How do single musicians play two different voices at once?

• Jun 25, 2022 - 20:22

I'm sure this must have been discussed previously, but ...

Many songs I find on the net or in MuseScore, add voice 2 or even voices 2 &3 to a single track, to enrich the sound so it plays as if several instruments are playing at once. I can easily understand if a band playing off some sheet music, assigns person 1 to play voice 1, and person 2 to play voice 2. But how does a single musician, for example a pianist, play BOTH voices at the same time on one instrument? For example:

In this view, a piano composer has added two voices to one piano track. In reading this piece, is this even playable, or ....

Screenshot 2022-06-25 152015.png


Notice how the outer voices are tied and a pedal marking covers everything.
As a pianist you'd hit the start chords and then remove your fingers from the keys (the Pedal keeps the sound active) and thus have those fingers available to play the middle voice.

In reply to by fsgregs

If there are independent rhythms happening at once, multiple voice are the only way to notate it. There wouldn't be a way to do it without only one in most cases. If the parts are not rhythmically independent, then probably you shouldn't be using multiple voices. It all depends on the music. but in general, massages that are inherently multiple voices have to be written that way - standard notation ahs no other way. So it doesn't make sense to ask if it's easier or not - it's the only possible way.

In reply to by fsgregs

Contrary to Marc's claim, one could shorten the written duration of the held notes to fit within the other voice's rests, and expect the pedal to take over. I imagine that's what you're thinking.

But readability is about the same either way, and that being the case, it's much more important to communicate the intention that these notes are to be sustained as though continually depressed, not just given a little resonance for flavor.

In reply to by Rose Egbert

To be clear, I wasn't talking about this specific example. I was answering the more general question about multiple voices. As I wrote, if the rhythms are truly independent, there is usually no way to write them without use of multiple voices. That is, multiple voices are not some obscure difficult-to-read notation to be avoided at all costs - they are completely essential for any but the most simplistic of piano music.

This particular example is not a case of truly independent voices - just a very simple case of a chord held by a pedal. But still, as noted, the use of multiple voices is really the much clearer way to notate it.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella


I guess I am confused about HOW to play a more complex piece with multiple voices. I can understand a piano score using one voice to hold a chord with the left hand, and voice 2 to play the melody with the right hand. But, how does a pianist play a two voice song if BOTH hands are playing two different voices at the same time? I get that if both voices have different notes, dynamics, hold and rest times, a pianist might be able to discern the differences and play both hands differently, but wow! It sure seems complex.

I also always thought multiple voices meant two pianists were reading the same score. In fact, since a solo violinist usually cannot play more than 1 note at a time, I have used two voices in some of my violin/strings staffs, particularly for harmony, assuming the score will be read by a strings section and the conductor will assign some violinists to voice 1 or top note 1 in a chord, and others to voice 2 or middle note 2 in the chord, and still note 3 or voice 3 to to other violinists. Here is one example:

Screenshot 2022-06-27 100153.png

Am I doing something wrong here? Should I assign each note in a strings section a different voice/color to make it easier for the musician to pick out their notes? If so, it will make my job a lot more laborious!

Your advice is always welcome.

In reply to by fsgregs

There is no special technique required to play multiple voices on piano. You just play the notes that are specified, on the proper beats and for the specified duration. If that happens to require one finger coming down to play a note in one voice while continuing to hold a note in another voice, so be it. Happens all the time - several times per measure in much piano music. It's not even the slightest bit unusual, most pianists are barely even aware that multiple voices are involved. It's just a normal part of reading piano music.

So for instance, the following is trivially simple for any pianist to play:

Screenshot 2022-06-27 8.52.47 AM.png

The half notes in the RH gets held down (I would use fingers 1 & 2 for the first chord, 1 & 3 for the second) while playing the quarter note melody (I'd use 5).

As for your violin example, I don't see multiple voices being used at all unless you're played tricks with stem direction or visibility to make it look like only one voice. What you're written is unplayable by a single violinist. So yes, they need to be split up into separate parts. That's your job as composer/arranger - conductors aren't paid to do that! In an orchestra there are two separate violin parts - Violins 1 and Violins 2 - and you just notate these on separate staves. If you then you also need to split one or other of the violin parts into two (you can can have a three or four note chord) that's fine, the violinists already know who will take the upper and who the lower note.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

OK, I get that pianists learn how to read and play multiple voice notes easily. I am just glad I am not a pianist in a band. I would fail miserably.

