Piano Chord Inversions, Explained

Lisa Witt  /  Chord Theory / Jul 26

How piano chord inversions work is a question we get asked all the time as music teachers. What are they? How do they work? Why do I need them?

Chord inversions may seem complicated, but once you understand the basic rules, they’re really quite simple. And once you understand them, chord inversions will take your playing to the next level.

This beginner-friendly article will explain chord inversions in an in-depth yet easy way. Be sure to also download our free chord inversion cheat sheets and charts.

  1. What Are Chords?
  2. What Are Chord Inversions?
  3. How to Invert Any Chord
  4. Why and How to Use Chord Inversions
  5. How to Practice Chord Inversions
  6. Chord Inversion Cheat Sheets

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What Are Chords?

Main article: How to Play Piano Chords: Triads, 7ths, Chord Extensions and More

(Feel free to skip to inversions if you already know about triads.)

Let’s start with the basics. What is a chord?

In a nutshell, a chord is a group of notes that sound good when played together. That’s it.

The most common chords you’ll hear on the piano contain four or three notes. Three-note chords are called triads. Triads are ideal for music theory beginners, so we’ll stick to talking about triads in this article.

There are two main types of triads: major triads and minor triads. And there is a formula that you can memorize to build a major or minor triad on any note.

The Major Chord Formula

Major chords sound “happy.” To make a major chord:

  1. Pick a root note. A root note is the note you’ll build your chord upon. Your chord will be named after it, so if you pick C, you’ll be making a C Major chord.
  2. Count up four half-steps on the keyboard. If you started on C, you’ll land on E.
  3. Count up three half-steps on the keyboard. In our C major chord, you’ll land on G.
Keyboard diagram of major triad formula for C major. C to E = 4 half steps. E to G = 3 half steps.

diagram of half steps - E to F, F# to G🎹🔥 HOT TIP! A half-step, or semitone, is the distance between two keys on the keyboard that are right next to each other. This can be two white keys (E and F) or a black and a white key (F# and G). Two semitones or half-steps make one whole-step or whole tone.

The Minor Chord Formula

Minor chords sound “sad.” To make a minor chord:

  1. Pick a root note. For example, pick A to build an A Minor triad.
  2. Count up three half-steps on the keyboard. If you start on A, you’ll land on C.
  3. Count up four half-steps from C to E. Voilà—you’ve made an A Minor triad!
Keyboard diagram of minor triad in A minor. A to C is 3 half steps. C to E is 4 half steps.

What Are Chord Inversions?

In short, chord inversions are when you re-position the notes of a chord a certain way.

A C Major triad (C-E-G) has three positions. These are the root, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion positions.

Root, 1st, and 2nd inversion of C major triad on treble clef staff and on keyboard diagram with fingering and notes.

Other types of chords like Dominant 7ths and Diminished 7ths can be inverted into different positions too.

Chord inversions are interesting additions to any song because they slightly change the sound of a chord without creating dissonance (when notes sound bad together or “clash”). Our ears are naturally drawn to the top note of chords, so while these chords can sound like a “different note,” they’ll still sound good accompanying whatever melody you’re playing.

Now let’s take a look at how to play inversions easily and quickly.

How to Invert Any Chord

The inversion process of any chord is the same. For example, let’s take our C major triad C-E-G.

The default position of the C major triad is C-E-G. This is called the root position. (Some people call these Snowman Chords ⛄)

The first inversion of C-E-G is when you flip C to the top of the stack, making E-G-C.

The second inversion is when you flip the bottom note again, making G-C-E.

Here are all the positions played one after another:

The cool thing about inversions is that they have a similar shape across all keys. For example, here’s F Minor:

F sharp minor piano chord inversions on the grand staff in root position, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion.

…and here’s C major again. Same shapes!

C major piano chord inversions on the grand staff in root position, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion.

Why and How to Use Chord Inversions on the Piano

So why go through the trouble of memorizing all the different combinations of the same chord?

Because, in addition to making songs sound more interesting, inversions also make it easier to change chords throughout a song.

Here’s an example. Say you want to change chords from C Major to F Major:

Going from the root position of C Major to the root position of F Major requires you to leap inconveniently across the keyboard.

Going from C Major root position to F Major 2nd inversion is just next door!

Here’s another example: C Major to A Minor. C Major (C-E-G) and A Minor (A-C-E) have two notes in common: C and E. So, all we have to do is switch G for A.

This means going from C Major root position (C-E-G) to A Minor 1st inversion (C-E-A).

Keyboard diagram of C major in root position (C-E-G) with fingering (1-3-5), keys highlighted in red.
Keyboard diagram of A minor in 1st inversion (C-E-A) with fingering (1-2-5) with keys highlighted in red.

(Sidenote: We adjusted the fingering from 1-3-5 to 1-2-5 — it’s just comfier this way.)

So, next time you experiment with chord progressions, try using a different inversion here and there. You’ll open yourself to so many more possibilities.

You can learn more about using inversions as shortcuts in this lesson.

How to Practice Chord Inversions on the Piano

In order to use inversions effectively, you have to know them really well.

Ideally, you should be able to play a chord inversion as soon as it’s named. Quick! Play D Major in 2nd inversion!

So, how do you practice? Here are some tips.

Tip #1: Practice in a key other than C Major

It’s easy to practice stuff in C Major, but you’ll really cement those chord shapes in your head if you practice in other keys. Especially those keys you are less familiar with.

Try D Major and F Major for a start. D Major has two sharps (F# and C#) and F Major has one flat (Bb). See if you can figure out the inversions yourself and then check your answers.

Tip #2: Memorize shapes, not notes

If you play triads and their inversions in different keys, you’ll see the same shapes over and over again. Root position chords look similar, 1st inversion chords look similar, and so on.

Practice these shapes, and try to visualize the same shapes in different keys. You’ll make mistakes at first, but with practice, it’ll get easier.

Tip #3: Get good at identifying piano chord inversions

On the subject of shapes, make sure you practice recognizing inversions when you see a chord, not just how to play them.

You can identify the root note of any chord in any inversion by finding the note with the most space underneath it.

Here’s an example:

Grand staff of C major in root, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion. Root note (C) is labelled as note with the most space beneath it.

Since the note with the most space beneath is C, we can infer that these are C chords. And because they sound “happy” and follow the major triad formula, we can conclude that they’re C Major triads.

Tip #4: Practice the old-fashioned way

Classical pianists practice inversions by playing through every single inversion in every single key both solid (notes together) and broken (notes apart). Here’s an example of broken triad practice:

Remember, you don’t have to tackle all three positions one after the other, super-smoothly, right away.

When you first start out, it makes sense to practice transitioning between just two positions. Go from root to first inversion, root to first inversion until you can do it in your sleep! This will help you build a strong foundation and cut down on frustration later.

Remember: be kind to yourself! If this takes a while, that’s normal and okay.

Now, we won’t sugarcoat this: practicing inversions the traditional way can feel tedious. But we promise it helps. Just spend a few minutes each day cycling through chord inversions. Do a key per day. Eventually, you’ll be able to play them in your sleep.

Tip #5: Learn 7th chord inversions

Dreamy 7th chords add a lot of personality to your improvisations. They can also be fun to practice and will further your understanding of inversions.

Check out this video for a fun, creative way to practice 7th chords and their inversions in a way that doesn’t sound like a classical exercise.

Chord Inversion Cheat Sheets

Finally, as promised, here are links to a PDF of ALL piano chord inversions in EVERY single key! We hope you find this resource helpful 🙂

Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note.

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