Chords are made by playing three or more tones at once. Often we will play chords in root position, which means that the lowest tone is the root tone of the chord.
For example, C major in root position is played as: C – E – G (from low to high)
Often it is useful to put the chord tones in a different order. We’ll go into the reasons why later, but for now I’ll show you how to play such inversions.
If there are three tones in the chord, as in the C major chord above, we can play it in three different positions:
- Root position (or fundamental position)
- First inversion
- Second inversion
In first inversion, you take the lowest tone and put it on top. Now the chord becomes: E – G – C. In terms of major scale degrees, the chord is now: 3-5-1
In second inversion, you take the highest tone and put it at the bottom. Now the chord is: G – C – E. In scale degrees, the chord is now: 5-1-3
(You can also make the second inversion by taking the first inversion and putting its lowest tone on top again.)
The number of tones in a chord determines the number of ways the chord can be played. So four-tone chords can be played four different ways.
For example, the Cmaj7 chord:
- Root position: C-E-G-B (1-3-5-7)
- First inversion: E-G-B-C (3-5-7-1)
- Second inversion: G-B-C-E (5-7-1-3)
- Third inversion: B-C-E-G (7-1-3-5)
It’s as easy as that.
In popular music, inversions are usually notated as slash chords, which look like: “chord name/bass tone”.
An example is Cmaj7/E. This means you should play the Cmaj7 chord but so that the E tone is at the bottom. In other words: in first inversion.
The classical way is a little trickier; it uses intervals to notate the inversion. For triads (three-tone chords):
- Root position: just the chord name
- First inversion: chord6 — because the root is now a sixth interval above the bass tone
- Second inversion: chord64 — the root is now a fourth above the bass tone and the 3rd of the chord is now a sixth above the bass tone
Confused yet? Here are the notations for seventh chords (i.e. chords with four tones):
- Root position: chord7
- First inversion: chord65
- Second inversion: chord43
- Third inversion: chord2
Notice that from top to bottom, the inversion numbers go from 7 to 2. That’s a handy trick to remember this notation scheme.
Anyway, I prefer the slash chord method to notate inversions.
The main reasons for using inversions are: a) playing a smoother bass line, b) voiceleading. But that is for a future article.
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