Say we want to play piano and we know these things:

  • We have a I-IV-V-I chord progression
  • We we want to play a measure in C major (C-D-E-F-G-A-B)

So if we look at I-IV-V-I in C major from the perspective of the term chord progression we know ONLY that:

  • The measure we will play contains notes from the chord C major, F major, G major and C major (in that order)

But if we add the term chord voicing on top of the previous things we know from the chord progression bullet list, we will know:

Edit after accepting an answer: I did not know what "chord voicing" means at the time of asking this question. Members of the community corrected me that I'm actually looking for the term "comping pattern", not "chord voicing". It's the comping pattern that dictates the note length and rests etc. in the played chord

  • What are the rests, note durations and note order in our chord progression

And each musical genre has its unique voicings. So if I told a blues pianist "hey man play I-IV-V-I" he'd play it vastly different than a latin pianist, because the latin music and blues music genres have different voicings.

Am I correct with all of the above? I'm asking because I recently tried to play a latin song whose first measure looks like this:

Sheet music of first measure of Bemba Colora by Jose Claro Fumero as sung by Celia Cruz

Another measure from the middle of the song: e

So this means "treble clef is horns", "bass clef is bass" and "the chord symbols in between the treble and bass clef are to be played by the pianist". I'm a pianist, and the marking "F minor 6" says nothing to me - sure I know what notes it contains, but I assume the composer does not intend me to play "F minor 6" for a whole note.

So the problem here is that I want to play latin music (guaguanco/guajira-son latin music [actually cuban] genres) but I don't know the voicings for those musical genres? And this is why "F minor 6" says nothing to me about how to play this song?

It's kinda difficult for me to understand how horns and bass get direct, set in stone notes whereas the piano (and probably guitar in other songs) just get chords and the pianist is supposed to figure out the note durations, rest and voicings based just on the genre.

How is life fair?

  • @piiperi I updated the image. The name of the song is 'Bemba Colora'. The bassline repeats for the next 4 measures until another part of the song begins.
    – user63447
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 10:28
  • Also added another measure from the middle of the song for context. As you can see the chords come one after another.
    – user63447
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 10:36
  • 1
    The header doesn't really encapsulate what you're asking.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 10:45
  • @Tim Could you please suggest a more fitting tile? I'm a layman so I'm not familiar with musical terms very much
    – user63447
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 10:49
  • 2
    @ArturTagisow It's not about improvisation, it's about comping. Even if all the notes aren't written out explicitly, the creative contribution doesn't have to be so big that you would really have to improvise a lot to come up with something to play. You play the given chords using a rhythm pattern, perhaps an arpeggiating pattern, and particularly in latin music there are pre-made rhythm patterns to choose from. If you like to think of that as improvisation, that's fine, but would you say you're "improvising" if you strum guitar chords as accompaniment to a song. Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 17:02

4 Answers 4


Yes, you're right that in many genres of music pianists and guitarists have to spontaneously come up with parts based only on chord symbols (and hopefully also listening to other members of the band). This is called comping. Bass players typically also have to do this too; even if the bassline is written out in that piece that isn't always the case (and if you look at figure F in the music you gave you can see that it says the bassline is just a suggestion).

Like most things in music, comping is a very deep skill that you can practice for years without ever perfecting it. But you can get started with just two things: some sort of pattern and the ability to apply that pattern to the different chords. The pattern can be divided into a rhythm and a style of voicing. Someone with more knowledge of Cuban music could give you more authentic advice, but a simple pattern I think you could start with is alternating between thumb and 2-3 notes with your other fingers on the right hand, roughly in the area of the two octaves above middle C, and playing the same thing an octave below in your left hand. This video has some other suggestions, and if you Google "montuno piano patterns" etc. you'll get a lot more. In terms of the specific voicing it's OK to play any notes that are in the chord for now, you can get more particular with that once you have some more practice. For the rhythm, listen to any music in the style of the song you're looking at and you should be able to pick something up.

