If you have been reading our posts on music theory, you already know we’ve covered quite some ground. For example, you've learned about triads, 7th chords, 6th chords and sus chords. In this post we will talk about another group of chords, the so-called inverted chords. After reading this post you will know what inverted chords are, how to write them down and the most important thing - how to use them. Let’s begin shall we?
You already know that each chord has a starting note (1st note - root note). Let’s take a Cmaj chord as an example and write down it’s notes:
Obviously, the first note of the chord is “C”. This is a simple triad, which you already know. The good thing is that we can change this chord into an “inverted chord”. How? Well, it’s actually quite simple.
Your chord will become an inverted chord if you change a starting note. That means that if you start your chord on the “E” note instead of “C” it will become your 1st inverted chord. It looks like this:
Can you see what we have done? We did not add anything and neither did we put the notes in a random order. We just shifted the chord:
C goes after G.
E becomes the 1st note.
As a result we are getting: C-E-G-C – which is called the 1st inversion of the C Major chord.
By the way, if you haven’t opened your DAW yet, I suggest you do that now and listen how the 1st inversion of Cmaj sounds. You can also listen to the sample below:
Perhaps you can guess that we can also have another inverted chord by starting on the “G” note. If you are going to start on the “G” note, your new chord will look like this:
Your “G-C-E” is called the 2nd inversion of the C Major chord. To create an inversion, you just have to start on the 2nd or 3rd note of the chord (or 3rd (E) and 5th (G) if we express it in terms of the “chord spelling”). As you can see, we do not use a random note order, but stick to the chord’s note order. This note order stays the same when you create your inversions. This circular pattern is quite similar to the notes on a keyboard. The order of the keys stays the same no matter how many octaves your keyboard spans. And if we would write down the C Major chord for – let’s say – 6 octaves, this is what it would look like:
So inversions are not about adding or removing anything, but only about choosing a different root note.
Alright, so what do we have? We now have 3 versions of the C Major chord:
Root Position Cmaj: C-E-G
1st Inversion Cmaj/E: E-G-C
2nd Inversion Cmaj/G: G-C-E
As you can see, the inverted chords have been given special names/chord symbols. They are easy to understand. All you have to do is write the original chord symbol (in our case Cmaj) and then after a slash write the name of your starting note. In our case it can be Cmaj/E or Cmaj/G. Easy!
We can apply the same to 7th chords. The only difference is that 7th chords will have one more inversion – the 3rd inversion - starting from the 4th note of the chord (or in terms of musical terminology: starting on 7th). The 3rd inversion of Cmaj7 chord looks like this:
And the chord symbol is Cmaj7/B.
Great! We are done with talking about how to create “inverted chords” and what their chord symbols are. Your may say ‘well, that’s nice, but how can we use them?’
Inverted chords are needed if you want to make a “smooth” sound - make your chord progression sound “smoother”. Inverted chords are also used when playing the keyboard as they offer a much more convenient way for placing your hands.
Let me explain these things a bit more in detail by creating a C Major scale, pick some chords and create a chord progression.
The list of available chords in the C Major scale:
1) Cmaj or Cmaj7
2) Dm or Dm7
3) Em or Em7
4) Fmaj or Fmaj7
5) Gmaj or G7
6) Am or Am7
7) Bdim. or Bm7b5
For my chord progression I will pick Cmaj, Dm7, Fmaj7 and Am7. Have a look at the picture below!
Can you see what the overall chord progression looks like? Let’s listen to it, keeping in mind that all chords are in root position.
Next, I want to use some inversions of the chords that I’ve chosen for my progression. Let’s start with writing down the notes of each chord and highlight the note repetitions.
We can see that Dm7 has a note C, which also belongs to Cmaj. The Dmaj7 chord has F, A and C and as you can see Fmaj7 has those notes too. You can also see that Fmaj7 has A, C and E and so has Am7. That means that if we want to make a chord progression sound smoother in certain places, it is a good idea to choose those chords which have most identical notes and then create an inversion.
We can see that Dm7, Fmaj7 and Am7 have more than enough identical notes, but we don’t have to inverse all of them. We just need to pick 1 chord and invert it in a way so that its note order becomes equal to another chord’s note order.
Let’s take Dm7 and Fmaj7 and make them sound smoother shall we? What do we have to do in order for the note order of Dm7 to become equal to the note order of Fmaj7? I am sure you all came up with correct answer. You just need to change the starting point for Dm7 so that it will start from “F” rather than “D”. See below:
Dm7 - F-A-C-D
Fmaj7 - F-A-C-E
So Dm7 is now in its first inversion. Let have a listen to how the chord progression sounds now:
It does sound “smoother”, doesn’t it? If you want to make it sound even “smoother”, you can also invert Am7 – in a way so that the note order matches that of Fmaj7. To do that, we need to move our A-C-E a step forward.
Fmaj7 - F-A-C-E
Am7 - G-A-C-E
You can see that we moved note G, which was the last note of the chord, so that it becomes the first note. Once again, we do not put notes in a random order, we just follow the non-breakable cycle. All we did is just change the starting point.
And as a reminder:
If your starting point is the original 1st note - root position
If your starting point is the 2nd note - 1st inversion
If your starting point is the 3rd note - 2nd inversion
If your starting point is the 4th note - 3rd inversion
I guess this is all clear now.
Below you can see what the chords progression looks like after our inversions.
And have a listen to the sample.
It now sounds even “smoother” than before doesn't it? It even looks smoother in the picture! The lowest notes from the chords don’t make huge jumps. If you try to play the original chord progression and the inverted chord progression on your keyboard, you will feel how much more comfortable it is for your hand to play the 2nd progression. So it is a good trick for piano players.
I think we can conclude that – with this insight – you’ve gained much more freedom in your composition and music production now. You can create contrasting chord progressions - using root positions; smoother chord progressions - mixing root position with inversions or even very “softly-moving” chord progressions - using inversions only.
Patricia Lomako - also known as Patricia Blush - is a professional singer, composer, music producer and music tutor. She finished the BMus Degree in Contemporary Performance (Vocals) at the Academy of Contemporary Music (Guildford, UK) and holds a Higher Certificate in Contemporary Vocal Teaching. She composes and produces various styles of music for video's, blogs, websites, etc. She also produces electronic music (mainly pop, but influenced by and mixed with House, Deep House, Drum and Bass and Electro). Her tracks are used in playlists for retailers, restaurants, gyms around the globe. Some of her clients are: M&S, SportsDirect, KFC and Clas Ohlson. Visit her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/officialpatricialomako You can listen to some of her tracks on her soundcloud page: www.soundcloud.com/patriciablush