Chord inversions (not inverse chords) are helpful in learning to sight read better, and read chord sheets. In this article we will learn what chord inversions are, why they are useful and how beginners should practice them.
What Are Inversions
An inversion is a triad with a bass note that is not the root of the chord. Chords are often constructed from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of a scale. If the bass note is the 3rd of the chord then it is a first inversion, and if the bass note is the 5th, it is a second inversion chord. 7th chords can have 3rd inversions if the bass note is the 7th of the chord.
For clarification, all of the following chords are 1st inversion D chords because the lowest note is an F♯.
The second measure is tricky to identify because the RH plays a root position chord while the LH plays an F♯. In this article I identify the full chord (LH + RH) as a first inversion chord, while still saying the RH plays a root position chord.
Why Practice Inversions
Chord inversions are valuable when sight reading, playing chord charts, or improving muscle memory. Consider which reason resonates with you the most as it informs how you should practice inversions.
It improves your sight reading. Like being able to identify the key your song is in, learning inversions improves your sight reading ability. In the long run, strong pianists can quickly identify the chords in the excerpt below because they are familiar with their chord inversions. For example, the first chunk of chords are G/G7 chords (below). The right hand plays inversions of the G chord (some chords are missing a G) in an easy to follow ascending pattern. In effect the whole section becomes a ginormous G7 chord with some Bdim7 chords.
The learning and memorization process is much quicker when the mind can chunk a large section of inverted chords as a simple pattern. The basic pattern bellow for the RH is inverted ascending G chords then descending Bdim7 chords.
Making chords interesting in song charts. Sometimes you will see chord charts like “Sky Full of Stars” bellow.
You could try playing these chords as root position triads in the right hand as below. But this may cause awkward RH transitions that force you to look at your fingers frequently and stumble over the lyrics. By adding in some 1st and 2nd inversions the RH can transition more smoothly, and there is a more varied and interesting to listen to harmonic pattern.
Developing muscle memory. With proper training your mind will subconsciously form your fingers into an inverted chord shape. The left hand of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” hops between inverted chords and octaves. The piece is challenging to play if the muscle memory of an A♭ 2nd inversion chord is not cemented in muscle memory.
Which (if any) reason is most relevant to you? This will change how you approach practicing inversions as is detailed in the next section.
How To Practice Inversions on Piano
So if you’ve decided that you’d like to learn your inversions, let’s start with good fingering. The chord inversion chart below shows typical fingerings for the different inversions.
When there are multiple fingering options the chord you choose will be dependent on its context. For example the 124 2nd inversion fingering works better for a D second inversion chord followed by a G first inversion chord.
If you play a chord progression and it sounds clunky, perhaps fiddle around with fingering to see if you can create a smoother transition.
Sizing up the Challenge
So we have our fingerings, let’s consider the task of learning all inversions of major and minor triads, excluding 7th chords. There are 12 major and 12 minor root chord triads, likewise there are 24 first inversion triads and 24 second inversion triads for a total of 72 major and minor root position/inverted triads to learn. Additionally, these chords are best learned in context because the inversion of a chord depends on the chords preceding it.
In summary, we need to learn 72 major and minor root position/inverted chords and we should learn them in context. Yikes!
One solution is to play I IV and V (this is Roman Numeral chord notation) chords using inversions to smooth things out. For example, play a root position C chord (I), followed by a 2nd inversion F chord (IV), and finishing with a 1st inversion G chord (V). The video below details this exercise from 5:58 to 6:20.
The beauty of the exercise is it teaches three new triad root position or inverted triads for every key. If you practice it in all 12 keys you will use all 36 possible major triad inversions, and you can do a similar exercise in minor keys.
Furthermore the exercise teaches inversions in context by navigating I, IV, and V chord transitions – the most common chords.
Now lets dive into specific chord inversion exercises.
Practicing Chord Inversion Identification In Sheet Music
If you were interested in learning inversions to improve your sight reading, mark the chords and inversions in your sheet music. This will help enforce the context in which inversions are used.
Practicing Chord Charts
If you are interested in playing chord charts, find a simple pop chart of a song you haven’t worked on recently. Play the root note in the bass to remind your brain what chord you are on; then create inverted chords in your right hand that flow smoothly. An example of this was the “Sky Full of Stars” arrangement earlier on.
Over time, you can start playing the melody note in the top note of your right hand.
Practicing to Develop Muscle Memory
If you are working on muscle memory, try playing inverted chords hands separately then together up and down the key board. Do this in several different keys over several practice sessions.
Tip for Making it Enjoyable
Recently I’ve tried to use a 2 minute rule for new habits I want to implement. The idea is that instead of planning an extravagant routine like “I will play all 24 major and minor scales every day to improve my technique,” instead think of a 2 minute (or much less) micro-version of the habit that will point you in the right direction.
To start a scale practicing routine, every time I sit at the piano I play the first 3 notes of a D♭ scale. Then I can decide if I want to practice my scales, but because I have already started usually I continue.
Overtime, as the habit has developed I’ve naturally found enjoyment in overcoming little challenges right at the beginning of my practice session. For me, practicing scales is not challenging, it’s challenging remembering, and getting started.
In just a couple of weeks my metronome marking on my D♭ scales went from a sloppy 115 to a strong 130 bpm – and it didn’t even feel like nitty-gritty practicing to me. It was just a bit of experimentation at the beginning of each practice session.
A similar way you can attack this large task of learning all 72 root position chords and inversions is to simply start each lesson with one absurdly simple exercise. For example “every time I sit at the piano I will play a root position C chord followed by a 2nd inversion F chord.” Then let the practice blossom organically over time.
Even better, right the word “inversion” on a piece of paper and stick it on your music stand to remind you to get started.
I read about the two minute rule in James Clear’s excellent book Atomic Habits.
Learning inversions may seem like a lot of work at first, but hopefully now you understand how they can be useful, and how to start practicing them in a (somewhat:) enjoyable way. Inversions are helpful if you are reading chords, are reading sheet music, or are starting to develop good muscle memory.
Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. United States, Penguin Publishing Group, 2018.