Inverted Chords

When you think of the word inverted, what comes to mind? Most people think “upside down” or “backward.” When it comes to inverted chords, this is not too far from the truth, actually. Start off by saying that every triad and seventh chord you have seen in this book has been in “root” position. Root position means that the root of the chord (the tone its name is derived from) is the lowest note in the chord. Now, there are a lot of times when chords appear in root position; however, it's not the only way that chords function. Any other note in the chord can take the lowest voice, and that is exactly what an inversion is: when the third, fifth, or seventh note (if present) is in the bass voice.

Inversions can make chords a bit harder to spot on paper because you lose that wonderful “third order” that you get used to when you start to memorize the triad names. Regardless, inverted chords are found in all styles of music throughout almost the entire history of written music, so you should know a lot about them. With inverted chords comes a new set of symbols you also have to learn when you analyze music. Start with triads and their inversions and then move on to seventh chords as they are treated a bit differently.

Inverted Triads

Okay, start off with your friend, your old pal, the root position C Major triad.

By now, you should be able to identify this chord quickly as a root position C triad. If you were to go a step further and analyze it with a Roman numeral, you would give it the Roman numeral I, because in the key of C, C is the tonic or I chord!

Now, if you want to start inverting this triad, all you have to do is raise the bass note (which is C) one octave. The result is FIGURE 9.13.

With the C raised up an octave, the third of the chord (E) takes the place as the lowest-sounding note in the chord. Whenever the third of the chord is in the bass (the lowest-sounding voice), that triad is said to be in first inversion. Now, in terms of naming this chord, there are two ways: the classical way and the modern way. You will be given both.

The classical way of naming this triad would be to call it a I6. Why is it called a I6? If you look at the interval between the lowest note in the chord (E) to the C, the interval is a sixth, so that's where the six comes from. If you're wondering why the interval from the E to the G is disregarded, it's because it's a third and it's accepted that you'd have a third. It's just the way it's evolved.

When analyzing this chord in classical style, every first inversion chord will have a small 6 subscripted next to its Roman numeral. This is true no matter what kind of triad it is; major, minor, diminished, and augmented in first inversion are all “6” chords. It also doesn't matter which Roman numeral they are functioning as. All seven chords in the harmonized scale can be in first inversion with the marking of a subscripted 6.

Now, as to the modern notation, this one is easy: The triad is simply called C/E, which translates to C chord with an E in the bass. The slash (/) is commonly referred to as “over,” as in “triad over bass note.” Regardless of which is easier, it's really good to know both — if you want to learn traditional theory at some point, you'll need to know these figured bass symbols. On to the next inversion!

Remember how the first inversion was made? You simply took the lowest note and popped it up one octave. Well, to get to a second inversion, you are going to do exactly the same thing. This time, you start with a first inversion triad and move the E up an octave. The result is shown in FIGURE 9.14.

That wasn't so hard to do was it? So, to summarize what you have now: You still have a C triad and the notes C–E–G — those elements never change; what has changed is that the lowest note in the chord is now the fifth of the chord (G). Whenever the fifth of the chord is in the bass of any triad, it becomes a second inversion triad.

The classical way of naming this triad would be to call it a I6 4. It's a I6 4 triad because the intervals from the lowest note (G) are as follows: G to E is a sixth and G to C is a fourth, so that's where 6 4 comes from.

IN TIME

In baroque times, harpsichordists read inverted chords written as “figured bass.” Figured bass was basically a bass note and a bunch of numbers under the notes. The player would know based on the numbers present what chord to play and in what inversion — this is very much like the modern jazz guitarist or pianist who reads off a lead sheet.

A modern musician would see that chord as C/G, which is defined as a C triad with G as its lowest note.

Since triads have only three notes, you are all out of inversions!

To recap:

  • If a chord is in root position, no further action is necessary.

  • If a chord is in first inversion (the third of the chord is in the bass), it would be called a I6 or C/E (depending on the triad; C is just an example).

  • If a chord is in second inversion (the fifth of the chord is in the bass), it would be called a I6 4 or C/G (if C triads are used as examples).

