Free Lesson #5 - Voicings & Orchestration

When studying harmony, all of the chords are all usually demonstrated in “root position” and what is referred to as “close” voicing, meaning the notes are as close together as possible, in thirds, going up the scale. However, jazz pianists never play chords in this way. They use different “voicings”, which means they distribute the notes of the chord across the keyboard in a different order and in different registers. This offers many different ways to play the same chord.


Using different voicings can have a significant effect on how the chord sounds and feels. The same chord can sound very different when played with a different voicing. Therefore, to identify a chord we need to recognise the fundamental “quality” of each chord type, regardless of the voicing.


Certain pianists tend to favour specific voicings, and this is a significant factor in what gives them their unique sound. Check out Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell and George Shearing, and you will hear how different they all sound, even when they play the same chord sequences. 


Another factor to consider is that when playing in an ensemble, with a bass player, jazz pianists will not play the root of the chord near the bottom of the piano, as the bass player has this covered. The pianist may well play the root somewhere else in the voicing, in the middle of the piano, or they may play a “rootless voicing”, which for a Dmi7 chord would be F, A, C.


So when we are trying to recognise chords we have to take into account that the notes of the chord might be spread across different instruments. The bass player may be playing the root while the pianist plays the 3rd, 5th and 7th spread across the piano. Or maybe there are horns, and the chord is spread across those other instruments as well. This is referred to as the "orchestration".


The term orchestration comes from classical music and refers to when the notes of a chord (or melody) are distributed around the orchestra. Depending on which instruments play what notes, and in what register, it will affect a great effect on the overall sound of the music. The possibilities are quite limitless. So again, when trying to recognise the basic “type” of a chord, we have to learn to recognise its fundamental “quality” or “flavour” regardless of its voicing or orchestration. 


Check out the following different piano voicings of the same chords. Although the voicings make the same chords sound different, we should still be able to hear the fundamental “quality” or “flavour” of each chord type, in this case, a minor seventh. 

  • Dmi7 Voicings ex1
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  • Dmi7 Voicings ex2
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  • Dmi7 Voicings ex3
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This lesson is an extract from "Jazz Chord Symbols vol1" by Buster Birch, which is part of the "How To Learn To Improvise" series of interactive digital books. The book looks at the three most common types of jazz chord symbols (the ii-V-I) and how they function in all 12 keys. It includes… A clear and easy to understand explanation of jazz chord symbols in general, different chord types, diatonic harmony, the ii-V-I chord sequence, voicings and orchestration, all with notated examples and audio files to demonstrate and help recognise the different sounds (in all 12 keys)… A series of unique interactive flash card chord symbol tests to be played on your instrument (from slow to fast) to improve “speed of recognition” when seeing chord symbols and giving you a “real time” experience to challenge how well you know your chord symbols… Exercises and routines for learning ii-V-I chord sequences and backing tracks to practice within all 12 keys at various tempos.  


As with all of the books in the series, the audio examples are embedded and immediately available at the touch of a screen, making them extremely convenient to play along with. 


This book is available in Concert Pitch, Bb Pitch, Eb Pitch and Bass Clef. 


To download a free sample or purchase the full version...

Please click HERE for Concert Pitch

Please click HERE for Bass Clef

Please click HERE for Bb Pitch

Please click HERE for Eb Pitch