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Victoria Williams

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A3. Inversions

Grade Six Music Theory - Harmony Lesson 3: Inversions

 

 Look at the Bass Note

We know that triads are built using a root, 3rd and 5th. 

When we built triads in lesson 2 we always wrote the root as the lowest note (or bass note) of the chord. 

However, we can choose another note of the triad to use as the bass note, without changing the basic nature of the triad.

 

We don't always use the root of the chord as the bass note when harmonizing music, because it tends to sound quite boring after a while. 

When a chord's lowest note is not its root, we say the chord is inverted (like turned upside down).

Let's look at inversions in more detail. We'll use the C major triad, to make things easier.


 Root Position

The root of C major is C. When the root is the lowest note in the chord, we say the chord is in root position.

root position

In the Roman numeral system, we write the letter "a" to show a chord is in root position. For example, "Ia" means a tonic chord with the root as the lowest note.

Root position chords are extremely common.

 

 First Inversion

Let's change the order of the notes so that the lowest note, or "bass note" is an E. We are using the third of the triad, instead of the root.

first inversion

In Roman numerals, we write "b" to show 1st inversion. "Ib" means a tonic chord with the third of the triad in the bass.

First inversion chords are quite common.

 

 Second Inversion

When we put the 5th of the triad as the bass note, we have a second inversion chord.

second inversion

In Roman numerals, we write "c" to show 2nd inversion. "Ic" means a tonic chord with the 5th of the triad in the bass.

! Second inversion chords are quite rare. We don't normally use 2nd inversions, except in special circumstances, for example, the "cadential 6/4".

 

 The Order of the Other Notes

When you're thinking about inversions, the only note you need to worry about is the bass note. It is the bass note which tells you which inversion a chord is in.

All the other notes of the chord can be written in whatever order suits them best.

So, for a c major triad in root position we can find:

other root positions

 

In 1st inversion:

other first inversions

 

In 2nd inversion:

other second inversions

 

 Third Inversion

Chords with an added 7th have another possible inversion: 3rd inversion, or "d". Here's G7 (the dominant 7th in the key of C) in its four positions:

four inversions

You need to be able to recognise third inversion chords at grade 6, but you don't have to write any!

 

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