Chord inversions

piano-keyboard

This tip is a bit of basic music theory in disguise. Please don’t run the other way now that I’ve used the ‘T’ word. I’ll make this as clear as I can and I’m intentionally limiting the discussion to a very tiny subset of music theory, to keep it simple.

This tip applies to any chordal instrument, that is, any instrument that you can play a chord on (and for the purposes of this tip, think of a chord as 3 or more notes sounding at the same time).

There, that wasn’t so painful, was it? I just slipped in our first music theory definition. A chord is three or more notes sounding at the same time.

Here are some examples of chordal instruments: piano, organ, guitar, mandolin, harp, banjo, ukelele and autoharp. Here are some non-chordal instruments (that is, they usually play one note [some can play two] at a time): saxophone, clarinet, flute, trumpet, trombone, tuba, violin, viola and cello.

For this tip, I’m only going to talk about the simplest chords. Those are the 3 note chords. You can get some interesting sounds with chords that contain 4 or more notes, but today, let’s stick to the easy ones.

We call the notes of any 3 note chord, the root, the 3rd and the fifth. If you can sing the song Do a Deer, from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music, then you can refer to that as you follow along. For now, think of Do, mi and sol as root, third and fifth.

Remember when they sing do mi mi, mi sol sol? Those are the notes of a major chord and that’s the sound of it. Another way to get it, is to look at a piano keyboard. Music theory is much easier to visualize and understand at a piano keyboard. You don’t have to be a pianist, you just need to see (or visualize in your head) a piano keyboard.

If you can find middle C or any C on a piano keyboard, you can play a C major chord by holding down the C note, then looking to the right, skip the next white key and depress the one after it, still moving to the right, skip a white key and depress the next white one. You are now playing a major chord: one, three, five or root, third, fifth.

Here’s the tip for songwriters. They always teach chords by saying one, three, five or root, third, fifth and it’s true, a chord consists of those 3 notes sounding simultaneously.

And the easiest way to ‘see’ it on a keyboard is the way I showed you above. But any combination of root, third, fifth on the keyboard still meets the definition of a chord. In my example, we played a C major chord, by hitting a C, an E and a G (in that order from left to right). We could also have played E G C (in that order from left to right) or G C E.

So all of the following meet the definition of a C major chord and they all sound a little different. Try them on a piano.

CEG
EGC
GCE
GEC
CGE
ECG

Of the three notes, the note with the lowest pitch has the biggest influence over why these chords each sound a little different. If we think of a piano keyboard, the key furthest to the left is the lowest pitch. So listen to the difference when the root is the lowest, when the third is the lowest and when the fifth is the lowest note played.

There is no right way. These are all different ways to play a C major chord. Any one can be useful in a song, to color it a little differently. Of course, if you play a six string guitar, and if you wanted to play a C chord using all six strings, you’d have to play some notes twice. That will color it differently as well. Pianists can play a C chord using even more notes.

There is a name for this. It’s call chord inversions. The first inversion is the chord played with the root in the bass meaning the root is the lowest pitched note in the chord). Second inversion is when the third is in the bass, etc. Here are some examples.

CEG first inversion = root third fifth
EGC second inversion = third fifth root
GCE third inversion = fifth root third

You don’t need to go crazy with inversions. Try to slip one in occasionally. Otherwise, if you always play all your chords in first inversion, all your songs are going to start to sound the same. Throw in a second inversion once in a while, where it sounds right to you.

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