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Reading Chord Voicings on the Spot

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Prominent Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 590
Topic starter  

When I'm trying to sight read a song and suddenly a chord pops up it trips me up, most of the time because I can't see what chord it is and even if I did see It would take me a few seconds to make the chord voicing.

So a question for you sight readers. What do you do ? Do you look at the piece before you play it and work out all the chord voicings ? Or you just look at the note at the bottom and play the full chord ?

Advice, please !

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Its Kirby....

Illustrious Member
Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 4921

Reading chords is like reading words - at first you have to sound it out one note/letter at a time, but with practice you take in the whole thing at once.

Just like reading words, there are commonly used ones, that we grasp right away (with practice) and uncommon ones that we struggle with. If I hit an uncommon one and I'm in a situation where I have to be reading in real time - at a gig or whatever - I start from the top down. The soprano voice is the one that cuts through the most, and in most situations the bass and/or piano is helping with the lower end.

Sometimes you'll find chords written out that are unplayable - lots of people write for the guitar, but don't really understand the instrument. One of my students brought in a chart a couple weeks ago for his school jazz band, and it had a five note chord - with the highest note Bb (middle line of the staff). In a case like that, you get as close as possible, but one - sometimes more - notes must be left out.

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Joined: 22 years ago
Posts: 5342

I'm reasonably ok with playing most regular chords from sight, but it throws me when I need to play shapes further up the neck; that needs a run through or three before I get comfortable. Being able to look at the music for a few days before I need to play it in rehearsal is always useful.

A :-)

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Noble Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 2171

Yeah, it's really just a practice thing. Probably 95% of the chords I come across, i don't even think about, I just play.

Part of that is because chords are contextual, so by having read a lot of music, I know what chords to expect, so I'm ready for them when they pop up. That's not any different than reading languages. You will come to expect certain words, punctuation, and grammatical structures based on context. And when you come across something that you don't expect, it's either that the person was really clever, or illiterate. And it's usually pretty easy to see which was the case.

The other part is that the chords are just well know. As Noteboat says, they are like words. If you have an adult reading level, you can easily, and smoothly read a fairly complex sentence filled with multi-syllable words without any problems. But when you started out, even simple words threw you for a loop.

And for the 5% that I can't grab on the spot, by knowing the context, I can fake something that will not sound horrible.

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