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.
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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.
Major chords sound “happy.” To make a major chord:
🎹🔥 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.
Minor chords sound “sad.” To make a minor chord:
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.
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.
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:
…and here’s C major again. Same shapes!
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).
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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