)


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 second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s early Piano Sonata No. 10 (1798), presents chords mostly in close position:

Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 10, Andante Beethoven Sonata 10 andante.png
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's Piano Sonata No. 32, Arietta: Listen Beethoven Arietta.png
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." [6] 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." [7]

During the Romantic Era, composers continued further in their exploration of sonorities that can be obtained through imaginative chord voicing. Alan Walker draws attention to the quiet middle section of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1. In this passage, Chopin weaves a “magical” pianistic texture around a traditional Polish Christmas carol: [8]

Chopin Scherzo No. 1, bars 305-312
Chopin Scherzo No. 1, bars 305-313 Chopin Scherzo No. 1, bars 305-313.png
Chopin Scherzo No. 1, bars 305-313

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 than 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. Listen Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant.png
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]

Voicing (music)
The chords that open and close Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms

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]

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. According to Ives, the string part represents "The Silence of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing".


In a chord, a note that is duplicated in different octaves is said to be doubled. (The term magadization is also used[ citation needed ] for vocal doubling at the octave, especially in reference to early music.) Doubling may also refer to a note or a melodic phrase that is duplicated at the same pitch, but played by different instruments. In the second chord below, the note E is doubled in two octaves, while G is "doubled" in three.

Voicing (music)

Melodic doubling in parallel (also called parallel harmony ) 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. [11] Octave doubling 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.[ citation needed ] For instance, in the opening of John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post March", [12] the melody is "doubled" in four octaves.

Sousa, Washington Post
Voicing (music)

Consistent parallelism between melodic lines can impede the independence of the lines. For example, in m. 38 of the gigue from his English Suite No. 1 in A major, BWV 806, J.S. Bach avoids excessive parallel harmony in order to maintain the independence of the lines: parallel thirds (at the beginning) and parallel sixths (at the end) are not maintained throughout the entire measure, and no interval is in parallel for more than four consecutive notes.

Bach Gigue from English Suite in A major
Voicing (music)

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]

Doubling in orchestration

In unison

Instrumental doubling plays a crucial role in orchestration. Near the start of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (the “Unfinished” Symphony), the oboe and clarinet play a theme together in unison, an "evocative and uncommon combination," [15] “an embodiment of melancholy... over a nervous shimmer of semiquavers in the strings.” [16]

Schubert Unfinished Symphony 1st movement, bars 13-20
Schubert Unfinished Symphony 1st movement, bars 13-20 Schubert Unfinished Symphony 1st movement, bars 13-20.png
Schubert Unfinished Symphony 1st movement, bars 13-20

At the octave

The opening theme of the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 is played throughout by the violins, but selected phrases are doubled, firstly by the flute playing an octave above; followed by the bassoon an octave below. Finally the violin is joined by both oboe and bassoon together, creating a doubling spanning three octaves:

Mozart Piano Concerto K491 finale, bars 1-8
Mozart Piano Concerto K491 finale, bars 1-8 Mozart Piano Concerto K491 finale, bars 1-8.png
Mozart Piano Concerto K491 finale, bars 1-8

The opening bars of the third movement of Janáček’s Sinfonietta combine unison and octave doublings. The passage illustrates how subtle and carefully differentiated doubling can contribute to the sound of a delicate and nuanced orchestral texture:

Janáček, Sinfonietta, 3rd movement
Janacek, Sinfonietta, 3rd movement Janacek, Sinfonietta, 3rd movement 02.png
Janáček, Sinfonietta, 3rd movement

In these three bars, the Bass Clarinet and the Tuba simultaneously sound a sustained pedal point on a low E flat, creating a distinctive blend of timbres. Similarly, the harp arpeggios are also doubled at the unison by the violas, while the first violins and ‘cellos double the main melody an octave apart.

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-major triad has three "drop-2 voicings". Reading down from the top voice, they are C E G, E G C, and G C E, 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. [17]

Voicing (music)

There are four drop-2-and-4 voicings for G 7. Reading down from the top voice, they are G D F B, B F G D, D G B F, and F B D G. 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.

Voicing (music)

Drop voicings are often employed by guitarists, as the perfect fourth intervals between the guitar's strings typically make most close position chords cumbersome and impractical to play, particularly in jazz where complex extensions are commonplace. While open chords are the most commonly employed voicings on the guitar and other fretted instruments for the volume and resonance they produce, the fingerings used for drop voicings on guitar are easily moved horizontally and vertically around the fingerboard, allowing more freedom for the guitarist to play chords in any key and in any area of the guitar's range, without the use of a capo. This facilitates easily playing chord progressions featuring modulation or chromatic movement between keys.

