An inverted chord means that you’ve moved the root of a chord to some upper position, leaving a note other than the root as the lowest sounding note. It’s a really great device that will add colour to your musical palette. But chord inversions have to be treated with a bit of care; randomly opting for an inversion can lead to a chord progression that sounds a bit disorganized.
A triad is a three-note chord that includes a root, a third and a fifth. For example, in C major, a C triad is comprised of a C, E and G played simultaneously. With the root on the bottom, you get this triad in its most stable position.
By moving the root upward and away from its bottom position, you now have the 3rd of the chord as the lowest-sounding note (C/E). This triad, called a first inversion triad, is slightly less stable, in the sense that we usually don’t end musical phrases with this type of chord. Ends of phrases need the solidity that comes from having the root at the bottom.
One other possibility for triads is to place the 5th at the bottom, and this gives us an even-less stable triad (C/G). This chord begs for a resolution to G (i.e., C/G – G – C).
But to say that a triad is unstable is by no means a criticism. In fact, you will find that musical progressions sound fresh and interesting when they are comprised of a balance of root position and inverted chords. The question is… how do we know when to use them?
Here are some quick tips to guide you:
- Use an inversion to animate a static bass line. If your progression requires your bass to do a lot of jumping by 4ths and 5ths, you can smooth this out and get the line moving by using an inversion. Here’s an example: C F C G C, with each chord played for 4 beats. Try modifying it with inversions (each chord played for 2 beats:) C C/E F F/A C C G G/B C
- Use an inversion to make a boring progression more interesting. Related to point 1 above, if your progression has you dwelling on one chord for a long period of time, get the bass line involved by creating inversions.
- If your melody line moves from the 3rd of a chord to an upper root of the chord, you can mirror that motion by moving the bass from the root of the chord up to the 3rd. It creates interesting interplay between melody and bass.
There are times when you need to be careful about using inversions:
- If the melody and bass line are on the same note, don’t invert the next chord if it means both melody and bass move to the same note (i.e., avoid parallel octaves).
- Be careful about leaping to inversions if there seems to be no good need or reason. For example, this might be hard to make work: C F/A Dm G/B… etc. These inversions will often result in the ear being confused.
- Avoid inversions if it means that the bass note following the inversion is an augmented 4th or diminished 5th away. In other words, this will be a bit hard on the ear: C G/B F, because the bass moving from the note B to F will be somewhat unpleasant.
Inversions can be a great way to make an otherwise boring progression a bit more interesting, and can get some motion in your bass line, but as with most elements at your disposal, be careful how you use it.
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