You’ve probably voiced chords in thirds
and sometimes even in fourths. But, how
many times have you voiced chords in
fifths? Well, if you’ve used quartal voicings,
you have in fact touched on a form of fifths
voicings. When you invert a perfect fourth,
it becomes a perfect fifth. So, a typical
quartal voicing of C, F, Bb, when inverted,
becomes a fifth voicing of Bb, F, C.
This type of open voicing has an ambiguity
that makes it difficult to identify the
chord name, function, or quality. It’s this
ambiguity that is actually the strength and
appeal of open voicings. A fifth voicing of
Bb, F, C can be used to good effect in multiple
contexts. Since these three tones are
all contained in the Ab major scale, any diatonic
chord from that scale can be applied
to three-note fifth voicing of Bb, F, C, for
example: Abmaj7, Bbm7, Dbmaj7(#4),
Eb7, and so on. This consonant/diatonic
application makes these structures useful
in a multitude of settings.
One quick and easy way to get a fifth voicing
under your fingers is to play a quartal
voicing consisting of perfect fourths, like
the aforementioned C, F, Bb, and then
swap the top and bottom notes. The
resulting voicing will be Bb, F, C.
You can also extend the scope of fifth
voicings by stacking a three-note fifth
voicing in your right hand on top of threenote
fifth voicing in your left hand. Since
all these fifths cover a wide intervallic
range, a good choice is to keep the interval
between the two hands to a minimum.
The closest interval, a minor second (half
step), creates a wonderful sounding voicing.
You have the open spread of the
fifths, plus the rub or crunch of the half
step, which gives the two-hand voicing
depth. If you move the right-hand voicing
up a half step, and keep the left hand
where it is, the chord quality changes from
minor to major. The reverse is true as well;
move the left hand down a half step and
keep the right hand where it is. In either
case, you’re now separating the two
groups of fifths by a whole step, which
results in a major chord quality.
Fifth voicings can also move in parallel
motion, a definite no-no in traditional harmony!
If you take a two-hand fifth voicing
for a minor chord, with the root on the bottom
and the hands separated by a half
step, you can then move the voicing up by
using the top note as a guide. The top note
will outline a major triad built on the fourth
of the minor chord. (Bbm7 uses an Eb triad
as the top notes, for example). For this consonant/
diatonic application to work, you
must adjust the interval between the two
hands as follows: The first voicing has the
hands separated by a half step, the second
voicing by a whole step, and the third voicing
by a half step again.
Fifths can also be used as a linear device,
by means of arpeggiation, as shown in the
exercises in this lesson. Since you are dealing
with three-note groups, the rhythmic
value of triplets works quite well. By arpeggiating
fifth voicings, you can cover a wide
range in a short amount of time.
Whether you incorporate them for tasty
chords or compelling melodies, use these
new structures to add more color, texture,
and drama to your music!
[Click sheet music staves for larger images. -Ed.]
Ex. 1. 1a shows a three-note quartal voicing and one possible chord application. 1b shows a three-note fifths voicing with the same notes as 1a, and
one possible diatonic/consonant chord application. Next, try the two-hand, six-note quartal voicings in 1c, shown with one diatonic/consonant chord
application each. Click here for audio.
Ex. 2. 2a shows a fifths voicing exercise which starts with the left-hand and right-hand chords separated by a half step. When the right hand moves up
a half step, the left hand remains on the same notes, so both hands are now separated by a whole step. Next, the left hand moves up a half step, the
right hand remains on the same notes, and the hands end up a half step apart. 2b is a descending version of the previous exercise. Going deeper into
voicings for a single chord, 2c shows some consonant voicings using fifths for Bbm11. Click here for audio.
Ex. 3. To use fifths for linear applications, try the exercise in 3a which arpeggiates the voicings, splitting them between both hands. In 3b, try a “close
position” fifth voicing, which consists of the intervals of a major second and a perfect fourth. In 3c, try a close position exercise similar to the one in
exercise 2a; 3d is a close position version of exercise 2c. Click here for 3a audio, and here for 3b-d.
Ex. 4. Expand your fifths vocabulary with these structures: a two-hand fifth voicing with a perfect fifth between the hands (4a), a close position voicing
with a perfect fifth between the hands (4b), an open voicing with a major ninth between the hands (4c), and a close position voicing with a major ninth
between the hands (4d). Click here for audio.
Ex. 5. To use this wisdom in a linear context, try 5a, which distributes close position voicings between the two hands. 5b mixes things up with some
tasty rhythmic displacement. Click here for audio.