Chord Inversions

The simplest way to write a chord is as a triad. A triad is a three-note chord.

C major root position

A chord written like this has its notes as close together as possible, so it’s called a closed position triad.

The lowest note is the root of the chord. This is the note which gives the chord its name. (In the example above, the root note is C, and the chord is C major). Chords in this pattern are called root-position chords, which means the root is the lowest sounding note.

The notes in a chord can be written in any order. Changing the order of the top notes of the chord does not make any difference to the name of the chord, but changing the lowest note in the chord changes the chord into an inverted chord.

If the lowest sounding note in the chord is the middle note of the root position triad (also called the “3rd”), the chord is in first inversion.

Here are two examples of C major written in first inversion. The lowest sounding note is E.

C major first inversion

If the lowest sounding note in the chord is the top note of the closed position triad (5th), the chord is in second inversion.

Here are two second inversion C major chords. The lowest sounding note is G.

C major 2nd inversion

The lowest note in a chord is called the bass note. Make sure you understand the difference between the terms bass note and root. The root note is not always the lowest note of the chord, but the bass note is.

Here are some examples of C major piano chords. The second chord is in second inversion, not root position because the bass note is G. The root note is C in both chords.

C major piano chords

When a stave contains several instruments, the bass note might not be so obvious. In this example, for cello and piano, the chord is in root position. Although the lowest piano note is E, the lowest sounding note in the whole chord is the C in the cello part.

chord over 3 staves

Naming Inversions

We use the letters ab and c (written in lower case letters) to describe the position of a chord.

When the chord is in root position, we use the letter a, for example Va is a “dominant chord in root position”.

First inversion chords are b, for example Ib – “tonic chord in first inversion”.

Second inversion chords are c, for example Vc – “dominant chord in second inversion”.

Roman numeral chord symbols

For ABRSM grade 5 you will need to be able to recognise the chords of the tonic, dominant, subdominant and supertonic in root position, first inversion and second inversion, in all the keys up to 6 flats or sharps.

Working Out Chord Inversions

To work out the inversion of any chord:

  • Re-arrange the notes so that they are as close together as possible (close position). If the chord is already in close position, the chord will be in root position.
    In close position, all the notes should be in spaces, or on lines, not a mix of both.
  • Ignore any duplications of notes in different octaves. You need different three notes in total.
  • Check which is the lowest sounding note in the chord, then compare it to the closed position chord.

What inversion is this chord?

what inversion is this chord?

Rewrite the chord in close position. You will need to change the octave of one or two notes (F, in this case):

rewrite in close triad

Look again at the lowest note in the original chord – it was A.

A is the middle note (3rd) of the close position triad, so the chord is in first inversion.

Here is a more complicated example. There are three different notes being played here, G, Bb and D.

orchestral chord

Written in closed position, we can see the lowest note is G, so the chord is G minor. The lowest sounding note is D in the bassoon part. This is the 5th of the triad (top note), so the chord is in second inversion.

close position = second inversion

Remember that the position of a chord is determined only by the bass note, which is the lowest sounding note in the chord.