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I’ve been wondering for a while about the main differences between the so called block chords, and the also famous Barry Harris diminished voicings.

I use Barry Harris voicings all the time and the idea is to constantly alternate between the Maj6/Min6 chord if we harmonize chord tones (1-3-5-6) and the relative dominant(7b9) chord if we harmonize other tones that do not belong to the chord.

Personally I love this voicing and I use it all the time, even though it only works (from what I am concerned) for Major and Minor chords but cannot be used, for example on dominant 7s. Or for example I could not harmonize a non-chord tone while maintaining the quality of the chord (let’s say I would like to harmonize the F over a EbMaj9).

So from here I guess that there’s the (more extended) idea of block chords (locked hands and drop 2s): if I want to harmonize a EbMaj9 with the 9th on top then I could hit F - G - Bb -D -F (omitting the tonic, using locked hands) or by using the tastier drop2 scheme we would use the voicing D-G-Bb-F.

Is it all of this kinda correct? 😀

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    I've never encountered "block chords" used in this way. Could you point to a reference? I've always used "block chords" to mean chords where the notes are all sounded together — as opposed to a "broken" chord.
    – Aaron
    Nov 29, 2021 at 22:59
  • What do you mean exactly by ‘chords where notes are sounded together’? I would rather say this is a voicing technique which moves with the melody while harmonizing it. Look here at 2:38 youtu.be/ec-FrnaU0rs Nov 29, 2021 at 23:51
  • @JamesArten All notes of the chord on the same beat. As opposed to e.g. arpeggiated. Nov 30, 2021 at 3:53

1 Answer 1

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Block Chords vs. Broken Chords

The term block chord refers to any chord in which all of the notes are sounded simultaneously. This is in contrast to broken chords in which notes are sounded sequentially. These terms refer to the manner of execution of the individual notes within a chord, but are a separate concept from chord voicings.

[In] Block chord style ... "the notes of each chord may be played all at once" as opposed to being "played one at a time (broken or arpeggiated chords). (SOURCE)

Chord Voicing

Voicing refers to the relative placement of each note within the chord: the order from lowest to highest and the distance between each note. It can also refer to alterations to the chord For example, a CM7 chord, from bottom to top, could be "voiced" C E G B, C G E B, B E G C, or any other permutation of those four notes. A Cm7 chord (C Eb G Bb) might be "voiced" C F Bb — a "quartal" voicing — to give additional harmonic freedom to, say, an improvising soloist.

Block Chord Style

This is a style of accompaniment that primarily employs block chords. It can involve any voicing(s) and rhythm(s) of the individual chords.

Example: Count Basie - "Splanky"

Locked Hands Voicing / Double Melody / Shearing Voicing

This is a sub-category of block chord style in which

  1. The top note of the right and left hand parts include the melody note.
  2. The chords move in one-to-one lock step with the melody.

Example: George Shearing - "Lullaby of Birdland"

Barry Harris Voicing

This is also a sub-category of block chord style emphasizing the use of Major6 and Minor6 chords as well as drop 2 voicings. It can be used in combination with locked hands style, but the focus is primarily on the specific voicings as opposed to rhythmic/melodic placement.

Example: Barry Harris - "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square"

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  • Levine seems to call "Shearing-style voicings" pretty much exactly the thing that the OP is asking about, The Jazz Piano Book, Chapter 19, page 185, Figure 19-6... are the Barry Harris voicings a special case of Shearing voicings, or even the same thing? I'm slowly becoming a music theory geek, now I'm even reading books. Jan 22, 2022 at 19:22
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica Don't hurt yourself. :-) ... "Block chords" is a general term, and both Shearing and Barry Harris make use of them. In Shearing's case, the block chords are used in lock-step with the melody. Barry Harris focuses more on the specific voicings / inversions as a form of ore general accompaniment — not necessarily moving in strict conjunction with the melody. Does that clarify?
    – Aaron
    Jan 22, 2022 at 19:38
  • Ok, so it would be like, Shearing used what we call Barry Harris voicings in lockstep with the melody... it's just that Shearing maybe came up with the 6 / dim / 6 / dim idea before Harris. But due to Youtube, people are calling them Barry Harris voicings. I guess? As far as I can see, at least Levine doesn't attribute that idea to Harris, and it was published in 1989. Levine does mention Barry Harris's "major sixth diminished" scale though, and that's where the voicings come from. Jan 22, 2022 at 20:31
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica I think that's fair, adding that Shearing probably used other voicings as well. In my own opinion, Harris Voicing's are a technique; Shearing Voicings are a style — that is, an application of a technique.
    – Aaron
    Jan 22, 2022 at 20:36
  • Yeah I guess that's right. Actually, reading Levine's chapter 19, that's how it's presented - Shearing's melody playing is presented after first explaining "four-way close technique" and Barry Harris's scale: "Double the melody an octave below in four-way close and you have the basis for the block-chord style that George Shearing popularized in the 1940s and 50s". I'm probably wrong about who came first. Levine's book seems to be really good, if you just read it as what it is. It's definitely not worth the bashing it gets from some people. Jan 22, 2022 at 20:45

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