Inverting the Tonic Chord To Create Forward Motion

Create a pleasant sense of musical restlessness by moving the root upward in the tonic chord.

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Elton John - Someone Saved My Life TonightThe tonic chord is the one that represents the key of your song. A couple of posts ago I showed how using the tonic chord works as both a starting point and an important ending point for many phrases in tonal music. Most chord progressions in pop music genres create and release tension by moving away from and then back toward the tonic chord.

There is another interesting way to manipulate the momentum of your chord progression: by inverting the tonic chord.

All chords in tonal music are either triads: 3-note chords comprised of a root, a 3rd and a 5th, or use triads as a structure upon which other tones are added. For example, when you strum an Ab chord on a guitar, you are hearing six different notes, but the actual pitches are either an Ab (the root), a C (the 3rd) or an Eb (the 5th), in various octaves. The note Ab will be the lowest-sounding note.

An inverted chord is one in which the root is not the lowest-sounding note. When you play the 3rd as the lowest pitch, the chord is said to be in 1st inversion, and it has a slightly unstable sound: it is more likely that you would end a progression on a root-position chord rather than a 1st inversion chord.

When you play the 5th as the lowest pitch, the chord is in 2nd inversion. This has an even less-stable sound, very unlikely that it will serve as the end of a progression. So what are the good uses of inverted chords?

Inversions often work best in the middle of phrases, as a way of smoothing the transition from one chord to the next. In the progression Ab  Eb/Bb  Ab/C  Db, the bass line becomes smoother because of the inversions. Without the inversions in that progression, the bass would have jumped around quite a bit, playing Ab  Eb  Ab  Db. The inversions turn the bass part into something more resembling a bass countermelody.

That fact aside, inverting chords can help to create a sense of forward motion in songs. What is forward motion? It is the sense that at any one time, something in the music feels unsettled and needing resolution. Chord inversions can do that; they inject a sense of restlessness in music, particularly if you end phrases on inverted chords where the listener expected to hear the solid sound of the root in the bass. Instinctively, audiences wait to listen for a root position chord if they didn’t hear it when they expected it. It all happens on a more-or-less subconscious level.

A great example of this can be heard in Elton John’s epic “Someone Saved My Life Tonight“, from his 1975 album “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” The feeling of restlessness can be heard from the very first chord sequence, moving back and forth between Ab/Eb and Db. The chord progression for the song is lengthy, and almost every instance of the Ab tonic chord  appears as a very unstable 2nd inversion chord,  the note Eb playing in the bass.

The musically comforting authentic cadence (Eb moving to Ab) never happens with root position chords in this song. Although Ab/Eb, at least in traditional harmony, usually then resolves to a root position Eb chord, then to Ab, this song never gives that kind of resolution.

The end result is that the listener, on a subconscious level, is always listening for a clear resting spot that never happens. If you grew up with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, you may have always noticed the lengthy, run-on characteristic of the music, where resting spots seem few and far between. You can point your finger at Elton John’s use of inversions.

If your song intro moves back and forth between the tonic and some other chord, and if you include that intro as a connector between verses, you might try inverting the tonic chord as a way of creating momentum.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Good simple suggestion, Gary. I’ve used inversions to keep the melody note from being the bass note on a number of occasions, but not particularly to maintain tension throughout a chord progression.

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