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An Introduction to Chord Inversions

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This music lesson is an introduction to chord inversions. Inverted chords can provide useful and interesting alternative note arrangements to chords in root position (where the lowest note is the one that the chord is named after). Why do this? So you can add variety to your playing through different voicing, whether you play guitar, keyboards or any harmonic instruments. Watch the video below to learn how chords can be inverted to change their sound or to provide smooth transitions to neighbouring chords.

Basic Chord Structure

Here is an outline of the points covered in the tutorial.

Chords are formed by combining notes. Different combinations of notes produce chords with different names. One of the notes (and any octaves of it) is considered to be the most important chord tone and is called the root of the chord. That note lends its name to the chord. In the chords C major, C minor, C 7th, or any chord named C something, all C notes (at any pitch) are considered the root of the chord.

What are Thirds and Fifths?

Staying with C major as an example, apart from the root note C and any octaves of it, the other notes are E and G plus any octaves of those notes. Those other notes are called the 3rd and 5th of the chord, respectively. That's because (ignoring octave differences) they are a 3rd and 5th interval above the root note, C (C to E is a 3rd and C to G is a 5th). Another way is to see them in relation to the C major scale, C D E F G A B C. (E is the 3rd note and G is the 5th note of the scale).

C major in root position and 1st and 2nd inversions

C major in root position and 1st and 2nd inversions

Root Position

The notes of any chord can be arranged in any order and at any pitch with unlimited note doubling at any octave. Think of a large choir singing the chord C major. Some singers will be singing a particular C note, others will be singing C notes that are octaves above or below that while others will be singing E and G notes at various octaves. It's still C major and is every bit as much C major as C major played on a harmonica with no more than three single notes - one each of C, E and G.

Most often the chosen lowest note of any chord, will also be the root of the chord, i.e., the note that the chord is named after. So, in a C chord of any type, the note C will most often be chosen as the lowest, or bass, note of the chord. The chord is then said to be in root position. Chords in root position sound at their most stable and balanced.

Inverted Chords

If we place any note other than the root in the bass, then the chord is said to be inverted. If the 3rd of the chord is in the bass, the chord is in first inversion. If the 5th of the chord is in the bass, the chord is in second inversion. If the chord has more than three differently named notes, then even more inversions are possible.

Please note: As with chords in root position, the notes above the bass note can be in any order.

First Inversion

When the 3rd is in the bass, the chord is in first inversion. It still has the consonant (blending) sound of the root position chord but is somewhat unstable and 'light on its feet'. It has a more of an edge and restlessness to it. It wouldn't normally be a good chord to end a piece of music on where the desired effect is strong, stable and final, but it makes a great connecting chord.

Six-Three Chords

With the 3rd in the bass, the 5th and root of any major chord will form intervals of a minor 6th (m6) and a minor 3rd (m3) with the bass, respectively (ignoring octave differences). In classical music analysis, first inversion chords are also known as six-three chords.

Minor chords in first inversion will also be six-three chords, but the interval quality will change. C minor, for example, has notes: Eb G and C. Those notes form intervals of major 6th (M6) and major 3rd (M3) above the bass.

In chord labels, first inversion chords may be shown as so-called slash chords, such as C/E or Gm/Bb, etc.


Second Inversion

Second-inversion chords have their 5th in the bass which makes them unstable and even dissonant (clashing) to an extent.

Six-Four Chords

With the 5th in the bass, the 3rd and root of a major chord will form intervals of a major 6th (M6) and a perfect 4th (P4), respectively, with the bass (again, ignoring octave differences). Second-inversion chords are also known as six-four chords. In chord labeling, they can be shown as slash chords, such as C/G.

Please note: As is the case with first inversion minor chords, minor chords in second inversion will still be 'six-four' chords, like major chords, but the major 6th (G-E) will become a minor 6th (G-Eb).

The video shows two examples. One is its simple use in arpeggios where it provides some pitch depth but doesn't last long enough to cause any problems of dissonance or instability.

The other example is a cadential six-four progression, often used in classical music at cadence points (e.g., section endings). Being arranged in second inversion, it's not stable. That interval of a 4th from the bass note makes it sound a bit dissonant, which is neatly exploited by placing it on a strong beat and letting it resolve indirectly via the 'dominant chord' G major, to the final strong and stable, root position tonic chord.

Root position, 1st and 2nd inversion C major chords

Root position, 1st and 2nd inversion C major chords

The final part of the video shows how chords that have more than three (differently named) notes can also be inverted, but they can sound the same as other chords in other inversions. The chord A minor 7th, for example, has exactly the same notes as C6.

  • Am7 in root position > A C E G (with C, E & G in any order)
  • Am7 in first inversion > C E G A (with E, G & A in any order)
  • C6 in root position > C E G A (with E, G & A in any order)

The context of the music can usually tell you which is most appropriate.

© 2013 Chas Mac