What Are Chord Shells?

In this article we're going to answer the question "what are chord shells?" Chord shells are a voicing (i.e., particular way to spell a chord) that is used by pianists in the left hand. Having an understanding of chord shells is particularly helpful when playing and arranging solo piano pieces. We're going to take a look at the jazz standard "Fly Me to the Moon" and investigate how to use chord shells in order to start to build a full arrangement.

What's the Difference Between a Regular Root-Position Chord and a Chord Shell?

Ok, so let's get into the nitty-gritty of what it means to build chord shells. First, chord shells are simply just chords. They are primarily spelled in root position, which means that the root of the chord (the note for which the chord is named) is the lowest note in the chord shell.

As the name suggests, the biggest difference between a C major 7 chord and a C major 7 chord-shell is that the chord shell does not contain all of the notes of the chord. Some notes are left out (i.e., the term shell). Two basic chord-shell spellings are the root-7th and root-3rd.

Chord Shells 1

What Happens to the Notes We Left Out of the Chord Shell?

Why would we leave out certain notes? Well, we're actually only leaving them out of the chord shell voicing - we're going to add the missing notes back when we start harmonizing the melody (in the right hand).

Let's take a look at the first four measures of "Fly Me to the Moon" in lead sheet format:

Chord Shells 2


Now, let's add in chord shells in our left hand, using only root-7th or root-3rd chord shells. Doing so results in the following two possibilities:

Chord Shells 5


Chord Shells 4

Adding Those Omitted Notes Back to the Harmony

Let's start by looking at the first of the two examples above. The first chord is an A minor 7 chord. On beat 1, we're playing an 'A' and 'G' in the left hand (the root and 7th). We want to make sure that every chord has a complete set of guide tones ("guide tones" refers to the 3rd and 7th of a chord). That's because guide tones determine a chord's quality (whether a chord is major, minor, dominant, etc). With our right hand we will now play and hold, under the melody, the chord tone that is being omitted from our chord shell voicing. By doing this, every chord will have a root and a complete set of guide tones being played across two hands under the melody.

Chord Shells 6

Making the Harmony Sound Denser

Coincidentally, the melody of "Fly Me to the Moon" happens to often resolve to chord tones at each new chord change. Taking this approach further, we can now start to add other tones to our arrangement, such as the 5th or upper extensions.

Chord Shells 7If you like this kind of jazz study check out the entire lesson on this "Fly Me to the Moon" arrangement!

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