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I'm looking for the right word to figure out what I'm doing, I'm sure this is a normal music theory question but I don't know what to call it.

I can play the D major chord with the basic D shape, index finger on 4 string, middle finger 6th string and ring finger 4th string. But I can also use a C shape with index on the 5th string 3rd fret, middle finger on 3rd string 4th fret and the ring finger on the first string 5th fret.
Both of these positions hit (D, F sharp and A) however these chords sound different to me, the second shape sounds more somber. I know some of the notes in the second shape are in different octaves then they are in the first shape. But although is it still a D major chord, it doesn't sound majory to me? The lower F sharp changes the sound of the whole chord to me and it feels strange calling it a major chord.

What would you call it when you play the same chord but with notes in different octaves?

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    You might want to check out how you've described those chords. They aren't right. For starters, open D needs D string open. The fat string is 6, the thinnest 1.
    – Tim
    Nov 27 '20 at 8:28
  • agreed, the chord fingerings look a bit odd to me. There is a way to add some markdown to draw the chord you want, but it's not well documented.
    – mkorman
    Nov 27 '20 at 13:43
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Any time you play the pitches D, F#, and A (and only those pitches), it is a D major chord no matter where each pitch is located.

Changing the order of the pitches is the process of inversion.

  • When D is the lowest pitch, we call it root position.
  • When F# is the lowest pitch, it's first inversion.
  • When A is the lowest pitch, it's called second inversion.

Changing the spacing between pitches is the chord's position.

  • When the three pitches are close enough together so that no other chord tones can fit between them, it's called close position.
  • When the pitches are spread out so that you could fit a chord tone in between two others, it's called open position.

The overall term for how you play the chord is voicing.


UPDATE

On Guitar, these open voicings are sometimes called "spread" voicings. The below graphic, from an article in GuitarWorld, illustrates the relationship between spread triads and the above portion of this post. What is called "spread" in the graphic is called "open" above.

spread triad voicings

NOTE: The graphic and article refer to "closed position", which is a common misnomer. The correct term is "close position".

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  • If both F sharp and A are at their lowest pitch would I call the chord D major first and second inversions? Nov 26 '20 at 20:38
  • "lowest pitch" means the lowest sounding pitch, not the lowest position on the guitar. So only one note can be the lowest.
    – Aaron
    Nov 26 '20 at 20:56
  • As well as open position, I have heard this called a "spread third". Does it relate to the answer?
    – mkorman
    Nov 27 '20 at 13:44
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They are called chord voicings.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voicing_(music)

(If the bass note changes i.e. instead of D as the lowest note you'd have F# as the lowest in a D major chord, then it would also be called an inversion. Inversions can be voiced in many different ways too, but if the lowest note is the same then it's basically the same inversion.)

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You have more than one phenomenon happening here and they all have different names.

First there is the inversion of the chord. The chord itself is described by a subset of notes from a scale usually given in the following order {1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13} where {9, 11, 13} and octaves of {2, 4, 6}. The basic Major chord is always {1, 3, 5}. This just tells you what notes are needed to make a major chord. Many chords are unambiguous, Maj, Min, Aug, and Dim will never sound like each other. But some have overlapping notes and in some cases the exact same set of notes. An example of the last statement is a Maj6 chord and its relative minor 7th, in the key of C these would be {C, E, G, A} and {A, C, E, G} respectively.

The terms root position, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion applied to triads refer to the note that is in the bass, root, 3rd, and 5th respectively. These may be presented in by permuting the notes {1, 3, 5} for root, {3, 5, 1} for 1st inv, and {5, 1, 3} for 2nd inv.

The notation for inversions leaves some room for ambiguity since the ordering of the other notes could be changes, e.g. {3, 1, 5} and {5, 3, 1} are possible, as well as (1, 5, 3) for the root position.

Some have notes terminology like "spread". I was taught closed and open meaning the notes are "close" to each other creating small intervals versus far apart creating large intervals. However, the example provided does not cover all possible open voicings as one can move things around even more, though some of those options may not be in common use.

All of these rearrangement of notes are covered under the title of voicing.

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