Voicing, Doubling & Inversion in Music Theory

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The chords you use impact your music, but just as important is the voicing of those chords. In this lesson, we'll examine these ideas and see how inversion and doubling can contribute to your composition.

Voicing Music

Somehow, musicians never seem to have a problem voicing their opinions. Maybe this is because they know how to strike a specific tone (pun intended). While musicians may be known for voicing opinions, however, they are also known for voicing in their music.

In music theory, voicing simply refers to the placement of notes in a chord. This can refer to the distribution of these notes across an ensemble, or simply their arrangement within the chord itself. So, is it really possible to change the voicing of a chord? Yes, and it can help create tension, drama, and excitement in your composition. Some things are always worth voicing.


In this lesson, we'll be examining two primary methods of voicing. The first is inversion, which is a shuffling of the chord. Let's start by picturing a basic C major chord triad. A C major triad contains the notes C, E, and G, in that order.

The note after which the chord is named (C), is known as the root and is generally in the lowest spot. The E (called the third) is above the C, and the G (the fifth) is above the E. When a chord is in the pattern of root, third, fifth, we say the chord is in the original or root position.

But what if we mix this up? When inverting a chord, we take the bottom note and move it to the top of the stack. For a chord triad, we can do this twice. So, what would that look like? For the first inversion of a C major triad, we'd take the root (the C) and place it higher than the fifth (the G). Now our chord, from lowest to highest, is EGC, or third-fifth-root. That's a first inversion chord.

C major triad in root, first inversion, and second inversion

If we want to really mix it up, we can do the same thing again and move the lowest note to the top. From the first inverted chord (EGC) we move the lowest note to the top so that we end up with a chord of GCE or fifth-root-third. We did the same thing as before, only we applied it to an already inverted chord. This is known as the second inversion.

In general, a chord triad can only be inverted twice. If you invert it again, moving the fifth to the top, your chord is back in root position; it's just an octave higher than when you started out. However, you can create a third inversion by making it a 7th chord, or one that contains four notes. A chord triad contains the root, third, and fifth, so if we continue this pattern we can add on the 7th to create a 7th chord. A C7 chord would therefore include the notes CEGB. If you have four notes, then you can move the fifth from the second inversion to the top to create a third inversion. In that case, that would turn a GBCE to BCEG. With the addition of the 7th, your C is still not in the lowest position so this is a new inversion, not just an octave jump.

A G7 chord in 3rd inversion (FGBD)


You can change the voicing of a chord by rearranging the notes, but there are other ways to adjust the voicing as well. Another popular one is doubling, which involves playing one of the notes of the chord twice. You literally double the occurrence of that note. This is particularly common when writing four-part music (since a chord triad has to be broken into four lines of music) but can also be used to reinforce the tonality of the chord, or its position in the scale. It's something we almost exclusively do with triads, as 7th chords already have four parts. So, how's this done?

Doubling is something that must always be approached with caution, as not every note can be doubled without messing up the tonal center or harmonic progression of the composition. Since the goal is to reinforce tonality, we only want to double stable tones, those that connect the chord to the root, fourth, or fifth of the scale.

G chord with the root doubled (GDBG)

There are many rules for doubling, but there are some basic do's and don'ts we can start with. While doubling, DO:

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