When Do I Use Chord Inversions?

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: 5 ways to improve your piano playing skills - You can't miss it!

  2. I use inversions to make songs easier to play, so that one does not have to move hands horizontally on the piano or the guitar. It is incredible how many songs you can play this way with just a static position and fixed finger assignments. This allows one to play both chords and melody on guitar without requiring a very fast hand. I have never thought of the difference between straight and inverted chords. For me they are the same, the main sound quality (happy, sad, stable, unstable) does not change. For most of my songs I use the bottom three guitar strings only. Some songs use only a few notes and that makes improvisation on such a mini scale quite easy.

    I may be wrong, but it sounds good to me. Sometimes I think music is something so diverse, that for every song you have in your mind, you can only get an almost random approximation of it. You can’t get it exactly. It does not matter anyway, because what you get may be beautiful in its simplicity and so you will be happy with it.

    One way or another, I had to compromize to play both melody and chords on guitar. I know Stanley Jordan solved that problem in another way, by tapping with both hands, which widens the guitar possibilities, turning it into a gran piano or even better. I tried that, but the sound I can get from my amp is too little. I am not as good as Stanley anyway, so I needed more of a poor’s man solution 🙂

  3. Very true, no hard and fast rules. And music is that kind of thing that as soon as you make a “rule”, you can come up with a list of all the songs that violate the rule, and do it quite nicely. 🙂

    But I still believe that most songwriters are best advised to avoid that particular motion in the bass. (I’d be curious to know of a song you might be thinking of that demonstrates that augmented 4th movement.)

  4. Actually, I disagree with you Gary on point No.3:

    “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.”

    In fact, that very chord progression for the bass is one of my favorite to listen to – especially in alternative rock/country songs!

    I suppose, it still depends on the art yes? No hard and fast rules 🙂

    Cheers,

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