Adapting the pattern to different chords can be hard in two ways. Firstly, it can be difficult to physically change between chords even if you know the notes you need to play. You can deal with this just by practising as you would for a piece that is completely written out, but it's also possible to fiddle with the voicings to make things simpler. Secondly, you might not know the notes in each chord instantly (being unable to name them, and/or not being able to "feel" where they are on the keyboard). For now you can handle this by going through the piece one chord at a time and working things out.

Once you've got the hang of all this, you can start making your comping more interesting by varying the pattern you use throughout the piece and reacting to what other people are doing. Inevitably you'll go too far in that direction and your comping will start to distract from the melody, and then you can spend the rest of your life trying to find the perfect balance (in jazz, Keith Jarrett is the gold standard for this).


Pianists and guitarists in these styles are expected to be able to play from chord names and bass lines. If you cannot find an Fm6 in a heartbeat then this means more practice. As for the comping style, this varies between players and genres and is up to you. On the guitar it may be just four downstrokes per bar, a funky cross-rhythm in the style of Nile Rodgers or an arpeggio pattern in the stye of Bach.

You could say the first prelude from Bach's Preludes and Fugues has the keyboard just 'laying down' the rhythm, and if I was asking a guitarist to back up the keyboard I'd just give them the chord names and let them create the part. As a pianist or guitarist one just has to know the chords.

Voicing and voice-leading is an additional issue, one that need not arise when we're playing along with a written bass and lead-line. We're just adding rhythm and filling out the harmonies.

I cannot tell where you are on the scale of things but I'd suggest a study of Bach's first prelude from the Preludes and Fugues, naming the chords and examining the handling of the voices.


Latin pop music is to some extent based on interlocking patterns in the rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, 47,275 drums). The piano part is (in some styles) called a montuno (so is the loud parts of some pieces too). The montuno is generally two measures (or 8 beats depending on how the composer chose the notation) based on another pattern called the clave. The montun (and equivalent in bass and drums, etc.) are played throughout throughout the entire piece of music (with sectional chances between verse and chorus perhaps). Each genre has its own collection of montuno patterns, etc.

Wikipedia has pretty good articles on the subject (at the introductory level.) Try the keys words "clave" and "montuno" and "tumbao" in the wiki. There are also lots of articles and Youtube videos that help. To some extent the piano becomes primarily a rhythm instrument. You may feel a bit the snare drummer in Ravel's "Bolero" (only distantly related to the Cuban bolero which has its own montuno.)


A chord progression is a list of chords. A chord's voicing is the arrangement of notes within that chord. But you seem to be asking about something else, the rhythmic element of 'comping' in various styles.

Yes, different comping styles for different musical styles. For a low-down blues you might simply play basic close-position chords 4-to-the-bar. In other jazz styles you might punctuate the beat rather than laying it down, filling in the gaps with irregular off-the-beat rhythms. In a Latin style you might co-operate with the bass player in establishing the underlying rhythm - Tango, Cha-cha, Bossanova, whatever.

In the particular example you give, I'd follow the bass rhythm. We're told the piece uses a 3-2 Clave rhythm, and that's exactly what the bass is laying down.

If you want some 'rules' - listen to the bass. Work with it. Favour open voicings, 3 notes are often sufficient. Consider omitting the 3rd of the chord - that belongs to the melody! In jazz punctuate the rhythm, in Latin lay it down.

And don't waste your time trying to follow anyone's written instructions. Listen to recordings, attend performances and see what the guys ARE doing!

  • Hi, thank you for your answer. I wanted to ask: what do you mean by 'lay down [the rhythm]'? I understand 'punctuate the rytmh' (so 'accentuate the beat'). Lay it down means 'play between the beat'/syncopate then? I kinda feel like I'm below the level of piano skill of your answer. When I'm told play F minor 6th in this song, I can look up the chord's notes and after that I'm stuck. I know literally 0 vocings. I feel like I need some written rules that would hold my hand for a while. What do you think I'm missing here to play the F minor 6th for that one bar?Do I just learn my first vocing?
    – user63447
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 11:12
  • No, quite the opposite! I meant 'Laying down the beat' to mean playing the basic rhythm, in this case the clave rhythm. 'Punctuating' would be dropping chords into the gaps, Count Basie style.
    – Laurence
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 11:41

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