You are correct. I did not attempt to make multiple voices in a violin chord. I did just assume that whoever is playing a violin 4-note chord will expect other violinists in the string section to play "their" assigned notes (top note, top middle note, lower middle note and bottom note in a 4 note chord), without needing to color code them or change stem direction. If that practice is OK, great. I really don't want to have to laboriously color notes in a chord into four different voices.

If it's not OK, then how do I do this "properly"? For example, I am using chords a lot in my strings staff. In fact, from another forum posting I made, I have activated the "Reveal Chord Symbols" onto a "Strings" staff, and 5-note chords corresponding to the Chord symbol automatically appear. I assume if I used them in a score, the strings section would know who was to play which note. Is this correct?

In reply to by fsgregs

I haven't seen anyone mention it yet, so when writing two string parts on the same staff, you should write "Div." short for "divisi", telling the musicians to divide the notes among themselves. For e.g. woodwinds, there's no ambiguity because these instruments can never play more than one note at once, but strings sometimes can, and the default assumption when they see two notes is to play both!

In reply to by fsgregs

As I wrote above, you should normally be writing for violins on two separate staves (two separate instruments, actually, with one staff each): "Violins 1" and "Violins 2". In places where you want them all playing the same thing, write the same on both staves. In places where you want them split into two (the most common way to write for violins), put the upper notes in Violins 1, the lower in Violins 2. Then if you do decide that you need additional notes in the violins and can't simply assign them to violas or whatever, you can split the Violins 1 and/or Violins 2 into two, writing two note chords (if the rhythms match) or two voices (if they don't). As I said, violinists already know how to split themselves up in this way. So, as long as you still to no more than two notes per staff - hence four notes total - all is well. If you find yourself with such a complex chord voicing that there is no way to achieve it without splitting into more than two notes per staff (eg, you are trying to create a "jazz" chord with 6 distinct pitches, or an atonal cluster), then you can certainly write three notes on a single staff, but you'll need to also decide how to split them up and write instructions into the score so the players will understand who plays what. They know how to split in twos automatically, but anything more than that, you need to write it out.

In reply to by fsgregs

No, absolutely do not write 5-note-chord on a single staff for instruments that are meant to only play one note at a time. Five note chords would usually be voices for strings with the five normal sections - violins 1, violins 2, violas, cellos, basses. That's five separate parts, each written on its own staff. Don't attempt to fake it using a single staff and coloring notes - the result might be an attractive wall hanging but will be completely unreadable to actual musicians, who respect to see their part and their part on ly on their staff, with at most an occasional split into two parts as explained previously.

I highly recommend you look up some basic info on orchestration, and also look at some actual scores.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

So, if I "reveal chord symbols" onto a strings track, and it creates 3 or 4 notes on the treble stave and 1 bass note on the bass stave, I have to create a 2nd strings stave and cut and past the bottom two notes from the treble staff on Strings 1, onto Strings 2, and leave the bass note be. Is that correct? Here is an example:

Without conversion:


With conversion to two staves:


In reply to by fsgregs

Sort of, but not really. I mean, that's kind of the basic idea, but you'd want to make sure you always had exactly five notes per chord, spaced as appropriate to fit the ranges of the instruments. Then you can simply use Tools / Explode to spread the notes out to the five staves.

The chord symbol facility wasn't designed to produce voicings that actually work for strings, though. Most of them will end up with varying numbers of notes per chord - not the consistent five with well-chosen doubled notes that you'd need - and the third and fourth notes might well be higher than you'd want for viola or cello. So you'd really need to take your own knowledge of appropriate chord voicings and of how stringed instruments work to actually edit the voicings to be more appropriate for strings. You'd also want to voice them in such a way that the top notes produced pleasing melodies, and you'd want more interesting rhythms, etc.

