The Best Way to Use Chord Inversions

For every key there are seven chords that naturally occur. You find these chords by building triads (i.e., 3-note chords that consist of a root, 3rd and 5th) above each note of the scale. So if your song is in A major, the seven naturally-occurring chords are: A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m, and G#dim. As you know, we usually add to that palette of chord choices by including various kinds of non-diatonic chords (i.e., chords that require accidentals to create). But an easier way to increase the number of chords at your disposal is to use chord inversions.

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An inverted chord is simply one in which the root is not the lowest sounding-note. For every simple triad there are two possible inversions: you can 1) put the 3rd of the chord as the lowest-sounding note, or 2) put the 5th as the lowest sounding note.

So a chord based on A (from the key of A major) will have the notes A-C#-E. With the A at the bottom, you’ve got a triad in “root position”. If you play the same three notes, but put the C# on the bottom, you’ve got what’s called a “1st-inversion triad”. If the E is the lowest-sounding note, it’s a “2nd-inversion triad.”

When you compare a chord in root position to a chord in one of the two possible inversions, you’ll notice that all three sound pretty much the same. The only thing that changes is the so-called stability of the chord. Root position triads are very stable, and they get used the most. First-inversion triads are a little less stable, and 2nd-inversion triads are even less stable.

Don’t confuse the term “stable” with “undesirable”. A stable triad is best thought of as a chord that would work well at the beginning or end of a musical phrase. So root position chords are very stable, and you’ll use them a lot.

But how do you use a “less stable” chord properly? What’s the best way to use a chord inversion?

There are two ways to use inversions to ensure that they make sense in your chord progression.

  1. Smooth out a jumpy bass line. If you’re looking for ways to make your bass move by step rather than by leaps of 4ths and 5ths all the time, an inversion can help. Let’s say that your progression is this: C  G  F  C  F  G  C. As you can see, that bass line jumps quite a bit by 4ths and 5ths. By using inversions, you can smooth that out: C  G/B  F/A  C/G  F  G  C. Any note after the slash is the bass note.
  2. Provide a bit of variety if a chord is held for many beats. If you find that you’re song requires you to hold a C for 8 beats before moving on to F, you can play C for 4 beats, then move to C/E for 4 beats, before finally moving on to F. The inverted chord (C/E) allows the bass to move, and provides a slightly different texture, offering a bit of variety of sound.

Leaping around from one chord to an inverted one, with no particular reason for that inversion existing, can make a chord progression sound muddled. If you’re in doubt as to whether you should be using an inversion, try the progression with just root position chords. If it works OK with just root position chords, then try adding inversions as demonstrated above.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Nice post, my standard method when facing a chord hold too long (as described in 2.) was incorperating some sus2/sus4 variations. Gotta try the inversion idea too, sometimes 🙂

  2. Pingback: Songwriting Link of the Day June 2, 2011 | Creative Music

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