You Know More Voicings than You Think!

April 5, 2013

When I wrote my first textbook Jazz-Rock Voicings for the Contemporary Keyboard Player, I included some common “shell” voicings that I heard on recordings by jazz greats. For example, I heard Wynton Kelly and Red Garland use voicing inversions built on the third or seventh of the chord, and I saw how those voicings connected in different chord progressions. Later, I discovered that McCoy Tyner often moved a fourth shape through a scale in a modal fashion. I also loved Bill Evans’ use of cluster voicings that often had major or minor second in them. That interval, which I call a tension, seems to produce “warmth” in the sound and creates what I consider truly idiomatic jazz harmony. I eventually realized that there are really only a handful of voicing shells that are used over and over again. The same structure can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Here are some examples.

Click to enlarge sheet music examples; scroll down for audio clips.

1. Perfect Fourths



Ex. 1 shows a structure built with perfect fourth intervals and numerous applications of it to different types of chords.
2. Tritones and Perfect Fourths

Ex. 2 illustrates a voicing shape that is comprised of a tritone and a perfect fourth. It is not quite as versatile as structure in Ex. 1, but will nevertheless work with several chords. Probably the most common usage of this voicing would be with minor 6–9, dominant 13th, and dominant #9 chords.

3. Tritones and Major Thirds


The most common uses of this shape in Ex. 3 would be for a dominant ninth or dominant #5 chord. I think the usefulness of this structure improves with the addition of a half-step tension, seen in the final voicing example called “Magic Voicings.” 

4. Perfect Fifths and Minor Thirds


Ex. 4 shows a voicing that includes a perfect fifth and a minor third. This voicing is probably most useful for a major ninth chord, although it does fit a number of other chords.

5. Magic Voicings


Ex. 5 illustrates what I call “magic voicings”—the magic part being their inherent ability to convert into several different chord sounds. Notice that the two different voicings here are actually inversions of each other. The first voicing contains a major second tension; the next contains a minor second tension. These voicings work on the following chords: unaltered dominant 13th, altered dominant, minor 6–9, major #11th, and half-diminished. They also serve two modal applications: Aeolian and Phrygian. “Magic voicings” possess the unique property that no matter what chord they are used with, they retain the same “color.”


Practice Tip

“Make a conscious effort to use these voicing shapes in a way that is unfamiliar to you,” says Dan Haerle. Haerle was a revered jazz piano instructor at the University of North Texas for 25 years until retiring from full-time work in 2002. He was inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educators’ Hall of Fame in 2003. An acclaimed musician in his own right, Haerle’s latest release is Live at Luminous Sound. Find out more at

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