Spacing of Chords

One of the most common ways in which arrangers add strings to a track is through the provision of chords. There are in essence three basic ways of using a chord in music.

One is called a ‘root’ chord, the others are a ‘first’ or ‘second’ inversion of a chord. If the chord in question is in C major and the note C is placed at the bottom, then this is a ‘root chord’ of C. If the next note in the chord (E) is placed at the bottom, this is a ‘first inversion’ and if the third note of the chord (G) is at the bottom, this is a ‘second inversion’ of the chord.

When arranging for strings, inversions add variety to the harmony and give the opportunity for all the parts to move in a musical way. What this means is that you can have an inner part (viola or second violin) moving in step so that when the session musicians play just that part, it has a logical and satisfying musical line to it and doesn’t just jump around randomly.
This is crucial when writing a bass line as it underlines the entire harmony and has to flow as a line of music in it’s own right (as well as fitting with the individual chords).

Sometimes, chords may all be grouped quite close together with the parts low in their register – this is when the rest of the track may have a ‘hole’ in that register which needs filling by the strings. In other situations, the gaps between the individual notes of the chord might be very wide and spaced apart – when a more sparse texture is needed. It’s always possible to thicken or thin out the texture of the strings by doubling notes in different registers (a careful use of double stops), or by not using all the notes in the chord.

A double stop is where two notes are played simultaneously on any given instrument. As the celli, violas and violins are all tuned in fifths, the interval of a fourth, fifth, sixth and octave can all work well. When it comes to thirds, these work better in the violin and viola parts than they do with a cello, but your studio musicians won’t thank you if both the notes in the third are written on the same string!

Other chords which require more than three notes in them are seventh chords (again in the chord of C this would be C, E, G and a Bb on the top), or diminished chords – which are a succession of minor thirds spaced one on top of another.

Jazz chords are a whole area in themselves where the arranger needs to have a good knowledge of harmony and be able to hear the chords in order to arrange around them.

In the next blog entry, I’ll be writing about the effective use of pedal notes.