Drop 2 Piano Voicings – The Complete Guide
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Sometimes as jazz piano students, we can get so caught up with progressions, voicings and improv ideas that we fail to give adequate attention to the timeless melodies that we’ve inherited. You know you’re guilty of this if you treat a jazz melody as “filler music” before your solo starts. Well, in today’s Quick Tip, Drop 2 Voicings—The Complete Guide, Jonny May breaks down one of the most beautiful arranging techniques used by pianists like Bill Evans and Barry Harris for playing captivating chord melodies. You’ learn:
- Ideal Range for Drop 2 Voicings on Piano
- Essential Drop 2 Practice Exercises for Piano
- Arranging a Jazz Tune with Drop 2 Voicings
Today’s lesson on drop 2 chord voicings is your step-by-step guide for playing jazz standards on piano with a sophisticated sound.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the terms drop 2 voicings or drop 2 chords. However, chances are, you’ve heard their sound. For example, check out the following example of Barry Harris (1929–2021) playing the melody to “Like Someone in Love” by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Johnny Burke. This is the exquisite sound of a jazz melody arranged with drop 2 voicings. In fact, drop 2 voicings are one of the most common harmonization techniques used by professional jazz pianists and guitarists when playing melodies with a rhythm section.
Barry Harris Trio
“Like Someone In Love” (1976)
Drop 2 voicings (a.k.a. “drop 2 chords”) are 4-note open position chord voicings in which the outer notes are a spaced a 10th interval apart, or in some cases a 9th. The specific drop 2 spacing is accomplished by first beginning with a 4-note closed position voicing and then dropping the 2nd note from the top down an octave. Jazz pianists and guitarists frequently use drop-two voicings when playing chord melodies and while comping behind a soloist.
Sometimes, drop 2 chords are also called block chords or even locked hands. However, the drop 2 sound is actually a specific type of block chord voicing. Moreover, the terms block chords and locked hands most often refer to the specific George Shearing 5-note voicing approach in which the melody is shadowed in octaves rather than 10ths. When comparing the two systems, Shearing-style voicings produce a more “classic sound” while drop 2 voicings produce a fuller and more modern sound.
Despite their sophisticated sound, drop 2 voicings are based on a simple concept. In fact, there are really just two simple steps to obtaining a drop 2 voicing.
First, start with a 4-note chord in closed position. In other words, the four notes should be arranged as close as possible so that the total span from top-to-bottom is less than an octave. In jazz arranging, we also use the term 4-way close (or four-way close) to describe a 4-note voicing in closed position.
For instance, the first example below (see Step 1) shows an F6 chord in closed position. You might describe this as a first-inversion F6 chord, or F6/A. However, that type of nomenclature is based on a bottom-up perspective. By contrast, the 4-way close and drop 2 arranging techniques are most often used to harmonize a melody, so it’s more appropriate to use top-down language. In other words, step 1 shows an F6 four-way close voicing with F in the melody.
Once you have harmonized the melody note in closed position, you can convert it into a drop 2 voicing by simply dropping the 2nd note from the top down an octave (see Step 2). This will usually result in a 10th interval between the bottom and top notes. (Note: a 10th interval is equivalent to a 3rd plus and octave.) For example, in our F6 drop 2 voicing, the intervallic span from the note D on bottom to the F in the melody is a 10th.
Next, try harmonizing F6 with each of the chord tones in the melody using both voicing techniques.
Inverting Drop 2 Voicings
Now that you’ve played each inversion of F6 with drop 2 voicings, take a moment to examine the intervallic span of each voicing. For the first 3 voicings, the span is a 10th. However, in the last voicing, the span from C on bottom to D on top is a 9th. That’s why we mentioned earlier that drop 2 voicings “usually” result in a 10th interval. However, when played in context, the overall sonic characteristics are compatible.
Drop 2 voicings sound great on piano over a large range, spanning from approximately C3–C7. On the other hand, 4-way close voicings sound best from approximately E3–E5 and begin sounding too brittle when the melody note is approximately G5 or higher.
In this section, we’ll play some essential practice exercises that will help you become more familiar with the drop 2 voicing technique. These exercises are excerpted from several of our full-length courses on drop 2 voicings. Therefore, be sure to check out our Level 8 Mid Advanced Piano Foundations Learning Track to view all of the resources that are available with your membership.
Keep in mind that the application we’re working toward is being able to arrange a melody with drop 2 voicings. As you probably already know, a melody note is not always a chord tone (root, 3rd, 5th 7th). Sometimes, a chord extension may appear in the melody. Therefore, in order to be able to harmonize any melody note, we like to practice playing an entire scale with drop 2 voicings.
The scale exercises in this section feature 4-way close and drop 2 voicings arranged in two categories: (1) chord family exercises and (2) common key exercises.
- Chord Family Exercises
- Common Key Exercises
In the first group of exercises, we’ll play major, minor and dominant sounds from the same chord family. In other words, all of the scale are based on chords with the same root—F▵7, Fm7 and F7. Afterward, we’ll play scale exercises group by a common key center—F▵7, Gm7 and C7. This will enable you to harmonize any melody over a Ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ progression in F major.
