Most gospel piano chord voicings include two or three pitches in the left hand. When constructing chord voicings that include the root, it is usually placed on the bottom of the voicing (unless otherwise indicated by the chord symbol). This leaved one other pitch available for a two pitch left hand voicing. Which pitch we select depends on what register of the piano or left hand is located in and how open or close the overall voicing is. A third above the root may sound ok in higher registers, but down low on the piano this interval sounds muddy. Also, this close of a left hand voicing suggests an overall voicing that is close (which doesn’t sound as good in low registers – also muddy). So, lower left hand positions lend themselves to other intervals above the root.
The other intervals available in two pitch left hand voicings are the 5th, 7th, 9th and 10th. Most people can’t reach past the 10th. The octave is also available, but it sound kind of hollow and ends up doubling the pitch that is already being played by the bass guitar (when playing without a bass guitar this can be used to strengthen the bass line). These other intervals sound good in most registers of the piano. However, larger intervals leave less room for the right hand pitches, so they tend to occur more often in lower registers with open voicings. Fifths work in most situations (low or high). In high registers they help to create beautiful close voicings. In low registers they can be used to create a majestic sounding voicing (since herald trumpet playing was based off of open fifths).
The right hand usual supplies the other pitches of the chord. In gospel piano, pitches are often doubled to create thick and full texture. This is opposed to jazz style voicings which tend to avoid doubling in order to stay clean and open sounding. However, the desired texture is also dependent on the feel of the specific song (or even the moment). For example, this is a gospel song, but its slow and clean style lends itself to less dense voicings.
Capitalizing on common tones is another practice of gospel and jazz musicians. There will often be one or more pitches that are shared between two adjacent chords. Maintaining the voicing of these pitches while changing the other pitches usually results in smooth voice leading.
The chorus is usually the most memorable part of the song. Sketching the melody of the chorus in our chord voicings can help to emphasize its importance. Since we are only hitting chords during each chord change (and not every syllable of the melody) we cannot play a complete version of the melody in our chords. However, we can try to place the melody pitch on the top of our most of our voicings in the chorus to hint at a duplication of the melodic line.
Finally, there are times when a gospel piano player breaks away from the chords of the song in order to play melodic fills and runs. These lines are often played in octaves or split octaves. In our musical example there is an octave run that leads into the bridge. Then there is a split octave run on the third line of the bridge. These runs help to emphasize main lines in the melody, or lead to new parts of the song.
This Learning Music With Ray video discusses the use of chord voicings typical in gospel piano playing. In it, I continue with our study of the original song He Makes All Things New. I play through each section of the song voicing the chords musically (as opposed to using block chords). I also provide a detailed breakdown of each chord voicing, explaining how they are structured and why they were selected for that musical situation. I highlight the strategies of contrary motion, common tones, melody sketching and octave runs.