There are 88 keys on a piano, and within this framework of pitches, there is an infinite number of combinations to create music. Sometimes music may seem random and songs appear to be completely unique compilations of notes, but this is usually not the case. There are patterns in music and these patterns are groups of notes called chords. Chords are the foundations of tonal music, and provide insight into how music ‘works.’
Chords are groups of 3 or more notes made with specific combinations of pitches. The name of a chord is determined by the different notes that make up the chord. For example, a C major chord is made with the notes C, E, and G. Learning basic chords will give you the ability to analyze music and better understand the underlying structure of a song. Chords have an initial basic position called the root position, which has the root note of the chord as the first note. However, chords don’t always appear in root position. They often appear in the form of inversions, which may look different than their basic root position.
What are chord inversions?
The note that the chord is based on is called the root note of the chord. A chord is in root position when the lowest note in the chord is the root note. For example, a C major chord in root position would be ‘spelled’ C, E, G, from bottom to top. Here is a C major chord in root position.
As you can see, C is on the bottom of the chord, and the other notes of the chord (C and G) are above it. C is the root, E is the third, and G is the fifth.
An inversion is when the root note is not at the bottom of the chord. The notes are ‘inverted’ and have the root note at the top or in the middle of the chord.
Chord inversions are named based on how many note combinations there. A three-note chord will have a root position, a first inversion, and a second inversion, so it has a root position and two inversions. A four-note chord has a root position and three inversions.
Here is a C major chord in first inversion and second inversion respectively.
In the first inversion of the chord, C is the third note at the top of the chord. In the second inversion, C is the second chord at the top of the chord.
Here is an example of a C7 chord in root position, first inversion, second inversion, and third inversion.
Inversions work the same way with four-note chords, there are just more inversions since there are more note combinations.
It also works the same way for minor, diminished, and augmented triads, and other types of chords.
Why Practice Chord Inversions?
Practicing patterns we find in music like chords and scales will prepare you to recognize these patterns in music. If chords only ever appeared in their root positions, we would soon run out of combinations and music would be boring. While this may occur in beginner piano songs, the vast majority of music uses chord inversions. For this reason, it is important to be familiar with and practice chords and their inversions.
How to Practice Chord Inversions on Piano?
You can start practicing inversions by first simply playing the blocked chords one after another, first with a major triad and then with a minor triad. Here are major and minor triads and their inversions for the key of C.
Once you are comfortable with these basic chords and inversions, you can add a fourth note by doubling the first note of each chord.
You can also practice broken arpeggios playing chords starting from different notes to practice inversions, like this.
Once you’re comfortable with one octave, you can try doing two octaves, starting on a different note of the chord for each exercise.
If you are really ambitious you can try three octaves or more. Notice how the only notes used in all the exercises are the same: C, E, G. All these arpeggios are broken C major chords, in different inversions. Once you have done them in C major, repeat them in C minor.
Once you have practiced these in the key of C, repeat them in other keys, D major and minor, E major and minor, etc.
Now watch this video to get a comprehensive idea on how to play chord inversions on piano.
How to Avoid Mistakes With Inversions ?
The most common playing mistakes when practicing inversions are often due to poor fingering. Always make sure you play inversions with the same fingering to avoid mistakes and practice consistency. Use this fingering as a guide for playing inversions.
You can also use this fingering for playing arpeggios.
Another mistake that you might make is the theoretical mistake of misnaming a chord based on the bottom note or not analyzing the chord carefully enough. A root position C major chord and a second inversion F major chord both have C as the bottom note, but a C major chord uses the notes C, E, G, while the second inversion F chord uses the notes C, F, A.
As a general rule, in order to determine what chord a group of notes is creating, put all the notes into the same octave as close together as possible. This should give you the root position of the chord. For a simple example, the notes of the first inversion C major chord are all in the same octave but are not as close as they could be, since the C is a fourth above the G when it could be closer by putting the C a third below the E. Doing this puts all the notes as close together as possible, and you see that you have a C major chord.
Learning chord structures will greatly enhance your music theory knowledge, and being familiar with the different inversions of chords will allow you to more quickly recognize when chords are spelled ‘out of order,’ or in an ‘inverted’ order. It is important to remember that no matter what order the notes are in, if those notes match the requirements for a certain chord, they will be that chord. The sooner you can master the note spellings for basic chords, the easier you will be able to recognize the key and quality of chord inversions.