Chord inversion basics for piano and keyboard

Let's learn to form new chords that are NOT in the root position.


 Before starting, let's define a few terms.

  1. triad: three notes that form a chord
  2. root (tonic): the note in a chord that is the same as the chord being named, i.e. in a C chord, the root or tonic note is a C.
  3. bottom: the lower pitched note in a chord 
  4. third: the third note in a scale
  5. fifth: the fifth note in a scale
  6. C major triad: a chord formed by the notes C, E, G (root, third, fifth).

Introduction

Always playing chords on the piano or keyboard with the root (tonic) at the bottom means you’ll be jumping a lot around the keyboard. This can be difficult, particularly on an accordion, ('cause it's hard to see the keyboard, eh?) and can result in choppy-sounding playing.

However, playing inverted chords allows you to play without moving around excessively, as well as adding some nice tonality to your playing. It’s also a great way to increase your knowledge of the keyboard and improve your musicianship.


Example in C Major

Let's look at a C major triad chord and its inversion options.

The Three Triad Inversions

You can play any three-note chord from three positions. Here is what it looks like in the case of C Major:

  • The root position: The traditional note grouping (root, third, and fifth)

 

  • The first inversion: The root note moved to the top of the chord so that it's now arranged third, fifth, root

  • The second inversion: The third moved up on top of the root (fifth, root, third)

And here is a standard notation view:


Example chord sequence in C Major

Let's take a look at a simple four chord sequence in C using root position chords then compare that to the same sequence using chord inversions.

In the example below, I'm playing a C, Am, F, G (1, 6m, 4, 5 in C Major)  sequence in root position. Notice how far I have to move between the C and the A minor.

C root

Root position sequence diagrams

C major root

A minor root

F major root

G major root

 

 

However, if I use simple chord inversions, I don't have to move around on the keyboard nearly as much. Here is the same chord sequence using simple inversions.

1-6m-4-5 inverted

Inversion sequence diagrams

C major root (this one didn't change)

A minor first inversion

F major second inversion

G major second inversion

 


Conclusion

Chord inversions are fun and useful. They often sound better too. 

 

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