Based on Open/Close Position Chords: What I am missing?

  1. a simple triad (no doubling) is in "close position" if the chord tones are packed as closely together as possible, and
  2. in a four-voice texture, "close/open position" refers to the distance between the tenor and soprano, but the bass is allowed to be separated.

Do the terms apply beyond that? For example, in a comment on an answer to The F chord is F0, A0, C1. If you change the octaves of one of the notes, is it still an F chord?, the following voicing is proposed:

So i can have 5 notes - F1,F2,F3 A0, C1 and its still F major?

Would this be open or close position? And why?

One can imagine all sorts of other doubled voicings that don't fit cleanly into the usual definitions. There can also be incomplete but unambiguous chords, such as seventh chords, which often omit the fifth, and, in context, even major and minor triads can omit the fifth and retain their essential character.

I'm looking for a general answer to whether, when, and how the terms "open" and "close" apply beyond the basic definitions.

  • 4
    We seem to be having a lot of questions lately about "what is the official, authoritative definition of (some musical term)". As there is no authority that officially defines musical terms I always feel there's somethng a bit off about such questions. In a way, you've already answered your question. Per the received idea of what the official meaning is, when you ask "Do the terms apply beyond that?", the answer is "no".
    – Judy N.
    Jan 15, 2021 at 12:57
  • Is this the most useful way of dealing with musical terms? I certainly don't think so. But this constant reaching for an authoritative, settled answer on usage of terms surely leads inevitably to this. We may prefer to ask "in what way is the distinction between open and closed position useful in this wider context and how best should it be applied"
    – Judy N.
    Jan 15, 2021 at 12:58
  • 1
    I agree. While some definitions obviously are more strict and not open to interpretation, things like these are absolutely more vague. I'd say that, actually, it's also not that important: close and open are definitions that do not define an aspect in a definite way, and they're more used as reference, indication, partial description. It's almost as asking if a piece of music is "slow or fast": yes, if it's an Adagio is slow, if there's a Vivace it certainly is fast, but then there's a whole gray area in the middle, and we already know that we don't need those absolute definitions there. Jan 15, 2021 at 13:16
  • I'll go with you on 'close' - my bible says so. But an incredible number of references to 'closed' out there.Close to me is evocative of barber shop harmony. Now that's close.
    – Tim
    Jan 15, 2021 at 16:41
  • 1
    @JudyN. - it actually is an opposite! Open the door, close the door. As in open - shut. But those are verbs. Here we have adjectives - and as such , an open door, a closed door. Which actually is a lot closer (sic) to the matter in hand. An open chord, compared to a closed chord. To me, as an ex English teacher, it makes sense. And yes, in Br. Eng.
    – Tim
    Jan 15, 2021 at 18:43

2 Answers 2


While these terms are most commonly used in introductory textbooks to describe three-note chords or four-part harmony (with bass treated as a sort of separate part of the texture), I've definitely seen the terms used with other types of chords on occasion.

The implication, to me, with "close position" is that all notes are clustered on adjacent chord tones. As noted, the bass is sometimes treated as independent, so its location doesn't matter. Also, I'm pretty sure I've seen the term used to refer to a subsection of a texture, e.g., "these three instruments are in close position," where other instruments may be further distanced.

So, it's not necessarily always applicable to an entire texture. It's referring to voices that are directly placed on adjacent chord tones. If there's a gap where a chord tone is skipped between adjacent voices, those voices -- however many there are -- are no longer in "close position." It seems reasonable to extend this definition to more than three voices, again as long as there are no gaps.

Anything else, I suppose, is by definition "open," which is sort of how that term works with 3 or 4 voices anyway. These terms certainly aren't meant to express great nuance in possible texture/voicing. There is also an informal sense where "open" means something like "spread out," again referring to some group (or subgroup) of voices that tend to have greater gaps between the voices, rather than being on adjacent chord tones.

When referencing an entire large chord with 5 or more notes, these terms aren't generally that useful. My sense in that case is that they can occasionally be used to refer to subgroups of voices within a larger texture. The only time the terms might be useful for the whole chord is if all the notes were on adjacent chord tones (and thus all "close").

But the problem is once you get textures like that, you inevitably start to have doublings at the unison as well as at octaves, and that seems to disrupt the whole classification system -- wouldn't three or four voices in literal unison be the "closest" possible? Yet, I've never seen the term used that way.

I don't know that I can come up with a source for the above definitions, as it's mostly informal usage when it occurs outside of an introductory textbook. But I could dig around and find some examples if necessary.

  • I have clear memories (in a very different context) of a math professor drilling into our heads that "open is not the same as not closed! closed is not the same as not open!" Again, totally different context, and at the same time it might be that many who use the words "open" and "close" to describe chord voices wouldn't always agree that anything not close is by definition open. Other than that possibility I felt inclined to point out, excellent answer. I think both sonically and theoretically, it makes sense to discount unisons or octaves of the chord root when evaluating open/close. Jan 15, 2021 at 20:33

Is this...

enter image description here

...really the chord example?

There seems more to talk about with that chord than whether it's in open or close voicing!

Anyway, if the issue is one of sticking hard and fast to a definition, the thing I notice is the question brings in a matter of pitch class. The idea is any voices within a pitch class should be treated the same (or apparently octave doublings within a class are to be reduced to some particular octave.)

But that's a problem for two reasons. I've never seen pitch class explicitly stated as a factor in defining open/close voicing. But the other more important thing is you must differentiate octaves in order to distinguish open/close voicing.

F4 A4 C5 is clearly close, and F4 C5 A5 is clearly open. If we eliminate the octaves we just have F A C and F C A and it simply is unclear about the specific voicing.

With F1 F2 F3 A0 C1 - in ascending order A0 C1 F1 F2 F3 we either have ambiguous A C F or arbitrarily say the Fs all reduce to a particular octave. Perhaps A0 C1 F1 for close or A0 C1 with either F2 or F3 for open.

So, while the OP wasn't specifically suggesting how to reduce the octaves and most definitions don't get into listing octave numbers, showing lots of octave doublings, or mentioning pitch class, it's clear that specific octave must be considered to determine open/close voicing.

At least by my reasoning A0 C1 F1 F2 F3 must be called open.

  • In defense of the originator of the bizarre chord example, it began life just as an abstraction to clarify that its OP understood what made an F chord an F chord. It just happened to get me thinking about the scope of the terms "open" and "close".
    – Aaron
    Jan 15, 2021 at 21:55
  • @Aaron, I didn't think it was your chord. It serves the purpose regardless. Mostly, I thought it an odd example as voicing definitions usually come up in basic part writing, balanced voicing, etc. and that chord is so far removed from that! Jan 15, 2021 at 22:08
  • To say the least. :-)
    – Aaron
    Jan 15, 2021 at 22:09

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