• Ask Dr. Pokey: “What Is The Main Purpose Of Chord Inversions?” (Part 1)

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    We’re going to be critically looking at the main purposes of chord inversions.

    If you are a piano student and you’ve been involved with chords for sometime, the term inversion or chord inversion should not be totally new to you.

    But for the sake of those who are just coming across the term for the first time, we’ll be starting out this lesson with a short note on the concept of inversion.

    Attention: There are two sides to this topic and because I don’t want you to have a one-side view, I’ll be giving you both sides. However, we’re going to focus on the first side in this lesson and in a subsequent lesson, we can take a look at what’s on the other side.

    Are you ready?

    A Short Note On The Concept Of Inversion

    A chord has at least three notes and the most basic chords in music are known as triads because they have three notes:

    Root

    Third

    Fifth

    A classic example is the C major triad (aka – “C major chord”):

    …which has the following components:

    C is the root:

    E is the third:

    G is the fifth:

    Now, a chord is usually played in such a way that the notes are arranged in this root-third-fifth order.

    But using the concept of inversion, we can change the order of the tones and instead of root-third-fifth, we can have the following:

    third-fifth-root

    fifth-root-third

    …and that’s basically like giving every component an opportunity to either be on the bottom or at the top.

    “Let Me Give You This Analogy…”

    When we begin to change the order of the meals for the day, we’re doing inversion.

    Instead of this order:

    breakfast > lunch > dinner

    …if we go:

    lunch > dinner > breakfast

    or

    dinner > breakfast > lunch

    …we have inverted the meals for the day.

    The Root Position And Inversions

    When a chord is played in the regular root-third-fifth order, it’s called the root position chord and this is because the root is maintaining its position as the lowest chord tone.

    Here’s the C major chord in root position:

    “The First Inversion…”

    When we take the root off the bottom and put it on top of the chord, we have the first inversion of the chord.

    Here’s the C major chord in first inversion:

    Keep in mind that the root being on top puts the third tone at the bottom of the chord. So, we basically have a different top and a different bottom.

    “The Second Inversion…”

    The third which is at the bottom in the first inversion chord can be moved to the top. In the C major chord (first inversion):

    …we’ll be taking the E (which is the third):

    …of the bottom and putting it on top of the chord and this would produce the second inversion of the C major chord:

    Submission: Taking the third off the bottom puts the fifth on the bottom.

    “In A Nutshell…”

    Using the concept of inversion, have two other ways to play the C major chord:

    …and they are as follows:

    The first inversion:

    The second inversion:

    Is that the main purpose of inversion? Are we inverting just to have multiple ways of playing a chord or is there more?

    Find out in the next segment.

    “What Is The Main Purpose Of Chord Inversions?”

    There are two sides to the concept of inversion and we’re starting out with the first side of it which has to do with bass notes. In a subsequent lesson, we’ll explore the other purpose of inversion.

    Inversion: The Art Of Using A Variety Of Bass Notes

    One of the things inversion does is to change what the lowest chord tone is. In fact, when a chord is inverted, the lowest-sounding note changes because all the chord tones take their turn to be at the bottom.

    In the root position:

    …the root (C) is the lowest-sounding note:

    In the first inversion:

    …the third (E) is the lowest-sounding note:

    In the second inversion:

    …the fifth (G) is the lowest-sounding note:

    So, inversion gives us a variety of bass notes for the left hand. Instead of playing the root, we can add variety to the chord using other bass notes: the third and the fifth.

    Instead of sticking to the root all the time

    C:

    …we can use other bass notes:

    E:

    G:

    With this, you can play the C major chord:

    …with E on the bass:

    …or G on the bass:

    …instead of C all the time:

    “Let’s Apply This To Another Major Chord…”

    Instead of playing the F major chord (with F on the bass):

    …we can use the other chord tones as bass notes:

    F major (over A on the bass):

    F major (over C on the bass):

    …and it would add variety to the chord and that’s the purpose of inversion.

    “Let’s Also Apply This To A Minor Chord…”

    Instead of playing the G minor chord (with G on the bass):

    …we can use the other chord tones of the G minor chord on the bass:

    G minor (over Bb on the bass):

    G minor (over D on the bass):

    …to add variety to the chord.

    Final Words

    I’m sure that the following chords:

    C major (over E on the bass):

    C major (over G on the bass):

    …will no longer be strange to you.

    We’re basically playing the C major chord but using the concept of inversion to use a variety of bass notes.

    So, if you’re stuck with playing the C major chord with the root on the bass and are interested in doing something different, it’s time to invert the bass notes and do something different on the left hand.

    I hope this helps!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    1 fireboy and watergirl

    Great article. help me expand my knowledge.

    Reply

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