See also


  1. Benward & Saker (2003), p. 269.
  2. Benward & Saker (2003), p. 274.
  3. Benward & Saker (2003), p. 276.
  4. 1 2 Benward & Saker (2009), p. 74.
  5. 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.
  6. Barford, P. (1971). "The Piano Music – II". In Arnold, D. & Fortune, N. (eds.). The Beethoven Companion. London: Faber. p. 146.
  7. Kinderman, W. (1987). Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 64.
  8. Walker, A. (2018). Fryderyk Chopin, a Life and Times. London: Faber. p. 189.
  9. Austin, W. (1966). Music in the 20th Century. London: Dent. p. 172.
  10. Austin, W. (1966). Music in the 20th Century. London: Dent. p. 334.
  11. Benward & Saker (2009), p. 253.
  12. Benward & Saker (2003), p. 133.
  13. Benward & Saker (2009), p. 106.
  14. Guion, David M. (1988). The Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697–1811. Musicology: A Book Series, Vol. VI. Gordon and Breach. p. 133. ISBN   2-88124-211-1.
  15. Newbould, B. (1997). Schubert, the Music and the Man. London: Gollancz. p. 377.
  16. Service, T. (14 January 2014). "Symphony Guide: Schubert's Unfinished". Guardian.
  17. "Super Mario Bros. Theme Song". Youtube. Retrieved 2021-01-15.

Related Research Articles

Counterpoint Polyphonic music with separate melodies

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more musical lines which are harmonically interdependent yet independent in rhythm and melodic contour. It has been most commonly identified in the European classical tradition, strongly developing during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period, especially in the Baroque. The term originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum meaning "point against point", i.e. "note against note".

Orchestration Study or practice of writing music for an orchestra

Orchestration is the study or practice of writing music for an orchestra or of adapting music composed for another medium for an orchestra. Also called "instrumentation", orchestration is the assignment of different instruments to play the different parts of a musical work. For example, a work for solo piano could be adapted and orchestrated so that an orchestra could perform the piece, or a concert band piece could be orchestrated for a symphony orchestra.


In modern musical notation and tuning, an enharmonic equivalent is a note, interval, or key signature that is equivalent to some other note, interval, or key signature but "spelled", or named differently. So, the enharmonic spelling of a written note, interval, or chord is an alternative way to write that note, interval, or chord.The term is derived from Latin enharmonicus, from Late Latin enarmonius, from Ancient Greek ἐναρμόνιος (enarmónios), from ἐν (en)+ἁρμονία (harmonía).

Perfect fourth musical interval

A fourth is a musical interval encompassing four staff positions in the music notation of Western culture, and a perfect fourth is the fourth spanning five semitones. For example, the ascending interval from C to the next F is a perfect fourth, because the note F is the fifth semitone above C, and there are four staff positions between C and F. Diminished and augmented fourths span the same number of staff positions, but consist of a different number of semitones.

Chord (music) Harmonic set of three or more notes

A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of pitches/frequencies consisting of multiple notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously. For many practical and theoretical purposes, arpeggios and broken chords, or sequences of chord tones, may also be considered as chords in the right musical context.

Piano Sonata No. 12 (Mozart)

The Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332 (300k) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was published in 1784 along with the Piano Sonata No. 10 in C major, K. 330, and Piano Sonata No. 11, K. 331. Mozart wrote these sonatas either while visiting Munich in 1781, or during his first two years in Vienna. Some believe, however that Mozart wrote this and the other sonatas during a summer 1783 visit to Salzburg made for the purpose of introducing his wife, Constanze to his father, Leopold. All three sonatas were published in Vienna in 1784 as Mozart's Op. 6.

Unison musical parts sounding at the same pitch

In music, unison is two or more musical parts that sound either the same pitch or pitches separated by intervals of one or more octaves, usually at the same time. Rhythmic unison is another term for homorhythm.

Bassline Low-pitched instrumental part

A bassline is the term used in many styles of music, such as jazz, blues, funk, dub and electronic, traditional music, or classical music for the low-pitched instrumental part or line played by a rhythm section instrument such as the electric bass, double bass, cello, tuba or keyboard.

