Beginner’s Guide to Music Theory #6: Chord Inversions

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Beginner’s Guide to Music Theory

Part 6: Chord Inversions

Welcome back! If this is your first visit and you’ve missed our previous lessons, we recommend getting familiar with the material before jumping into modes:

  1. The Major Scale
  2. Intervals
  3. Chords
  4. The Circle of Fifths (A Guide to Learning Accidentals & Key Signatures)
  5. Music Modes
Inversions

The component notes of a chord can be reshuffled in any order. It will still remain the same chord but no longer be in ‘root position’ (the root being determined by the lowest note). It instead becomes what is known as an ‘inversion’.

This generally applies to any chord or triad containing just three notes but also works with seventh chords or indeed any chord with four or more notes. To illustrate this, we have our trusty piano keyboard to hand.

Our chord here is a C triad consisting of C (the root), E (the 3rd) and G (the 5th).

Mathematically then, all possible inversions of this constellation can be (from low to high):

  • E / G / C
  • G / C / E
piano-keyboard-c-major-1st-inversion
C triad 1st inversion
piano-keyboard-c-major-2nd-inversion
C triad 2nd inversion

However, both of these ‘new’ chords are still called C major triad!

E / G / C we call 1st inversion of a C major triad

G / C / E we call 2nd inversion.

These are denoted by slightly different chord symbols. We call the 1st inversion C/E, which is read as “C over E”. Similarly, the chord symbol for the 2nd inversion is C/G, or “C over G”.

These are two examples of “close voicings”. This means that all notes are placed within a one octave spectrum.

There are also “spread voicings”, which as the name would suggest, are spread across more than one octave. This is usually done by skipping the middle note and replacing it with the same note an octave higher. The same principle can be applied to inversions:

piano-keyboard-c-major-spread-root-position-small
C triad root position spread voicing
piano-keyboard-c-major-spread-1st-inversion-small
C triad 1st inversion spread voicing
piano-keyboard-c-major-spread-2nd-inversion-small
C triad 2nd inversion spread voicing

Using spread voicings does not alter the chord symbols (C/E or C/G). The symbols are determined by the root note (which remains C), and the lowest note, which are E and G respectively. Don’t get confused by the changing intervals within the inversions.

In the 1st inversion we have a minor third between E and G and a perfect fourth between G and C. Between the lowest note E and the highest one C we have a minor sixth. Hopefully you’ll have learned about intervals and their inversions in our previous post dedicated to the topic. An interval always sounds close to its inversion, so instead of a major third between C and E in the root position we now have a very similar sounding minor sixth between E and C in the 1st inversion.

Instead of the perfect fifth between C and G in the root position, we get a similar sounding perfect fourth between G and C in the 1st inversion, and so on. This is why any inversion of a chord still sounds relatable to its parent root chord.

This is important to realize as the “regular” close root position voicing of any triad is often difficult or indeed impossible to play on the guitar. Why? Because the intervals between chord tones are thirds, whereas the interval between guitar strings is a perfect fourth, with the sole exception of between the G and B strings.

So let’s move on to a few examples how we can actually play inversions on the guitar:

Staying with the C major triad, we usually play it like this:

X 3 2 0 1 0 which gives us the notes C E G C E.

To add an inversion, we can simply play the same chord and add the open low E string to get C/E – the 1st inversion.

0 3 2 0 1 0

In other chords sometimes the difference is much bigger:

D major triad: X X 0 2 3 2 (D, A, D, F#)

D/F# (1st inversion): 2 0 0 2 3 X (F#, A, D, A, D)

The bold notes are the ones, that both voicings have in common.