You should already have a basic understanding of chord inversions (root position, first inversion and second inversion). For a reminder, see Chord Inversions. In this lesson we’ll learn a little more about how the different inversions of chords are used in actual music.

Root Position Chords

Root position chords sound very solid. They are normally found all the way through a piece of music, but especially at the places which are most important in the structure of a piece. For this reason, we normally find them right at the beginning, right at the end, and also in most cadences. A cadence is a chord progression which is used to end a phrase.

First Inversion Chords

First inversion chords are a little less stable than root position chords. Because the lowest note is not the root of the chord, the music does not sound finished, or emphatic, when a first inversion chord is used. This means we’re most likely to find them in places where the music is moving forwards, and not at ending points.

Second Inversion Chords

Finally, second inversion chords are the most unstable type, as it’s the top note of the triad which is found as the lowest note in the chord. They are “upside down” chords, if you like. Because they are very unstable, second inversion chords are normally only used in some special circumstances. The most common places are called the cadential 6/4 and the passing 6/4. “6/4” is another way to say “second inversion chord”. You can find out more about these in later lessons.

Added 7th Chords

Added 7th chords like the dominant 7th (or “V7”) can be in root position, 1st, 2nd or 3rd inversion. Second inversion 7th chords can be used in the same places as the other inversions, they do not have the same restrictions as second inversion triads.

Four-note chords can be written in four different positions:

  1. Root position (root note in bass)
  2. First inversion (3rd of chord in bass)
  3. Second inversion (5th of chord in bass)
  4. Third inversion (7th of chord in bass)

Here are some examples of V7 in C major, in each position:

Inversions of V7

Chords in Music

Here is a typical four-part harmony hymn – Come Ye Thankful People Come. (Tip: hymn books are great source for studying relatively simple four-part harmony!)

The hymn is in F major but moves through a number of keys – these are marked along the top in brackets.

chord inversion analysis

Notice that it starts and ends with root position chords, and that each cadence ends with a root position chord. The cadences are easy to spot here, because they are always minims (half notes).

There are plenty of root position chords used all through the music, but much fewer first inversions. These only appear in the middle of a phrase. There are only two second inversion chords used in the whole piece, and these are at cadential 6/4 progressions. There are a couple of dominant 7th chords in second inversion too.

The choice of inversion also allows the bass line to have a nice shape, and make a tune in itself.

Notice that most of the first inversion chords are moved into by step in the bass part, and all the leaps of a 4th or 5th in the bass are into root position chords. This is typically how a bass line and inversions work together.