I have been thinking about why open voicings of chords are considered to sound better than close voicings. Is it just because the frequencies are farther apart and thus we have a more harmonic sound, because they clash less?

Like the effect when you play two adjacent notes like C and D, if you play them further apart they stop sounding as disharmonious.

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    That's about it. Although how open does it need to be before it loses that harmonic sound..?
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 13:05
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    this is a bit of an opinion-based question, because there are times when they don't sound better - it's al about context, culture and intention. I don't think it needs closing, as there probably is a core which is answerable.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 13:18
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    @ggcg This really well demonstrates exactly how opinion-based the question is! Listen to your favourite Bill Evans piano solo. Would it sound as "good" if he opened all his voicings out? Maybe – to your ear!
    – Judy N.
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 13:46
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    @JudyN. If the question were consonant vs dissonant I would disagree with you. The use of the term "better" makes the question intrinsically opinion based. But one can deterministically quantify consonance and dissonance. And the separation of notes, as well as the presence of other notes in between have predictable effects on the measure of these qualities in the chord.
    – user50691
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 14:14
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    @ggcg If the question were consonant vs dissonant I would also disagree with me ;)
    – Judy N.
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 14:37

2 Answers 2


Well, they sound less dissonant for the reason that you said - that the frequencies of the harmonics in the group of notes sounding simultaneously clash less. This graph from https://sethares.engr.wisc.edu/consemi.html shows how pairs of sinewaves less than a minor third apart give an impression of 'roughness':

Dissonance curve

However, having notes further apart doesn't always sound subjectively better. One reason for that is that although you're reducing the potential for harmonics to clash, you're also reducing the potential for the strong harmonics to coincide, which is part of what can make chords sound so nice - the way that they sound like a single sound, rather than just a group of individual notes.

Another reason that having notes further apart doesn't always sound better is that dissonance can be a desirable thing. modern r'n'b songs often feature close-voiced extended chords played on electric piano, which have a characteristic biting quality at the start of the chord, and then mellow out as the higher harmonics die away (yet still leaving some throbbing beat frequencies for interest).

...Which gives us another thing to consider - the instrument being used to play the chords. Different timbres will cause different clashes and correspondences between the harmonics in the notes being played. This in turn ties in with the way that close voicings in bass registers can sound very 'muddy', while close voicings in mid-range registers can sound sweeter.

Additionally, with stretch-tuned instruments such as the piano, two notes that are a long way apart could be quite a long way out of tune with each other.

Of course this is all subjective and any given listener is free to say that they do always prefer more open voicings!

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    See this for dissonance curves of multi-note combinations with harmonics music.stackexchange.com/questions/88564/… I don't know if it really "proves" or explains anything, but it seemed to make sense. If you look at the picture under "How about chords?", you'll notice a trend that the total dissonance gets lower and lower, the further away from 0 we go. That would agree with the "wider voicing = less dissonant" idea. Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 15:37
  • Can you point to an example of the close-voiced chords on electric piano?
    – Dave
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 18:17
  • @Dave It's probably 20-25 years since I was playing that kind of music and I'm struggling to associate particular chord voicings with particular released tracks - but youtube.com/watch?v=8dXlg_zVK38&lc is a tutorial video that gives some idea of what I mean. Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 19:11
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    Yes. I'd just add that another factor to consider is temperament. The increase in dissonance of close harmony as opposed to open spacing is much more pronounced in equal temperament than in just intonation. The close harmony 4:5:6:8 chord is not less consonant than open 2:3:5:8, although it may sound less full. Commented Jan 29, 2021 at 9:18

It is just because the frequencies are farther apart and thus we have a more harmonic sound, because they clash less?


To some degree it depends on the spacing, but the specific type of interval matters more. And overall register matters greatly.

I just go by ear, but @Topo's chart bears out what I hear. Perfect intervals sound more consonant and can go into lower registers before sounding dissonant and muddy.

Recently I've been practicing drop 2 voicings, which are open, and the larger space of a minor sixth versus a perfect fifth or a augmented fourth versus a perfect fourth most definitely do not make them more consonant. It' very much the opposite. Those imperfect intervals need to be raised significantly before they sound clear.

Also, there is a "cultural" aspect to this. Some sounds like tritones and major seconds will be considered dissonant by traditional, common-practice standards, and different mathematical measures. But to my ears, depending on harmonic context, tritones and minor seconds are not at all dissonant. IMO the mathematical explanation of consonance/dissonance is used by some when convenient, but it only provides a basic explanation.

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