  • Any triad, regardless of its type — major, minor, augmented, or diminished — can be inverted.

  • Every chord in the harmonized scale can be inverted, so every Roman numeral from I to VII can be inverted using the figured bass symbols for first and second inversion.

  • If you see a Roman numeral with nothing after it, it is in root position.

  • Now, on to seventh chords, which invert the same way, except they have one more note in them and that changes how they are named.

    Inverted Seventh Chords

    In theory, inverted seventh chords are no different from the inversion you just learned about with triadic inversions. The only difference is that for starters, a seventh chord has one extra note, so you get one more possible inversion:the third inversion. The other difference is that the classical music theory figurations that name the inversions are completely different for seventh chords. Other than that, the same rules apply, and you can shoot through these pretty quickly.

    You're going to use the G7 (G–B–D–F) chord in our example in the key of C, so this chord would function as a dominant, or V, chord.

    In root position, nothing changes, so there's nothing to show, it's simply G7 or V.

    The first inversion of a G7 chord moves the G up an octave, placing the B in the lowest voice. This inversion is specified with the symbol V6 5. You could also call this chord G7/B, or G seventh with B in the bass.

    The 6 5 may seem confusing, but it's not really; there is a sixth from B to G and a fifth from B to F, so that's where the figuration came from.

    The second inversion would put the B up an octave, leaving the D as the note in the bass.

    The inversion is specified as a V4 3 chord.

    The fourth is from D to G and the third from D to F.

    This chord could also be called G7/D, or G seventh with D in the bass.

    The third inversion of a G7 chord places the D up an octave, leaving the seventh of the chord, F, in the bass. The figuration of this chord is called a V2 chord. The 2 is simply there because the interval from F to G is a second (since everything else in the chord is thirds, you don't need to list them).

    This chord could also be called G7/F, or simply G seventh with F in the bass.

    Point to Consider

    Here's an easy way to remember the inversion figurations of a seventh chord. Start with 65 for a first inversion, 4 3 for a second inversion, and 2 for the third inversion. The numbers simply descend from 6: 65-43-2. That's easy to remember, right?

    To recap Seventh Chords:

  • If a seventh chord is in root position, no further action is necessary.

  • If a seventh chord is in first inversion (the third of the chord is in the bass), it would be called a V6 5 or G/B (depending on the chord; G is just an example).

  • If a seventh chord is in second inversion (the fifth of the chord is in the bass), it would be called a V4 3 or G/D (if G is used as an example).

  • Any seventh chord, regardless of its type — major, minor, augmented, or diminished — can be inverted.

  • Every seventh chord in the harmonized scale can be inverted, so every Roman numeral from I to vii can be inverted using the figured bass symbols for first, second, and third inversion.

  • If you see a Roman numeral with nothing after it, it is in root position.

  • See, that wasn't so bad was it? You're essentially through the basic chords now. Now you'll learn a little bit about why composers use inversions, and then you'll take a look at a brief example from J. S. Bach to see how a master uses inversion.

    Why Invert?

    Why invert chords? Inverted chords make music more interesting to listen to! Using inversion can help chords move from one to another more smoothly; this is called voice leading. Inversion can also help keep bass lines smooth and musical. Root position triads tend to “bounce” around the musical staff in a very jagged fashion. Inversion enables chords to move smoothly from one to another. Take a look at an example from Bach to see inversions in action.

    Just a quick note for those of you who aren't studying traditional theory:in the modern music world, especially the guitar-driven rock world, inversion can be a rarity, although you will see inversions come up from time to time. The Beatles' “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a great example of inversion in modern music. The first four chords are simply a tonic minor chord with a descending bass note. Each chord is an inversion of the tonic chord in some way. Leave it to the Beatles to keep things interesting. If you look hard enough, you can find many other examples, such as the second chord of Lynyrd Sky-nyrd's “Freebird.” Keep looking at music and see when inversions happen and what the end result is in the music. In modern music, it's almost always to connect chords and their bass notes in a smoother way. On to Bach!

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