Chord inversion: different ways to play the same chord

Let me start with a simple C major triad. You can play the C major triad in 3 different ways on the piano. All you need is a chord inversion. Let me explain…

Chord inversion in a triad

I will continue with the C major triad: C   E   G.  On the piano keyboard, it looks like:

C root

You can see that the C, the root of the triad, is at the bottom. We call the C major triad in this position the root position.

When we move the lowest note, the C, to the top, we get: E   G   C.

Or, on the piano keyboard:

C 1st inversion

We call this the C major triad in 1st inversion.

When we move now the lowest note (which is the E) to the top, we get: G   C   E.

We call this the C major triad in 2nd inversion (see next figure).

C 2nd inversion

When we move now the lowest note (which is the G) to the top, we’re back in root position, with the root (the C) at the bottom.

You can see that it’s possible to make three different ways to play a major triad:

  • Root position
  • 1st inversion
  • 2nd inversion

 

Now, you can imagine that all triads, whether they are major, minor, diminished or whatever, can be played in those 3 positions.

Chord inversion in 7th chords

We can apply the same ‘trick’ in 7th chords: always move the bottom note to the top to get to the next position.

Let me illustrate this with the C7 chord. In root position, this is: C   E   G   Bb (see figure)

C7 root position

Let’s move the root to the top to go to the C7 chord in 1st inversion: E   G   Bb   C (see figure)

C7 1st inversion

Move the bottom note (the E) to the top, and we’re in 2nd inversion:

C7 2nd inversion

Again, move the bottom note (now the G) to the top, and we’re in 3rd inversion:

C7 3rd inversion

And, as you guessed already, when we move now the bottom note (the Bb) to the top, we’re back in root position.

This means that the 7th chords have 4 possible positions:

  • Root position
  • 1st inversion
  • 2nd inversion
  • 3rd inversion

And, of course, you can apply the same trick to all other kind of 7th chords (minor 7th, major 7th, …).

 

It takes some time to really master the inversions of all kind of chords, that’s why it is important to practice a lot with it. You can do this by doing the exercises that are accesible via the links below. Do them in the order as they appear in this list, because they go from easy to more difficult. Do an exercise for about 5 minutes and then come back at the same or a next exercise later (or the next day).

Place the notes of the major triad on the piano (all the inversions)

Place the notes of the minor triad on the piano (all the inversions)

Place the notes of the dominant chord on the piano (all the inversions)

Place the notes of the minor 7th chord on the piano (all the inversions)

Place the notes of the major 7th chord on the piano (all the inversions)

Place the notes of the chord (dominant/minor 7th/major 7th) on the piano (all the inversions)

 

 

Please tell us what you think of this lesson and the exercises by leaving a comment below.

 

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Martin Cohen
 

Martin Cohen is a science and piano teacher. He is also a jazz musician and composer.

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