Chord Root and InversionsSep 04, 2021
You may have heard of a chord root and inversions. But what are they?
It all starts with a chord. What exactly is that?
Basically, multiple notes played simultaneously.
Inversions are built on the most common form of chord, known as a triad.
A triad is a chord stacked in 3rds. So a triad is the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes from the root note.
So a C chord would be made up of C, E, and G.
Got it? Good, let’s dive into inversions.
Basically, inversions are the 3 different basic flavors of your triad. They all have the same notes, but in a different order. The 3 triad flavors are root, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion.
This is the traditional triad, with the root note in the bass.
1st, 3rd, 5th
So, for a C major chord, the C will be in the bass. The above image would be the basic example of what the root C major chord looks like, but the inversion of a chord is based purely on what is in the bass.
The above is the root chord because the lowest note is the 1st, not because of the location of the 3rd and 5th.
Let’s look at another example of a C major root chord.
Notice how the note in the bass is a 1st- making it a root chord. But there is another 1st in the chord and the 3rd is the highest note. If you take away the 1st in the bass, this actually would be a second inversion.
But the note in the bass is a 1st. That’s all that matters for determining that this is the root chord.
Not only that, but you don’t even need all 3 notes! For example, this would still be a Root C chord:
If you’re reading a lyric sheet with chords on it, one should always assume that a chord is in root position as long as it isn’t specified. Root chords will simply be identified as a chord without a “/” in it.
Amin, Cmaj, and Bb dim are all examples of chords implied to be in root position.
A first inversion triad has the 3rd in the bass. And, for the basic inversions, we are taking the lowest note of the previous inversion and putting it on top.
In other words, we take the 1st and put it up an octave. So a basic first inversion triad would look like this:
3rd, 5th, 1st
For a C major, this would be E, G, and C.
Now, as we said with the root chord, a first inversion is really just defined by the note that is in the bass, so a 1st inversion chord is whenever the 3rd is the note in the bass.
Let’s look at a couple other examples of 1st inversion C major chords:
In the example directly above, note how it’s basically a 3rd (E) and then a root chord above it. This is still a 1st inversion chord because the inversion of a chord is based purely on the note in the bass.
But there’s a takeaway here. Let’s say the bass note is played by a bass guitarist- the pianist can then simply play the root chord! Now, this doesn’t change that the overall chord is in 1st inversion, but having a 1st inversion chord does not mean every instrument needs to play the chord in first inversion.
A second inversion triad has the 5th in the bass.
For the basic inversion, we are taking the lowest note of the first inversion and putting it on top. So a basic second inversion triad would look like this:
5th, 1st, 3rd
For a C major chord, this would be a G, C, and E.
As always, the inversion is based purely on the bass note, so let’s look at a couple other examples of second inversion C chords.
If you’ve ever seen something like “C/G” to specify a chord, that simply represents the second inversion C chord.
How? Well, “C/G” essentially means “A C chord with a G in the bass”. Which, by definition, is a 2nd inversion C chord. In a band setting, this will usually be played simply as a C chord by guitarists, but the bass guitarist will play a G.
So what do you think “C/E” represents? Well, it means “A C chord with E in the bass”, so that makes it a first inversion C chord!
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