Chord inversions (not inverse chords) are helpful in learning to sight read better, and read chord sheets. In this article will give 4 easy exercises to help practice inversions.
What Are Chord 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 3rd of a D major chord).
Why Practice Chord 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.
Reason 1: It Improves Your Site Reading Ability
Like identifying the key your song is in, learning inversions improves your sight reading ability. When looking at the piece below, a good site reader will simply identify the first 6 measures of the RH as inversions of a G7 chord and the following 8 measures Bdim7 chord inversions instead of reading note by note.
Reason 2: Inversions Make Chord Charts Interesting
Sometimes you will see chord charts like “Sky Full of Stars” below.
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 harmonic pattern.
Reason 3: 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
There are 72 major and minor root position/inverted chords and we should learn them in context. Sounds challenging, but the following exercises should help out.
Exercise 1: Play All Inversions in a Key (Develops 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.
- First play just G chord inversions up and down the keyboard in your right hand (shown below).
- Then play with your left hand.
- Finally try hands together.
- Repeat steps one through three in new keys and using 7th chords.
Exercise 2: Practicing Inversions in Chord Progressions
It’s extremely important to learn inversions in context. Sometimes you’ll play music that has inverted chords up and down the keyboard as in the last exercise, but often you will go from one inverted chord to the next in a chord progression.
One solution is to play I IV and V chords (this is Roman Numeral chord notation) 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.
Exercise 3: Playing Chord Charts with Inversions
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.
Notice how the RH has smoother transitions when using inversions.
Over time, you can start playing the melody note in the top note of your right hand.
Exercise 4: Chord Inversion Identification In Sheet Music (Reinforces Sight Reading)
If you were interested in learning inversions to improve your sight reading, mark the chords and inversions in your sheet music. This will help you recognize the chords as they come up on a sheet.
Using Proper Chord Inversion Fingerings
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.
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.
What note is in the bass of a second inversion chord?
The bass of a 2nd inversion chord is the fifth of the chord. In the case of a C major chord, the fifth is G. So a second inversion C chord is G C E.
How many inversions of a chord are there?
There are 3 inversions in a standard major or minor chord (if you count root position as an inversion). In general, there are as many inversions as there are notes in a chord, so a 7th chord has 4 inversions because it is has 4 notes.
What are 6-4, 6-3, 5-6, etc chords?
While using figured bass notation, you may see numbers like 6-4, 6-3, etc as shown below. 6-4 chords are actually just 2nd inversion chords, 6-3 chords are first inversion chords, 5-3 chords are root position chords. A 6-5 chord is a first inversion 7th chord. There is nuance to the notation system.
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.