An inverted chord is one where the letter name of the chord (C, let’s say) is not the lowest sounding note. Normally, if you play the C chord in your band rehearsal, that means that the lowest sounding note, the one played by the bass or left hand of the keyboard, will be C.
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But since the C chord has three notes — C, E and G — you also have the option of placing either the E in the bass (called first inversion) or the G in the bass (called second inversion). You can hear that each version of the C chord has its own unique sound.
Why Use Inverted Chords?
There are several reasons why an inverted chord might be desirable. One good reason is to create something more interesting than simply playing that same C chord over and over. Let’s say you have a verse where most of your melody is being harmonized by C. By choosing to switch to a first inversion C — the C chord with the note E in the bass — partway through the phrase, you can add some musical interest.
But here’s another good reason: inverted chords are not as tonally stable as root position chords, so an inverted chord can add very important contrast. Here’s how that might work.
In The Beach Boys’ hit song from Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (Brian Wilson/Tony Asher), the verse consists of two phrases, and when you listen to the verse you get the very clear impression of a simple first phrase, followed by a more complex second phrase, then on to the second verse. So there’s a Simple-Complex-Simple kind of contrast in this song, and it’s important:
The first part of the verse uses chords that are very strong and predictable:
E – A – F#m – B7
Then the next section of the melody is harmonized with a couple of chords, the first one being a second inversion C#m chord, and the second one being E11 – much more complex than the simple triads from the first section:
C#m/6-4 (2nd inversion C#m, using notes C#-E-G#, G# in the bass) – E11 – C#m/6-4 – G#m – F#m – B7
So when you listen to the first part of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, you’re hearing the very important contrast of simple/strong, versus fragile/complex.
Using Chord Inversions In Your Own Songs
Brian Wilson’s use of chord inversions in this song is no accident; he knew what he was doing. By using the inversions in the contrasting second phrase, he creates a moment of complexity in a way that makes listeners instinctively want to hear how it all turns out. It keeps people listening.
So here’s something to try if you want to explore this in your own songwriting: If you’ve written a verse melody that’s 4 bars in length, take a look at the third and fourth bars, and try using an inversion or two in those bars.
If your verse is 8 bars long, you can try inversions in bars 3-4 and again in 7-8.
Let your ears be your guide – you’ll know if the inversions are working for you. You can also use inversions in your song bridge as a way of making the progressions a little more complex before returning to the final chorus repeats.
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