Chord Inversions: Triads & Seventh Chords

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Chords are the foundation of any composition, so it's important to know how to build them. In this lesson, we'll look at inverted chords and see how a composition is affected when chords are inverted.

Chord Positions

Imagine that you're in the kitchen and have the following in front of you: dough, tomato sauce, meat, and cheese. What could you make? Well, if you put the dough down first, then the sauce, then the meat, and then cheese, you've got a pizza! But what if you go dough, sauce, cheese, meat, dough? Now it's a calzone. Or, if you're feeling really crazy we could go sauce, meat, cheese, dough. Now it's a potpie.

Even with the same ingredients, we made three different dishes based on the way we arranged them. Music theory actually works in a very similar way. We combine notes into harmonious collections called chords. A chord has at least three notes, but just like with our pizza/calzone/potpie, the end product can be pretty different if you switch around the recipe.

Triad Inversions

Let's start by looking at the most basic kind of chord. A triad is a chord with three notes, the first, third, and fifth. The first is the note after which the chord is named, with the other notes being those in that scale. So, if we're working with a C major chord, then the C is the first note of the scale CDEFGABC. That makes C the first, E the third, and G the fifth. CEG is a standard triad.

C major triad
C major triad

Normally, the first note of the chord is found in the bass position, or the lowest note of the chord. A normal C major triad chord would have a C in the bass position, with E and G being above it. But what happens if we change that? Let's find out.

First Inversion

A chord with anything other than the first in the bass position is called an inverted chord. There are two ways to invert a triad. The first inversion occurs when the third is in the bass position. So, if our normal triad is CEG, then the first inversion of this triad would be ECG or EGC. It doesn't matter where the C ends up, as long as the E is in the bass. So, we've got the same ingredients, but this triad sounds very different.

Second Inversion

By that same logic, a chord in the second inversion has the fifth in the bass position. In the C major chord, the G is the fifth, so GEC and GCE would both be second inverted chords. Again, we've got the same ingredients as the normal triad, but we've created a very different sound by rearranging them.

Seventh Inversions

Triads are easy to work with and are the most common forms of chords because they always sound harmonious. But, what if we take this further? A triad is composed of 3 notes, each 2 notes above the previous. G is two notes above E, which is two notes above C. So, what if we add the note 2 places above G? That would give us a B, making the entire chord CEGB. A chord that includes the first, third, fifth, and seventh is called a seventh chord. Seventh chords have a unique, dissonant sound since the first (which is the same note as the 8th) is juxtaposed by that seventh.

The C major seventh chord
The C major seventh chord

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