The primary goal of today’s lesson to help students gain familiarity and experience using drop 2 voicings. However, many students may initially need to see and play the 4-way close voicings first. Therefore, each example in this section contains both 4-way close and drop 2 voicings. If you’d like, you can jump directly to the drop 2 scale example in each video demonstration by using the chapter markers.
Also, be sure to download the complete lesson sheet PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose the lesson sheet materials to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Now, let’s play our first harmonized scale exercise. This exercise gives you a chord voicing that is compatible with an F▵7 or F6 chord symbol for any melody note from the F major scale. This doesn’t mean that every voicing contains the notes F–A–C–E or F–A–C–D. At first, that’s probably sounds a bit strange. However, each voicing must be internally stable and compatible within a broader F major context. Let’s take a listen.
Notice, whenever F, A , C or D is in the melody, the harmonization draws on the notes of F6 (F–A–C–D). However, when G, B♭ or E are in the melody, we must alter the harmony notes. For the melody note G, we use the top 4 notes of F▵9 (F–A–C–E–G). Then, when B♭ is in the melody, we must actually harmonize this note with Gm7 (G–B♭–D–F) since the note B♭ clashes with the note A in F▵7 and/or F6. Finally, we harmonize the melody note E with F▵7 (F–A–C–E).
For a more thorough explanation on the voicings in this exercise, review lessons 1 and 2 in our course on Major Drop 2 Voicings (Adv).
Next, we’ll play a harmonized scale exercise for Fm7. Of course, there are several types of minor scales. In this example, we’ll use the Dorian mode (F–G–A♭–B♭–C–D–E♭) which essentially treats the Fm7 chord symbol like a Ⅱm7 chord in E♭ major.
Notice, whenever F, A♭ , C or E♭ is in the melody, the harmonization draws on the notes of Fm7 (F–A♭–C–E♭). However, when G, B♭ or D are in the melody, we must alter the harmony notes. For the melody note G, we use the top 4 notes of Fm9 (F–A♭–C–E♭–G). Similarly, when B♭ is in the melody, we use the top 4 notes of Fm11 (F–A♭–C–E♭–G–B♭). Finally, when D is in the melody, we use the notes of Fm6 (F–A♭–C–D).
For a more thorough explanation on the voicings in this exercise, review lessons 1 and 2 in our course on Minor Drop 2 Voicings (Adv).
Now, let’s play a harmonized scale exercise for F7. This example uses the Mixolydian mode (F–G–A–B♭–C–D–E♭) which essentially treats the F7 chord symbol like a Ⅴ7 chord in B♭ major.
Notice, when the melody note is F, the harmonization draws on the notes of F7 (F–A–C–E♭). However, when the notes A , C or E♭ are in the melody, we replace the root (the note F) with the 9th (the note G) for a more colorful sound. Then, when G is in the melody, we use the top 4 notes of F9 (F–A–C–E♭–G). We must be careful when B♭ is in the melody because this note clashes with the A in F7. Therefore, we harmonize the B♭ with the top 4 notes of F9sus4 (F–B♭–C–E♭–G). Finally, when D is in the melody, we use the most colorful notes of F13 (F–A–C–E♭–G–D)
For a more thorough explanation on the voicings in this exercise, review lessons 1 and 2 in our course on Dominant Drop 2 Voicings (Adv).
By practicing the F chord family exercises above, you’ve learned how we must adjust our voicings to accommodate different chord qualities. However, you may have noticed that these F chord family exercises all imply different keys. Therefore, it’s also extremely helpful to practice major, minor and dominant scale exercises that come from a common key. That’s exactly what we’ll examine in the next category of exercises.
The following “common key” harmonized scale exercises will enable you to play drop 2 voicings over the most common jazz progressions that you’ll encounter in F major—the 2-5-1 progression and the 1-6-2-5 turnaround progression.
Our first exercise in the key of F major is identical to the first exercise in the F chord family exercises—the F▵ scale, which works over both F▵7 and F6. However, at this point, we want to reveal that this scale also works for a Dm7 chord (Ⅵm7) when you’re in the key of F major. In fact, the notes of F6 (F–A–C–D) and Dm7 (D–F–A–C) are exactly the same. Furthermore, F major (Ionian mode) and D natural minor (Aeolian mode) are relatives. Therefore, we can use this scale for both the Ⅰ chord (F▵7) and the Ⅵ chord (Dm7) in a Ⅰ–Ⅵ–Ⅱ–Ⅴ progression.
Now, let’s play a G Dorian harmonized scale exercise for the Ⅱm7 chord in F major—Gm7.
Finally, let’s play a C Mixolydian harmonized scale exercise for the Ⅴ7 chord in F major—C7.
Great job! With the experience you’ve gain in this section, you’re ready to continue to the next section where you’ll harmonize a jazz melody in F major based on the 1-6-2-5 turnaround progression!
