Voicing Upper Extensions in Melody Notes

Before you begin putting big band charts together, I would highly recommend becoming very proficient at writing charts for smaller groups, those that consist of 3-5 horn players. Why? Because writing for these types of groups will really ingrain some basic fundamentals that you can then carry over into your big band writing.

Remember that when “voicing” a chord for any group of instruments, you should strive to have the chord sound good strictly on its own. In other words, your voicing should reflect the harmony as best as it can.

Keep in mind that a big band is really made up of smaller groups – “sections” of 4 and 5 players. These sections can (and should) be thought of as being able to “cross” each other. For example, you could have a part (or parts) of a big band chart that consists of a 4 horn ensemble within the big band. So becoming skilled at writing for smaller groups helps you with arranging for both small and large groups.

The following video gives you some ideas on how to voice chords that include the upper extensions of the chord in the melody notes. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below the video. I have included a sample sheet that includes more voicings, and a few practice voicings you can fill in yourself.

Download sample chord sheet here.

13 Replies to “Voicing Upper Extensions in Melody Notes”

  1. anthony

    Good info jim. I’ve always been hesitant of leaving out the root in my voicings, most have been for small ensemble. Thanks a lot. Keep up the good work. A concept that I am yet to wrap my head around is line-writing; if you can tackle that sometime that would be great. Anyway, I really enjoyed this lesson, and all the best.

  2. David

    Really good video, timely. I am working through some three part writing right now (tpt, ten, bone) and I was trying to figure out how to make the quartal stuff I have heard as emphisis in some example tunes I’m listening to, work in the arrangement. I am working with simple blues tunes as it seems less complicated right now, but maybe I’m wrong on that – this is all pretty new to me.

    The video on using diminished chords as passing was insightful for me; now I just have to figure out how to work them into the arrangement. Learning stuff is great!

    I’m looking forward to the dissections coming up; hopefully, I can add a basic chart to the cause.

    Thanks again, Jim. As I’ve said before, this site is a tremendous resource for someone starting out, like me. I’m looking forward to the coming months.

  3. Jim Martin

    David: If you are working with a blues tune, having straight quartel voicings will be a little tougher due to so many dominant 7th chords in the blues, and you need that 3rd-7th in there. They can work on minor chords however. Say you have a Cmi11 chord. You could voice it downards: Eb, Bb, F.

    Making 3 horns sound full is tougher as opposed to 4 horn voicings. That one missing instrument makes a big difference on the number of options you have. You many even have to bring a key up or down to make it fit the ranges better. I seem to find it easier to write for 4 horns than 3 for those reasons.

  4. Jim Martin

    Anthony: the first note you can and probably should leave out is the root. It does seem to work well however in mi7(b5) voicings as I mention in the video. I’m not sure why that is though. Just sounds better to me usually. Otherwise you can lose the root almost every time, and I would recommend avoiding it if you can in your voicings for 3 and 4 horns. You need those instruments to give you upper extensions as well as the 3rd and 7th.

  5. David

    OK, thanks for the advice, Jim; I will expand out of the blues. I am forcing myself to work with 3 horns at the moment as a way of trying to learn how to make them sound the best that they can. When I think I understand that I will move on to 4 voices, then 5. Phil Kelly at another site recommended this as a good way to get a handle on sectional writing – that and working through Sebesky and Nestico. It’s not an arranging site per se, but there is the occasional arranging discussion.

    On that note, are there certain chords that lend themselves to quartal harmonization, or 3rd, 4th, 4th intervals? I got the tip on min 11ths – something like a “rule of thumb” for quartal harmony – like you mention that an added root to a V7b5 works but not for other 7ths?

    Thanks for the time, man.

  6. Jim Martin

    David: Tonic types of chords (Maj7, 6ths, 6/9, etc.) lend themselves to being voiced in 4ths. Dominant 7th chords do have the tritone (i.e. 3rd & 7th) but 4ths can be voiced above that for a full sound as well. I did a few of those in the video. For example, C9 from the bottom up could be: Bb, E, A, D. the E, A, D is in 4ths, but the tritone gives the dominant 7th information for the chord.

  7. Jerry Swiatlowski

    Jim, mucho thanks for your lessons. Now I can get down on paper my ideas. A couple possibility of future lessons, (1) sometime I get stuck as to what I would use as an intro or ending, maybe a few hints, (2) I know it would depend on the sound you want but if I have 4 saxes, 4 bones, 4 trpts for example, would I have the alto 1 same notes as 1st trpt, bone 1 as 3rd trpt, I think you know what I mean.
    Thanks in advance,
    Jerry (saxes)

  8. Eric Schultz

    Once again thanks Jim for another thought provoking discussion. I had some doubts about the last extremely open G9(#11) voicing – with a minor 7th beyween the second and third voices – normally I would never go beyond a Maj 6 between voices in such a non-root 4 part voicing. My basic fear being that the 4 voices wouldn’t sound like a 4 part unit but rather 2 voices below and 2 voices above.

    But I went to the piano and >>> your G9(#11) sounded O.K., I was ready to question my “Maj6th rule”.

    When opening up a non root voicing, what would be your personal rule about the maximum interval between 2 notes ?
    The mi7(b5) enigma(s):

    I would venture to say that 2 possible reasons why the root is necessary in this chord because:

    *just like the dom. 7th requires the 3 and b7 in order to hear the basic sound of the chord, we need to hear the tritone between 1 & b5
    in order to have the characteristic sound of a mi7(b5) chord.

    *and also because the 9th(replacing the 1 in a 4 pt voicing) is not the easiest note to place in a mi7(b5) chord

    >>>and while we’re on the subject – one the most difficult notes for me to harmonize is not an extension but the root note on a min7(b5) chord.
    Not liking any of the choices I often opt for a substitution chord – such as G7(#5) or Db9(#11) to replace a Gmi7(b5) – especially if the chord is functioning as a iiØ chord). Does anyone have any light to shed on this subject ?

  9. Jim Martin

    Eric: Thanks for the comments.

    As far as the “rule” for interval spacing, it kind of depends on the chord, and where the top note is voiced. I guess as a general rule try to space out the chord evenly, but it really depends on the chord quality as well. The only rule I go by is the sound of it. I listen for the “ring” of the voicing and how complete it sounds. one that is off will tend to sound thin, or too “low” or something. hard to explain but I definitely go by my ear as the final test.

    Your observation on the mi7(b5) is right on I believe. I completely forgot that the tritone was in that chord as well. I’m sure that’s why it sounds better when used then.

    For a the voicing with the root in the top voice, try the drop-2 model: ex. Cmi7(b5) from top down would be C,Gb,Eb,Bb. Again, it depends on the range. If your top note was middle C, you would have to voice it closer: C,Bb,Gg,Eb.

  10. Dave.

    Hey Jim,
    cool lesson, i write electronic music and am tryin to use some of these concepts in my harmonic groundin etc.. could you do a video on melody writing and principles.. and when/how to use some of these chords with that! I guess it comes down to choices, however if you have any guidelines i would love to know.

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