Voicing With Fifths

November 1, 2009
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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.

Growing Fifths

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.

Going Linear

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.

1109 Play It Fifths 1

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.

1109 Play It Fifths 2

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.

1109 Play It Fifths 3

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.

1109 Play It Fifths 4

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.

1109 Play It Fifths 5

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