How Do Chord Inversions Work in Songwriting?
So you’re writing songs and trying to figure out chord progressions and you came across the topic of chord inversions and want to know how they are used in songwriting.
Let me start by saying that although it might sound like a complicated topic it is actually simpler than it seems at first glance.
It also has the power to add some great detailing to your songs that will help your music sound better written, more professional and well produced.
Chord inversions are used in songwriting in a few different ways. They can be used as a tool to write better flowing basslines, they can help spice up chord progressions without changing the chords to different chords, they help smooth out blocky sounding chord progressions and they can help soften the sound of a chord to a more subtle sound.
We’re going to talk about all of these things so by the end of this article you will understand chord inversions and how to use them in a simple, easy to understand way that you don’t need a music degree to put into practice.
What are Chord Inversions?
If you have a basic understanding of how chords are made then you know that a regular Major or Minor chord has three notes, a root note, a 3rd interval note and a 5th interval note. Like this:
Cmaj chord notes – root position
1, 3, 5
C, E, G
Usually we play chords with the root note (in this case C note) as the bass note of the chord. The lowest note.
But this isn’t the only way. We can also play the chord using the same notes but using the 3rd or 5th intervals as the bass note.
Cmaj chord notes – first inversion
3, 5, 1
E, G, C
Cmaj chord notes – second inversion
5, 1, 3
G, C, E
All of these inversions are still a C Major because we’re using the same notes.
The difference is that we’re putting a different note as the bass note. We’re “inverting” the chord. This is why it’s called a chord inversion.
Notation of Chord Inversions – Slashed
The way you’ll often come across chord inversions will be written with a slash between the letters like this:
C Major – first inversion
All this is saying is that you are playing a C Major chord with an E in the bass. We call this a first inversion because the bass is now the first note of the chord that comes after the root note, in this case the E note (the chord’s 3rd).
If you were to use the G as the bass note, then we call it a second inversion because it’s using the chord’s second note after the root note as the bass.
How to Use Chord Inversions
Ok so we briefly covered what Chord Inversions are and how they are written. Now let’s get to the practical stuff.
Switch the Bass note
To create chord inversions, all that is required is to use a different note from the chord, other than the root note, as your bass note. It can be the 3rd, 5th, or even 7th if the chord has that interval.
It really is that simple.
4 Types of Inversions
There are different types of inversions depending on which note from the chord you are using as the bass note.
- Root position: the chord is played with the root note as the bass note.
- First inversion: the chord is played with the chord’s 3rd as the bass note.
- Second inversion: the chord is played with the chord’s 5th as the bass note.
- Third inversion: this only applies to chords with a 7th. In this case you would use the 7th as the bass note.
Something important to keep in mind is that the root position of a chord is the most stable, most grounded position.
The other inversions will sound less stable and grounded depending how far you go, so the third inversion is the most unstable position compared to the root position. When a chord sounds less stable it will also sound a bit softened.
When to Use Chord Inversions in Songwriting
Now that you know how to create chord inversions, it’s important to cover why and when you should use them. This will help you make your own decision based on the song you are working with and your personal taste. You don’t HAVE to use chord inversions, but there are situations where you might want a specific sound that they can provide.
To Make Flowing Bass Lines
One of the best situations to use chord inversions is when you are trying to make the bass notes of your chords or your basslines flow more smoothly with less wide leaps.
Sometimes you might have chords that go up by a fifth for example, like with a progression that goes from the root chord to the V chord.
Let’s say that I – V jump is between Cmaj and Gmaj.
C | G
In this case the leap in the bass might be a bit larger than what you want, so you might decide to repeat the C chord twice but put an E note in the bass (creating a C/E chord) the second time you repeat the Cmaj to connect them.
C | C/E | G
This might help the chords feel like they gradually shifted from one to the other rather than leapt from one to the other.
This is the kind of thing that a producer might think to bring to your music since it doesn’t change much what you already wrote, just helps it gel better.
To Spice Up a Chord Progression Without Changing the Chords
Another situation you might want to use a chord inversion is if you have a chord progression that’s very simple with some basic major or minor chords and want to spice it up without changing the existing sound too much.
Using a chord inversion on a chord or two could help the chords sound different without switching any existing chords for new chords or adding chord extensions.
Again, this is great for producing an existing song and spicing it up without really changing what is already written.
To Smooth Out Blocky Chord Progressions
This is a point that sort of combines the last two points. Sometimes when you have a chord progression and the bass notes have big leaps between them it can make the whole progression sound blocky, like each chord is just one big block next to the other instead of a more interwoven chord progression.
So chord inversions will help to make it sound less blocky by making the bass notes flow more gradually from chord to chord.
To Soften a Chord in a Progression
When a chord is at its root position, it is at its most stable position. However, you might not always want that sound.
Let’s say you have a progression with two measures where you play the same chord. Like the C chord here:
C | C | G
You want the first C chord to sound stable because it’s how the section starts and then the second time it’s played you might want it to sound lighter and not so in your face.
In this situation you could use a first inversion the second time you play the C chord and it will sound softer because when chords are inverted, they also have a softer sound.
C | C/E | G
The further the inversion is from the root position, the more unstable and softer it will sound. So 2nd and 3rd inversions are less stable and softer sounding than root positions.
How to Recognize Chord Inversions by Ear
This is gonna take practice and personally, I’m not good at this yet. However, here are some tips I have found that I am using to help me which may help you too.
Listen to the top note
The top note in a chord is usually the one that sticks out the most because it has a higher frequency so it’s easier for your ear to pick out. Check if you can hear what that note is. At least the pitch.
Pick out the interval distances
Next you’ll want to see if you can pick out the next note below it. Can you tell what the interval distance is between those two notes?
Then you could move on to pick out the third note, the bass note.
Sing them out
Try humming the individual three notes of the triad chord to yourself either in ascending or descending order.
If you can tell how many notes from the scale (whether Major or Minor) are between each of the triad chord notes you’ll be able to figure out the inversion.
- Root position triad chords: From root to 3rd is 3 notes, and from 3rd to 5th is also 3 notes.
- First inversion triad chords: From 3rd to 5th is 3 notes, and from 5th to root is 4 notes.
- Second inversion triad chords: From 5th to root is 4 notes and from root to 3rd is 3 notes.
When you count the amount of notes you can count them like this: C root to the 3rd which is an E note would be 3 notes because C is one, D is two, and E is three.
Verify on an instrument
If you have an instrument you can play the notes on it can really help. You can also download a piano app on your phone and then you’ll always have something to reference wherever you go.
With practice you should eventually be able to hear a chord and recognize the inversion because you’re so used to hearing it.
Wrapping it up
So as you can see, chord inversions are a relatively simple concept but very useful. It’s generally just the chord played using different chord notes as the bass.
This can help your progressions sound smoother and your basslines more flowy and seamless.
You can use them as both a songwriting and a production tool.
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