Chord Voicing explained by the example of Inception

Chord voicing is the arrangement of all the notes inside a chord among the orchestra. Two very related concepts play a huge role in its process: How a chord’s notes are distributed among the orchestra and how the chord gets build up in itself. Spacing the chords is a key element and a basic principle for a clear orchestration.

Some Basics first

I’m not going into the depth of music theory, and it isn’t necessary either to be an expert to understand this topic. As long as you know that chords exist, and maybe you have heard the term “chord progression,” we can jump in; it’s not that complicated.

Spacing chords and chord arrangement

Unwanted Root

One of the most common mistakes beginners make, or reasons why a track doesn’t sound good, is that the chords are put in in it’s root position one after an other. This is often the case, when composers use predifined chord-packs or don’t understand the principle of chord progressions.

Root position:Every chord consists of more than one note. The root note is the lowest note on wich the chord gets build up. Depending on the type of chord the spaces till the next note above are always the same. Take a look at the example below!×DISMISS ALERT

Major Chord (D Major)

Minor Chord (A minor)

PositionD majorA minor
V.F# + 3 Halfsteps = A+ 4 Halfsteps = E
III.D+ 4 Halfsteps = F#+ 3 Halfsteps = C
I. RootDA

Lets hear this famous chord progression, but only in root notes:

Spacing!

Now let’s see how we can change this up so that it becomes way more natural and pleased for our ears.

Tipp Number one: Spacing

This means that we no longer crumble our chords together, but we give them a lot more range. The simplest way of doing this is to put the chords in the so-called open position. We do this simply by octavating the third and leaving the rest as it is. Ist better to leave the resulting space between the root and the fifth empty, so that the chords sounds clearer.

Rule of thumb:Bassline always plays the root notes! Adding intervals in the lower spectrum makes it a total mess right at the beginning. So we copy only the root notes an octave lower.×DISMISS ALERT

Now lets take a look on how it sounds now:

Inversions – the real magic

Now the chords themselves sound way better than before. But the transition between them is a complete catastrophe. This is where inversions get into the game. Don’t be afraid; it is way simpler than it sounds. In fact, we already made some of them.

Inversion:

An Inversion is a different order of the notes within a chord on the musical range. By octavating the existing notes, the root is no longer the lowest note.

But why sould we do this? To get a natural transition and a pleasent sounding chord progression there is one rule we follow:

Take the shortest way possibleThis means, that we arrange the notes of the chord so, that we make as small intervalls between two chords as possible. Whenever we can, we try to keep them on the same level and octavate single notes to have the smalles interval possible.×DISMISS ALERT

This can be a bit of a time-consuming process, it does not only make the sound really nice, but it also gives the theme a really distinctive ambiance. Take your time for this step, as it is the foundation of your track.

First, let’s look at the final result of this step to understand better our goal: Clear, simple harmony lines that follow a straight pattern without making any huge jumps. Let’s ignore the melody for a moment because it is really distinctive for this track. Our goal is to have clear and pleasant sounding transitions from one chord to the other. Let’s listen to it without any melody first.

General rule: Which notes should i double?Root note: Most of all – you can throw it in nearly everywhere Fifth: Second most – use it to make harmonies in the mids, but avoid them in the bassline – use root notes only there. Tird: Double the least – Experiment with it in the melody and countermelody layer, it depends on the ambient you wnat to create. The more thirds the more scratchy it gets. 7th’ or additional notes: Leave them to melody or countermelody only.×DISMISS ALERT

With the melody muted we can focus on the chord transition. Do you notice how natural it feels? It’s like the notes are falling right in the place where they should. Of course, you could spend way more time with this step, as every little change in the chords gives it a different tone. But for now, I like how it is.

In the picture below you can see all the changes I made from the chord progression before the inversion to the state of work where it is now.

Tipp:Try to reduce the chord to four voices plus one voice for the melody. This gives you two huge advances: First of all, you already have the voices ready for the orchestra and the score doesn’t tend to sound muddy as quickly. This also means that you have way more options with countermelodies, articulations and other instrument sections, as the chord allows single elements to go through.×DISMISS ALERT

Distributing it among the orchestra

Till now, we used a simple piano sketch for the chord arrangement. It’s quite fitting due to the original arrangement, but we want to focus now on the later, more epic full orchestra sound of the score.

Therefore, we rearranged it for a full string section consisting of 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, cello, and bass.

The 1st violin is reserved for the melody and gets added therefore later.

We already made really good work on the piano sketch, so we have a clear picture in front of us considering the harmonics. Before we dive right in, I want to explain another basic principle to you:

Voicing the low register

Previously we spaced the chords to give them more range. We keep this up, but we need to avoid complex intervals at all costs, especially in the lower and lower-mid sections. This means that the basses play the root note of each chord, regardless of the chord progression flow. In the lower mid, we implement only root notes and the fifth. Try to avoid thirds as far as possible.

The higher we get with our instruments, the complex we can make the arrangement. But it’s crucial to leave the basses and mids as clean as possible.

General rule: Which notes should I double?

Root note: Most of all – you can throw it in nearly everywhere

Fifth: Second most – use it to make harmonies in the mids, but avoid them in the bassline – use root notes only there.

Third: Double the least – Experiment with it in the melody and countermelody layer; it depends on the ambient you want to create. The more thirds, the more scratchy it gets.

7th’ or additional notes: Leave them to melody or countermelody only.

Remember these two general rules:

Rule No. 1Only Root notes in the low register and spacious open voicing – closer intervalls as you get into the higher range×DISMISS ALERT

Rule No. 2Throw in the root note as you like it, it gives your score a strong core – Fifth add really well to the harmony, try to keep the number of thirds low and take a good look on additional tones.×DISMISS ALERT

Individual movement

Now the strings are forming one unit and they are building up the chord. But these aren’t just five voices, these are five diffrent instruments and so we should handle them for what they are. This means that we can add new rhythmic patterns, countermelodies, articulations, and all the good stuff that brings life into our section. This makes a huge difference and it is the main reason why a section sounds flat and boring or why it sounds amazing and joyful.

When adding these elements we need to focus on maintaining the structure. There shouldn’t be five completely diffrent motions in the section, and every voice needs to give room to the voice adding the element.

In our case, I implemented some of the core melodies from the original score. The viola is playing a nice build-up and stays in the focus whenever it occurs. At this point, the violins stay in the background and come forward, as they play the counterpart.

The melody is really simple in this case – it’s the general idea of the track to have long sustained melody chords. Therefore we add all the interesting elements in the harmony, otherwise, we would need to stay on alert not to clash with the melody.

Final Result

As you see, five patches are enough to have a full and rich sound. Try to avoid any larger chord build-ups. You can give them more richness by adding other instruments. Therefore I added a small brass section consisting of a trombone playing along with the viola and a french horn and trumpet to play the answer to the trombone.

It’s time to give a listen to the entire track.