Basic Music TheoryIntroduction
The Major Scale
A chord contains specific pitches, as we've seen, but those pitches don't always have to be played in the same order. If a note other than the root of the chord occurs as the lowest note, the chord is said to be inverted.
When the root of the chord occurs as the lowest note, the chord is in root position. All the chords we've looked at so far have been shown in root position.
When the third of the chord occurs as the lowest note, this is known as the first inversion.
When the fifth of the chord occurs as the lowest note, this is called the second inversion.
The notes in a chord may also be repeated, and/or spread out over multiple octaves. The illustration below shows two chords as played on a guitar: G Major in root position, and C Major in the 2nd inversion.
Regardless of now the notes are positioned within the chord, it's the lowest note that determines the inversion.
If you're playing from a lead sheet or a fake book, the inversion of the chord is usually left up to the interpretation of the performer. However, sometimes the inversion of the chord will be specifically indicated by a slash after the chord and the name of the note to play in the bass, as shown in the following example.
One of the important applications of chord inversions is to give the composition a smooth and melodic bass line. So, as shown in the example above, you might want to use the first inversion of the I chord when moving to the IV chord, because this makes for a smooth transition of the bass line. In particular, the bass notes in this case would be C-E-F, which is a movement of a major 3rd and a minor second, rather than C to F, which would be a jump of a perfect 4th. The smaller the intervals, the smoother the melodic line. Likewise, the 2nd inversion of the I chord is often used at the end of a musical phrase, as it leads smoothly to the V, which precedes the final I chord.
Another application of inversions has to do with ease of transition between chords. For example, suppose you are playing a piano or keyboard, and you want to play a C chord with your right hand, followed by G. If both are in the root position, your hand must jump up a fifth, or down a fourth, which not only can be awkward, but also doesn't sound very smooth. However, if you begin with a C in the 2nd inversion, and then play a G in the root position, one finger remains on the G, and only 2 fingers have to move down one note each. The same would be true if you started with C in the root position, and changed to G in the 1st inversion.
The use of inversions depends in part on what instrument you are playing, and how your instrument functions within the ensemble, if any. As a soloist, for example, you have full control over the inversions of the chords that are played, and you will want to make good decisions in regard to the musicality of the piece that you are performing. If you are a guitar player in an ensemble that has someone else playing bass, the inversions that you choose will have to do primarily with ease of fingering and chord transition, rather than continuity of the bass line. Oftentimes modern lead sheets will indicate inversions based on this principle, which should not necessarily be taken into account by the players of other instruments. On the other hand, if you are the bass player in an ensemble, it is very important for you to select notes within the chord that provide for a solid and melodic bass line.
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