So, if the goal is to just get something that sort of sounds like strings in general but makes no sense from a playability standpoint, no need for any of this - just use the chord symbol playback or realize chord symbols and stick to the defaults. but if you want to produce parts that actually make sense to play, you'll need to study orchestration at least a little to understand these things - there is no automatic way to make sensible string parts from chord symbols.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

All that said, probably your most reasonable starting point would be to do the following:

1) set up your five instruments (violins 1, violins 2, violas, violoncellos, contrabasses)
2) add the chord symbols to the top (violins 1) staff
3) force the chords to four-note voicings using the Inspector or Format / Style / Chord Symbols
4) Tools / Realize Chord Symbols
5) select all five staves
6) Tools / Explode

This will explode the four notes of each chord across the top four staves, and the contrabasses will get the cello note doubled, which is actually quite typical. Again, no guarantees the ranges will all work - your viola notes in this case might be kind of low, your basses kind of high - but again, you can always adjust voicings from there.

In reply to by Marc Sabatella

GOOD GRIEF!!!!!! I had NO IDEA I could take a 5-note chord on one staff, create four more empty staves, and use the "Explode" command to split all the notes onto the five separate staves. What a wonder! I thought I would have to cut and paste every note onto every staff one by one, throughout the whole song. I LOVE THE TOOL.

I will keep this much in mind in the future.

Thanks. Frank

In reply to by Rose Egbert

Thanks for the idea. I clearly can understand the INTENTION in a piano score to hold some notes more than others when played by two different hands. I had not looked at two or three voice notations that way before. I just would not want to be a sole musician and have to glean this distinction from sheet music. I can't even read single notes on a staff without difficulty, let alone tease out the subtlety of playing multi-voice notes differently in the same measure. You musicians are all ... well ... AMAZING!

I'm not so sure your piano example is playable. We don't know what is in measure 28, but the outer notes are all tied to probably the same note again. At this dynamic and speed even if the lower notes sound to the end of measure 27, the pedal cuts them off. Yet they are tied to the next measure with no way to resound. Same with the top notes.

You mentioned:
...the subtlety of playing multi-voice notes differently in the same measure.

I'm a long-time guitarist and, by comparison, a short-time pianist. Here's a "subtlety" I encountered when I started piano:
Both guitar and piano are polyphonic instruments and can play harmony (e.g., "block" chords) and counterpoint (two rhythmically independent melodic lines). Okay so far.
Guitarists generally need both hands to play a fretted note - one hand frets a string, the other plucks. Music for guitar is normally written on a single staff, and the presence of voices affect the fretting hand more than the plucking hand. That is, when to hold/release the fretting hand is voice dependent - unlike all notes, which are (mostly) plucked regardless of voice.
When I started with piano, I discovered that either hand might be used for hold/release of notes - mainly related to which staff the notes (and voices) are on. My guitar brain was never trained to transfer "voice" information to my "plucking" hand. :-(
[This made me even more aware of the skill that drummers must possess - playing, for instance, triplets with the right hand against quarter notes with the left along with tapping whole notes using a foot on a bass drum.]

Anyway, (skipping the piano lesson books when learning), I found a practical (i.e., not didactic) example of an easy-to-understand use of voices in "real life" piano music. Excellent in its simplicity:

EDIT: An error in the staff text of the attached score was corrected. The fixed score is now attached.

In reply to by Jm6stringer

Well, I examined the Forest Gump example you included, and I thank God I don't have to earn a living playing piano and reading music. I totally get the value of using two voices playing two different melodies on one piano staff, with one hand holding notes and the other not, and it sounds great, but ... crap ... it looks TOUGH to do, even if the notes are simple. I thought learning to read simple notes was hard. sH#$T! This is just ... bonkers.

Thanks for the post.

In reply to by fsgregs

If you've never studied music before, it might seem confusing. But this would normally be something covered within the first few months of lessons as an adult - normally within the first year of instruction even for
It's actually quite simple, and no harder than playing a single voice really, at least for relatively simple cases like the one posted. Playing Bach fugues is another matter:

Screenshot 2022-06-27 1.38.11 PM.png

Examples like this, where there are four separate melodies going on at once - it takes years to reach that level of mastery. But if you started piano lessons, probably simple examples like the Forrest Gump one would be well under your fingers before Christmas.

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