In music, texture is how the tempo, melodic, and harmonic materials are combined in a musical composition, determining the overall quality of the sound in a piece. The texture is often described in regard to the density, or thickness, and range, or width, between lowest and highest pitches, in relative terms as well as more specifically distinguished according to the number of voices, or parts, and the relationship between these voices. For example, a thick texture contains many 'layers' of instruments. One of these layers could be a string section or another brass. The thickness also is changed by the amount and the richness of the instruments playing the piece. The thickness varies from light to thick. A piece's texture may be changed by the number and character of parts playing at once, the timbre of the instruments or voices playing these parts and the harmony, tempo, and rhythms used.. The types categorized by number and relationship of parts are analyzed and determined through the labeling of primary textural elements: primary melody (PM), secondary melody (SM), parallel supporting melody (PSM), static support (SS), harmonic support (HS), rhythmic support (RS), and harmonic and rhythmic support (HRS).

In Western musical theory, a cadence is the end of a phrase in which the melody or harmony creates a sense of resolution. A harmonic cadence is a progression of two or more chords that concludes a phrase, section, or piece of music. A rhythmic cadence is a characteristic rhythmic pattern that indicates the end of a phrase.

Major seventh musical interval

In music from Western culture, a seventh is a musical interval encompassing seven staff positions, and the major seventh is one of two commonly occurring sevenths. It is qualified as major because it is the larger of the two. The major seventh spans eleven semitones, its smaller counterpart being the minor seventh, spanning ten semitones. For example, the interval from C to B is a major seventh, as the note B lies eleven semitones above C, and there are seven staff positions from C to B. Diminished and augmented sevenths span the same number of staff positions, but consist of a different number of semitones.

The intervals from the tonic (keynote) in an upward direction to the second, to the third, to the sixth, and to the seventh scale degrees (of a major scale are called major.


In Western music and music theory, diminution has four distinct meanings. Diminution may be a form of embellishment in which a long note is divided into a series of shorter, usually melodic, values. Diminution may also be the compositional device where a melody, theme or motif is presented in shorter note-values than were previously used. Diminution is also the term for the proportional shortening of the value of individual note-shapes in mensural notation, either by coloration or by a sign of proportion. A minor or perfect interval that is narrowed by a chromatic semitone is a diminished interval, and the process may be referred to as diminution.

In music theory, a dominant seventh chord, or major minor seventh chord, is a seventh chord, usually built on the fifth degree of the major scale, and composed of a root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. Thus it is a major triad together with a minor seventh, denoted by the letter name of the chord root and a superscript "7". An example is the dominant seventh chord built on G, written as G7, having pitches G–B–D–F:

Piano Sonata No. 21 (Beethoven)

Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, known as the Waldstein, is one of the three most notable sonatas of his middle period. Completed in summer 1804 and surpassing Beethoven's previous piano sonatas in its scope, the Waldstein is a key early work of Beethoven's "Heroic" decade (1803–1812) and set a standard for piano composition in the grand manner.

Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3, is a sonata written for solo piano, composed in 1795. It is dedicated to Joseph Haydn and is often referred to as Beethoven's first virtuosic piano sonata. The three Op. 2 sonatas all contain four movements each, an unusual length which seems to show that Beethoven was aspiring towards composing a symphony. It is both the weightiest and longest of the three Op. 2 sonatas, lasting over 25 minutes, presenting many difficulties, including difficult trills, awkward hand movements, and forearm rotation. It is Beethoven's second longest piano sonata in his early period, only to Beethoven's Grand Sonata in E Major, Op. 7, published a year later.

Consecutive fifths

In music, consecutive fifths, or parallel fifths, are progressions in which the interval of a perfect fifth is followed by a different perfect fifth between the same two musical parts : for example, from C to D in one part along with G to A in a higher part. Octave displacement is irrelevant to this aspect of musical grammar; for example, parallel twelfths are equivalent to parallel fifths.

In Western music and music theory, augmentation is the lengthening of a note or interval.

Imitation (music)

In music, imitation is the repetition of a melody in a polyphonic texture shortly after its first appearance in a different voice. The melody may vary through transposition, inversion, or otherwise, but retain its original character. The intervals and rhythms of an imitation may be exact or modified; imitation occurs at varying distances relative to the first occurrence, and phrases may begin with voices in imitation before they freely go their own ways.

Piano Quartet No. 3 (Brahms)

The Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60, completed by Johannes Brahms in 1875, is scored for piano, violin, viola and cello. It is sometimes called the Werther Quartet after Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Excursions, Op. 20, is the first published solo piano piece by Samuel Barber. Barber himself explains:

These are ‘Excursions’ in small classical forms into regional American idioms. Their rhythmic characteristics, as well as their source in folk material and their scoring, reminiscent of local instruments are easily recognized.