Understanding Inversion & Doubling in Music Theory

Albert DuBose, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Albert DuBose

    Albert holds a Bachelor of Music Education and a Master of Science in Education from Troy University. He taught instrumental music in public schools for ten years. He left teaching for a few years before returning as an online teacher for English and Mathematics skills. Presently he teaches people worldwide how to perfect their English skills.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Learn about inversions and doubling in music. Study examples of first, second, and third inversions in music theory, as well as the doubling rules of music theory. Updated: 04/12/2022

Table of Contents


Voicing Music Theory

Four Part Harmony

Examples of voice leading, showing dominant to tonic resolution in four-part harmony

The choir is onstage, in position, ready to perform. The conductor briskly steps onto the podium as the audience begins to applaud. The conductor politely bows, then turns and begins to direct the choral performance. Beautiful sounds fill the air, much to the delight of the people listening. What they may not realize, though, is why the music sounds so beautiful. They may not understand the principles that govern good music writing.

The writer of the music this choir is performing understands the principles of voicing, which refers to the way in which the notes of a chord are arranged. Musicians generally agree that there are certain combinations of notes that are pleasant to listen to, and other combinations not quite as pleasant. As the music is being arranged, the astute music writer is aware of the musical tapestry being created. Horizontally, voices flow gracefully from one chord to the next, and vertically, each chord is represented by a combination of notes that accurately make up each chord. For example, if, at any juncture, the choir sings a C chord, one expects to hear the notes C, E, and G. If the E is omitted, the chord loses its character. The notes that are left, C and G, are regarded as a rather unpleasant combination.

Music arrangers realize that there are two methods of voicing. The first method, inversion, is the repositioning of the notes in a chord. Inversion implies that the lowest note of a chord may be any of the members of the chord, whether it be the root, or the first step, of the scale upon which the chord is built, or perhaps the third, fifth, or any other member of the chord.

The second method of voicing is doubling. If a composition is being written in four-part harmony, and a triad has three notes, logically one of the three notes will be represented more than once in any of the voices. Music arrangers are unanimous in that if a chord is in root position, the root, or the note for which the chord is named, should be doubled. For example, if a choir is singing a C major chord in four-part harmony, two of the voices are singing a C while the other two voices are singing an E and a G. Doubling may be in unison, meaning that the exact same pitch is being sung by two parts, such as basses and tenors, or in octaves, such as when basses are singing second space C, bass clef, and sopranos are singing third space C, treble clef.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Simple vs. Compound Intervals: Definition & Concept

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:04 Voicing Music
  • 0:45 Inversion
  • 3:10 Doubling
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

What is Inversion in Music?

Inversion in music is simply the repositioning of notes within a chord. Notes are neither added to nor omitted from the chord. Rather, the elements of the chord are moved elsewhere within the chord. Take, for example, an F chord in Figure 1:

Figure 1

F major triad in root position. The low note is F.

Read from bottom to top, this chord is spelled F, A, C. If the music arranger wanted to do so, he could take the F from the bottom of the chord and move it up one octave, as seen in Figure 2:

Figure 2

F Major triad in first inversion. The low note is A.

This is still an F chord because it contains the same three pitches, F, A, and C, but the F has been moved up an octave. The third step of the F scale, A, is now at the bottom of the chord.

Seen in Figure 3 are the root position, first inversion, and second inversion of the C Major chord:

Figure 3.

C Major chord in root position, first inversion, and second inversion.

The definition, then, of inversion in music is an alteration in the arrangement of elements in a chord as they are read from the lowest pitch to the highest.

Types of Inversions in Music Theory

In order to understand inversions in music theory, one must first understand the triad.

A triad is the most basic form of a chord in music and is made up of the first, third, and fifth steps of a diatonic scale. For example, when playing a C major scale, the musician plays C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C, one octave above the original C. The first step of the scale is C, the third step is E, and the fifth step is G, so a C major triad would contain the notes C, E, and G.

Because the note at the bottom is C, and because C is the first step of the C major scale, it is said that this triad is in root position, as seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4

C Major Triad, Root Position

First Inversion

If the C at the bottom of the triad is moved to the top so that the lowest pitch is E, the triad is now in first inversion. In first inversion, the lowest pitch is the third of the scale, or E in this case.

Second Inversion

If the E at the bottom of the triad is now moved to the top so that the lowest pitch is G, the triad is now second inversion. In second inversion, the lowest pitch is the fifth of the scale, or, in this case, G.

Third Inversion

Because of the natural manner in which a dominant seventh chord resolves to the tonic, a dominant seventh chord may be found written in third inversion. Third inversions are only possible if a chord is written with four notes. Because a dominant seventh chord in the key of C contains the notes G, B, D, and F, the F, or seventh of the chord, will be the lowest note in third inversion.

G7 Chord in Third Inversion

Dominant Seventh Chord in Third Inversion in C, or G7 chord with the seventh in the bass.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What does first inversion mean in music?

In music theory, first inversion implies that the third step of the scale upon which a chord is constructed is at the bottom of the chord. For example, a C major chord in first inversion will have an E at the bottom of the chord instead of a C.

What does inversion mean in music?

In music, inversion means a repositioning of the notes of a chord so that a step other than the first, or root, is at the bottom of a chord. For example, if a C chord is being played or sung, the E would be at the bottom in first inversion, and G would be at the bottom in second inversion.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account