A breakthrough for me as a musician, and particularly as a composer, was when I stopped imagining harmony in rigid frameworks. The first instrument I excelled at to some degree was the guitar (being a fairly average pianist), and that had a great impact on the way I thought about chords.
Music theory often teaches us to think about chords as stacked thirds (from my other articles I know could be accused of this too). As you progress you might learn about inversions, four part voicings, building chords from fourths or other intervhals, substitutions etc.
When harmonising a melody I might, for example, know one or two inversions of an A minor 9 chord and would churn this out without much consideration for the melody, or I might construct the voicing around the melody without thinking about the overall texture.
Learning about drop voicings was a big step for me, as it was something I was unconsciously doing from time to time, but really freed my harmonies from sounding too clustered. It helped me move away from simply playing the root notes in my left hand, and spread chords out over the middle register.
The principle is taking block chords and dropping voices (or notes within the chord) down an octave. It’s really that simple, yet so effective. You would have heard the sound before from pianists like Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Erol Garner, Ahmad Jamal and Herbie Hancock – a sophisticated and open approach to tightly voiced harmony.
The first example I want to look at is the 1939 ballad What’s New, written by Bob Haggart with lyrics by Johnny Burke. Here’s the Ahmad Jamal’s band playing it back in 1958 from the album At The Pershing: But Not For Me.
What’s New has a simple chord sequence starting off in C major, then cycling fourths through several different keys and arriving back in C at the end. Here’s the melody in isolation:
Now I’ve filled in some simple chord voicings. These might not be exactly how I’d play these as a pianist, but it illustrates how busy and dense block voicings can be:
Now, by dropping two of the voices form each chord to the left hand, we instantly can thin out the chords without comprising the extension, function or melody.
Let’s take the example of the first chord C6. In the above example we have E, G, A and C in the right hand (we can assume the left hand and/or bass plater would fill in a low C). We need to keep the C at the top because that’s the melody note. So, by dropping the E and A down an octave we have a fourth in the left hand and a fourth in the right – a much less clustered way to voice the same chord.
Body and Soul
Next is Body and Soul, a 1930 song written by Johnny Green with lyrics from Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton. Here’s a version by Charles Mingus’ band, taken from their 1960 album Newport Rebels.
Again, we’ll start off with just the melody:
We’re in the key of Db major, but like What’s New, we flirt with other keys temporarily. Here it is harmonised with block chords:
And here’s a version with the chords voiced using the drop voicings method.
This isn’t an method I would strictly stick too, using drop voicings in combinations with traditional block chord extensions and other close voicings would be a more natural way to approach this.
When playing (or composing for) a solo polyphonic instrument, we have to allow the melody to sing through at the top, but leaving it isolated or crowded out by thicken chords can feel clumsy. This is just one way to mix things up a little.
I’ll leave you with a couple of references that I found really useful in helping me understand and use this approach. The first is from Noah Kellman, looking at a Bill Evans-like method of using drop voices:
And finally the below video is from YouTuber Matkat Music and really helped me solidify this concept. It takes you through different types of drop voicings, ramping up the intensity along the way.