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How to Voice Chords and Why It is Important: a Quick Tutorial

As a pianist, I feel fortunate to play on an instrument that lends itself to endless possibilities and opportunities in producing varieties of tone color, dynamics, and timbre. In a previous post, I talked about some techniques and approaches in producing a beautiful tone at the piano. Be sure to check it out before reading this post. Today, I would like to expand a little further on an aspect in beautiful tone production: voicing chords.

Voicing chords, as many piano students know all too well, is the systematic process of deciding which lines, or voices, to bring out in a given chord. Part of this involves determining which lines are foreground vs. background material (melodic lines vs. supporting textures). While this is the first step in voicing chords, it is just the beginning! To me, voicing is so much more than simply playing the melodic line louder while keeping the others quieter. Voicing is all about determining how one will shape and express each note in a given chord. Consider the following passage from Beethoven's Sonata in C Major, Op. 53, "Waldstein."

Beethoven Sonata in C Major, Op. 53, "Waldstein," 1st movement, annotated second theme

Here, I outlined what I believe to be are the primary voices (highlighted in red) vs. the supporting textures (blue). As you can see from my annotations, both sets of voices are doubled for the most part, suggesting that Beethoven wanted a fuller tone. Notice when the composer shifts to A minor on m. 5, he immediately shifts gears to a thinner texture with fewer doublings of pitches––possibly to support a starker change in mood.

After doing a brief analysis to determine what to bring out, now we need to figure out how to play and balance all the notes in the chord in a way so that the overall tone has great depth and dimension. Not an easy task! Think about voicing as if you were a choir director: sopranos and altos sing alone first, then "stack" each voice by adding each texture slowly while listening carefully to ensure that no voice overly dominates one another. And there you have it!

Next time, when you need to play a chord at the piano, try incorporating the "stacking" technique in your practice to improve and enhance your overall tone. Hope you found this to be helpful!

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