Chord Inversions

Want to add depth, variety and fluidity to your piano playing? This article teaches you everything you need to know about chord inversions.

Last updated on 7 June 2024

Note: You'll gain the most from this article if you have a basic understanding of major and minor chords and seventh chords. If you aren't familiar with these concepts, take a look at our guides to major and minor chords and seventh chords.

Chord inversions appear 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 explain what inversions are, plus 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 chord inversions?

A chord inversion, or simply "an inversion," is a chord whose notes have shifted around so that the lowest note — called the bass note — is no longer the root note.

The root note is the primary note that a chord is built upon and named after. It feels natural, whereas inverted chords often evoke a sense of tension or movement. As an example, here is a C major chord, with the root note (C) highlighted:

Keyboard with a C major chord marked out. Root 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 chord inversions?

When you take the root of a chord and shift it up an octave, this gives you a new order of notes for the chord, called the first inversion. To form the first inversion of a C major chord, you shift the C up an octave so that E becomes the new bass note. Now the note order is E, G, C.

Keyboard with C major triad in the first inversion

You can repeat this process to create yet another arrangement of the notes. If you shift the E up an octave so that G becomes the new bass note, this gives you the second inversion of the C major chord. Now the note order is G, C, E.

Keyboard with a C major triad in the second inversion

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:

Keyboard with a C major triad an octave above middle C

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 bass 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 a chord 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 half step or two. For example, going from a C major root position chord (C, E, G) to an E minor second inversion (B, E, G) means only moving the bass note down a half step, from C to B. This creates a nice stepwise movement while keeping the other notes the same.

Which songs contain good examples of inversions?

Most songs or pieces of music contain chord inversions. You can find them just about anywhere, but below we've listed a few examples where the inversions really shine.

"Clocks" — Coldplay

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 E major triad, but played as a first inversion (G, B, E), they sound almost melancholic. Then, the movement to the next chords — B minor in second inversion (F, B, D) and F minor in root position (F, A♭, C) — feels entirely natural without being predictable.

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"Clair de Lune" — Claude Debussy

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 (D) until the end of the bar. Then, the bass note in the next chord moves a half step up to make this strange progression feel entirely natural.

Read: Claude Debussy: 10 Essential Piano Pieces

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Clair de Lune

Claude Debussy


Explore and learn more! Next steps and resources

Now that you have a good understanding of chord inversions, we recommend having some fun with them and trying them out for yourself on the piano. Our chords library contains all the popular major and minor chords you could hope for, showing you how to play them in their root positions, plus first and second inversions.  

You can also learn more about building, playing and improvising with chords in the flowkey app. Happy playing! 

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