The first part of flowkey's guide to chords begins, as we untangle the theory behind inversions and explain concepts like the root note and root position.
Last updated on 13 Apr. 2023
You'll gain the most from this article if you have a basic understanding of major and minor chords and 7th chords. If you aren't familiar with these ideas, take a look at our guides to major and minor chords and 7th chords.
Chord inversions are found in practically every genre of music. They allow songwriters and composers to make a chord progression flow naturally and feel unique. In this article we'll untangle what inversions are and explain concepts like the root note and root position. You'll learn when, why, and how to play chord inversions on the piano. We'll also illustrate how inversions are used with some examples from various types of music.
What are inversions?
A chord inversion, or simply "an inversion" for short, is a chord that has had the order of its notes shifted. An inversion is any chord where the lowest note is not the root note.
The root note is the primary note that a chord's notes are built upon. It feels natural, without any sense of tension that needs to be released. The root note of a chord also gives the chord its name. For example, here is a C major chord, with the root note (C) highlighted.
In this example, the C major chord is in its root position. This means that the lowest note of the chord is also its root note.
How do you form and play inversions?
When you take the lowest note of a chord and shift it up an octave, you have the first inversion. If you take the note that is now the lowest and shift it up an octave, you'll have the second inversion, and so forth.
Let's take the chord above as an example: C major chord in its root position. The notes are C, E, and G, moving from the lowest to the highest.
To form the first inversion, you shift the lowest note (the root note) up an octave. In our example, the C goes up an octave so the notes of the C major first inversion are E, G, and C:
To form the second inversion, you shift the lowest note of the first inversion up an octave again. In our example, the E goes up an octave. Therefore, the notes of the C major second inversion are G, C, and E:
The number of possible inversions a chord has depends on how many notes it contains: there is one possible inversion for each note that is not the root note. So the C major triad (three notes) has two inversions besides the root position, while an A7 chord (four notes) has three inversions, and a G9 chord (five notes) has four inversions.
Why does the C major triad only have two inversions? It's best to explain this by trying to form the third inversion and seeing what happens. Following the pattern above to form the third inversion, we take the bottom note of the second inversion and shift it up an octave:
Now we've ended up with C major in its root position again, only an octave higher. So for triads, there is no third inversion.
In popular music, an inversion is most commonly written as the name of the root chord, followed by a forward slash (/), then the lowest note in that inversion. So C major first inversion is "C/E" and C major second inversion is "C/G."
If you were to say this out loud—for example during band practice—you would say "C over E" or "C over G."
When and why would you play an inversion?
Inversions are a fantastic way to make a progression feel smoother and more natural, flowing from chord to chord rather than jumping around. Often, songwriters will find inversions that create shared notes between two consecutive chords.
Another common technique is to use an inversion to keep some notes consistent while moving one note by a semitone or two. For example, going from a C major chord to an E minor second inversion means only moving the bottom note down a semitone. This creates a nice stepwise movement while keeping the other notes the same.
Which songs have good examples of inversions?
Most songs or pieces of music contain inversions somewhere, so here is a selection that illustrates how they are used in various ways:
Elton John – "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"
Elton John is great at using inversions to flow naturally through a progression. The second chord in the verse here is a second inversion, while the second chord in the chord is a first inversion. Both choices breathe new life into chords that might sound clichéd in different hands. The chorus, for example, is a spin on the "Every Pop Song Ever" progression that we unpack in our pop chords article (link).
Coldplay – "Clocks"
This is the perfect example of how inversions can change the feel of a chord. The notes that make up the opening broken chord comprise a simple major triad, but played as a first inversion (Eb) they sound almost melancholic. Then, the movement to the next chord—a second inversion (Bb minor) and F minor in root position—is entirely natural without being predictable.
Debussy – "Clair de Lune"
Debussy didn't do "normal" when it came to chords. The very first chord of this dreamy piece is a form of first inversion that doesn't add the root note until the end of the bar. Then, the lowest note in the next chord steps up a single semitone to make this strange progression feel entirely natural.
ABBA – "Dancing Queen"
ABBA hid a lot of technical flair beneath the sparkly pop melodies. Under the oohs of the introduction, the second chord is a second inversion, allowing the lowest note to stay the same as the first chord. Then, under "you can dance, you can jive," the second chord of this progression uses a first inversion so the lowest note can step up by a semitone. The result is a song that flows seamlessly.
The next part of our series explains how 7th chords shape the mood and texture of piano music across almost all genres.
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