In this section, you’ll learn how to arrange a jazz melody with beautiful drop 2 voicings. In today’s featured Quick Tip video, Jonny demonstrates this sound over the jazz standard “Smile,” by Charlie Chaplin with lyrics by Josh Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. Due to publisher’s restrictions, we are unable to examine that tune in this discussion. However, the “Smile” backing track is included with this lesson’s downloadable resources. These resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, we’ll give full consideration to a complete drop 2 arrangement of “Over the Meadow,” an original jazz tune by Jonny May.
Sample Jazz Lead Sheet
When analyzing this tune, it’s important to notice that the Ⅱ chord and the Ⅵ chord are not always diatonic chords. In other words, the Ⅱ chord is not always Gm7—sometimes it appears as G7. Similarly, sometimes the Ⅵ chord shows up as D9 or even D7(♭9) instead of Dm7. These are examples secondary dominants—a type of chord substitution that frequently occurs on the turnaround progression. These chord substitutions affect which scale we’ll use to harmonize these chords.
To get started with our drop 2 arrangement of “Over the Meadow,” we’ll follow the same 2 steps that we’ve used throughout this lesson:
- Begin with 4-way close voicings
- Drop the 2nd note from the top down an octave
Step 1: Harmonize Melody with 4-Way Close Voicings
The example below shows a 4-way close arrangement of “Over the Meadow.” Notice we’ve taken the melody up an octave. In fact, you’ll hear in the demonstration that it’s perhaps even a bit too high for 4-way close voicings. This has been done deliberately so that you can hear how the drop 2 voicings in step 2 sound better in this register.
When harmonizing the melody, we have mostly been able to use voicings directly from the “common key” scale exercises in F major. However, there are some exceptions. Let’s first begin by taking a listen.
“Over the Meadow” – Four-Way Close Voicings
We’ll provide some explanation here to address questions you might have about this arrangement. However, John Proulx gives a thorough explanation of this entire arrangement in lesson 2 of our course on Play Piano Lead Sheets with Drop 2 Voicings (Adv).
For C7(♭9), we’ve used the top 4 notes (C–E–G–B♭–D♭). Notice, this voicing is equivalent to an Eº7 chord. You can think of this as a fully diminished 7th chord built on the 3rd of C7. In fact, diminished 7th chords are frequently the first “go to” voicing for dominant 7(♭9) chords.
In measure 4, we encounter a G7 chord. We haven’t practiced G Mixolydian in 4-way close and drop 2 in this lesson, but that’s the parent scale for this chord. However, our Drop 2 Voicings—Chord Reference Smartsheet contains major, minor and dominant drop 2 voicings for all 12 chord families—an indispensable arranging tool that’s included with your membership!
For the D9 chord in measure 4, we need to use D Mixolydian. Then in measure 7, we encounter Am7, where we’ve simply used the 4 chord tones of Am7. The next chord that requires an explanation is the D7(♭9). Once again, we’ve used a fully diminished 7th chord built on the 3rd (F♯–A–C–E♭).
In measure 8, we have two additional voicings to consider. Notice that the Gm11 in measure 8 is a different voicing than the Gm11 in measure 6 even though the melody notes are the same. Sometimes there is more than one 4-note voicing that works. For example, the Gm11 in measure 6 includes the 9th, whereas the voicing in measure 8 replaces the 9th with the 3rd instead. Finally, the C7(♭13) is a modified version of C7 in which the ♭13 (the note A♭) replaces the 5th (the note G).
Step 2: Drop 2nd Note from Top Down an Octave
Now that we have the entire melody for “Over the Meadow” arranged in 4-way close voicings, the next step is to convert these voicings to drop 2 chords. Initially, you will probably need to see this step written out in music notation. In time, however, you’ll be able to complete the transformation without requiring any notation.
In the example below, we’ve expressed the drop 2 voicings on a single treble clef staff. The directions of the stems in this example are used to indicate that the right hand plays the top three notes while the left hand plays the bottom notes. Let’s take a listen.
“Over the Meadow” – Drop 2 Voicings
As you can hear, the melody sounds beautiful and clear with these voicings!
The final step is to listen to how lovely these drop 2 voicings sound in the context of an ensemble. Therefore, be sure to download the backing track for “Over the Meadow” that is included with this lesson. As a reminder, the lesson resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
The “Over the Meadow” drop 2 example below contains the same voicings as the previous example. However, the voicings are shown here on two staffs, which is more common. In addition, the demonstration is played with the included backing track.
“Over the Meadow” – Drop 2 Piano Voicings with Ensemble
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Drop 2 Voicings—The Complete Guide. Now you can approach your favorite jazz standards with fresh possibilities!
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings–The Complete Guide (Int)
- Jazz Piano 10 Steps from Beginner to Pro (Beg-Adv)
- Block Chords—The Complete Guide (Int)
- Locked Hands—The Piano Guide (Int)
- Lift 2 Chords—The Gold Chord Voicings (Int)
- Jazz Piano Block Chord and Drop 2 Voicings (Adv)
- Jazz Piano Comping with Two Hand Voicings (Int)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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