2.11 Root position and inversion


Category: Harmony | Tags: Chords, Triads


In this chapter you will learn about variations in playing triads. You learn about the root position and inversions. You learn to recognize root position and inversions and you are goning to make them yourself in the exercises.

1. Playing triad variations

If you play a chord, for example, the tones C - E - G, it makes no difference how you play these tones. You can arrange them anyway you please. It’s good as long as the sound is pleasing to you. For example, you can play the C-chord on the piano with the C placed very low and the E and G very high on the keyboard.

The C-chord C E G
The C-chord with the C placed low and the E and G high.

Or, you can play the three tones together, or, one after the other. Or, you can play one first, and then the other two. You can also duplicate tones. Another variation could be to play the tones in another order. There are endless possibilities as long as you play C E G and don’t change a tone, because then you’ve changed the chord.

In the previous chapter, you’ve learned that the lowest tone of a chord is called the root, the middle tone is called the third, and the highest tone is called the fifth. The root of a triad doesn't always have to be played as the lowest tone. It is also possible to play the third or fifth as the lowest tone, the name and sound of the triad remain the same.

For example, you may also play E as the lowest tone instead of C.

The C-chord played as E C G
The C-chord played with E as the lowest tone.

2. Positions

The triad C E G can be played with

the root C as lowest tone, then play C - E - G


the third E as lowest tone, then play E - G - C


the fifth G as lowest tone, then play G - C - E.

A triad can be played in three different ways. These are called positions.

3. Root position and inversion

When playing the root of the triad as the lowest tone, this is called the root position.
When not playing the root of the triad as the lowest tone, it is called an inversion.

If a triad is inverted, the root is not the lowest tone. The lowest tone is the third or the fifth.
There is one inversion with the third as the lowest tone and there is one inversion with the fifth as the lowest tone.



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An example with a triad built on A

A triad built on A is comprised of the tones A C E, A is the root.

When playing the triad with A as lowest tone, we get the root position, for example:

  • A C E
  • A E C

When A is not the lowest tone, we get an inversion, for example:

  • C A E
  • C E A
  • E A C
  • E C A



Root position and inversions of the A-chord

note example

piano example

4. When do you use inversions?

If you learn to play chords, it’s also important to learn to play inversions. Inversions are often used, and for different reasons. So, it can be very handy to play chords in inversions, because then you can move easily from one chord to the other.


Inversions are useful

For example, if you want to go from a C-chord to an A-chord, you only have to change one tone. The C-triad in built up of the tones C - E - G and the A-triad of the tones A - C - E. Do you see that these two chords differ by only one tone? Play the C-chord as C - E - G. Now, replace the G with an A, which is one tone higher. Now, play C - E - A. This is the A-chord but played as an inversion. Very handy!


Inversions sound better

Another reason to use inversions is that they often sound better than root positions. You can play a more pleasing (beautiful, attractive) bassline, for example. Don’t always play chords using only the root position (with the root tone at the bottom). At a certain moment, that can sound a bit boring, it can become tedious.


Common mistakes

If you start playing inversions, pay attention, as it is very easy to make mistakes. A common error is that you change the tones of a chord by mistake. For example, you could invert the C-chord C - E - G to E - G - B. This is incorrect, because you have changed the C into a B. The tones of the chord must remain the same! The inversion of the C-chord must remain E - G - C. In fact, E - G - B is an E-chord. Another commonly made mistake is that a chord is wrongly named. If you play C - F - A, for example, you might think that this is a C-chord. Isn’t the C is the lowest note? Sorry, but that is a mistake, because now it has become the inversion of the F-chord F - A - C.

5. Broken chords

Just as you can play melodic intervals, with the two tones of an interval played one after another, you can play the tones of chords one after another. Chords played in this way are called broken chords. Broken chords are used more often than the tones of chords played together.

broken chords
In Sonate KV 545 by Mozart, broken chords are played.


How do you determine the root note and inversion of broken chords?

If you want to determine the root note and inversion of broken chords, first put all of the tones of the broken chord into one chord. Or, play all of the tones of the chord at the same time. Remove any duplicate tones. If the tones are far apart, you can also play them an octave lower of higher, so that they are closer together. However, be sure to keep the lowest tone of the chord the same, otherwise you will change the inversion! And, be careful not to change any of the tones, otherwise you’ll change the root tone of the chord. With the remaining tones, the chord is easier to recognize and you’ll be able to determine the root tone and the inversion.

6. Practise

Harmony exercise 2e: practise recognizing the root of a triad.

Harmony exercise 2f: practise determining the root of a triad.

Harmony exercise 2g: practise determining the position of a triad.

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