Chord Inversion Basics

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 root

G major root

 

 

Just You And Me

There is something so beautiful about just being alone with your instrument. I used to keep my instruments in their cases, but when I began leaving them out in my living room I noticed that I picked them up and played more. While doing something – or nothing around the house, I would more often grab a guitar or uke in some in between moment and noodle. I ended up making much faster progress that way too.

A Development Area

Those of us in who have spent some time teaching will often call weaknesses, or low skills, development areas.  Sounds better, eh?  Well, one of my development areas is electric guitar. I love my acoustic guitars. I love the percussiveness of them, etc.  But I naturally want to move into playing some electric guitar. So far, I’ve found it to be a very different approach and mindset to acoustic playing. Besides the pure technique, there is all the gear – amps, pedals and so on.

All I can say is, I have a ways to go. But I’ll keep working on it.

What Is Music?

We know that sound results from the vibrations of air molecules moving through the air to our eardrums, that the speed of those vibrations is referred to as frequency, measured in Hertz, and that pitch is the relative highness or lowness of a sound. But what is music?

I love this quote by T Bone Burnett, who I admire in spades. It’s a beautiful and elemental way to think about music.

“I view all instruments as drums and all music-making as tribal. A violin is just a drum with some strings attached, but it’s still a resonating chamber you attack with a bow or your fingers. A flute is a drum with holes in it that you blow through to make different pitches with that resonating chamber you attack with your breath. A band is, ‘Okay, we’re a tribe now. We’re going to be in this village right now and we’re going to tell people in the next village what’s happening over here.’ That’s all it is, really.”