For Song Momentum, Inverted Chords Need a Purpose

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Keyboardist Playing ChordsAn inverted chord is one in which the root of the chord is not the lowest-sounding note. Every chord consists of at least 3 notes: a root, a 3rd, and a 5th. Above this basic triad, you can add other notes, the 7th being the most frequent addition. The most common presentation of chords is to have the root at the bottom, played in the bass. You can subtly change the effect of a chord, however, by having the bass play one of the other notes. Also called “slash chords” because of the use of the slash to denote the bass note (e.g., C/E), inverted chords can add to the forward motion of your song if used properly.

There are two main reasons you would use chord inversions. The first, as mentioned above, is to create subtle differences in the sound of a chord, and this is usually done if a chord is being held for a long time. Several bars of C can get a bit boring. If you’ve got two bars of C before it moves on to F, you can add harmonic interest by playing C/E (i.e., a C major chord with E sounding as the lowest note) in the second bar.

The second reason is to help you smooth out a jumpy bass line. If you’re trying to avoid a bass line that simply bangs away on one note before jumping on to the next chord, you can create a sense of line by having your bass move up or down by step. To do this,  you will likely want to use inverted chords. It’s easier to demonstrate this than describe it, so take a look at the following example:

G  F  Em  Dm  C

The problem with this that everything moves in parallel motion, everything together. And especially if the melody also happens to be moving lower, it can make your song feel like it’s being pulled downward, sapping energy along with it.

Here’s a better solution that uses a chord inversion:

G  F  C/E  Dm  C

By simply replacing the Em chord with C/E, we’ve strengthened the progression. Chord progressions, to be “strong”, like the frequent use of chords whose roots move by 4ths or 5ths. By replacing Em with C/E, we’ve inserted a chord root movement of a 4th between the 2nd and 3rd chord of the progression. This is the technique used at the end of each line of The Beatles’ “Let it Be”.

There’s actually a 3rd reason for using chord inversions, but only comes up if you’re writing choral music in the style of J.S. Bach. Inversions can help you avoid voice-leading errors. But this is not usually a concern in popular music genres.

So with inversions, you now have a way to breathe a bit of new life into chord progressions that are a bit drab. Here are a few examples:



2) WITHOUT: C  Em  Am  C  F  G  C

WITH: C  Em/B  Am  C/G  F  G  C

3) WITHOUT: C  G  Em  F  G  Am  G  C

WITH: C  G/D  C/E  F  C/G  Am  G/B  C

In general, you’ll find that too many inverted chords in a row can start to have a negative effect. We like to hear root position chords frequently, because of the strength they add to the harmonic structure of your song. So limit your use of inversions to no more than 2 or 3 in a row.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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    • Some songwriters/arrangers use inversions more than others. One songwriter who has used them a lot is Elton John. He uses them in much the same way that a Classical composer would. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is an excellent example, so check out the chord chart for that tune. That song is also a good example of secondary dominant chords, on the words “fly away” (“And butterflies are free to fly/ fly away..”)

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