Piano Chord Inversions

So you’re a beginner piano player like me, and you run into piano chord inversions in your lessons – what are piano chord inversions, and why do I need them? I JUST FINISHED LEARNING MY CHORDS!!!! Well, there are a couple really good reasons why you should spend time mastering these.

What Are Chord Inversions?

As you know from your training, a chord is a group of notes played at the same time (it can be 2 or more notes). All chords will contain a “root note” which will be the note the chord is named after. The most common chord you will see as a beginner piano player is called a “triad” (because it has 3 notes). The most common triads (3 note chords) you see are major or minor chords.

Major and Minor Chords Review
C Major

Major Chord: Root – 3rd – 5th
Start with any note which will be your “root” (C in this example), and count up 4 half steps (4 keys) to get to the “3rd” note in the C scale, then count up 3 half steps (3 keys) to get to the “5th” note in the C scale. You can use that formula anywhere on the keyboard to create a major triad!

C Minor

Minor Chord: Root – Flat 3rd – 5th
Start with any note which will be your “root” (C in this example), and count up 3 half steps (3 keys) to get to the “Flat 3rd” note in the C scale, then count up 4 half steps (4 keys) to get to the “5th” note in the C scale. You can use that formula anywhere on the keyboard to create a minor triad!

Chord Inversions

Chord inversions simply means to play the same notes, only in a different order. So for example, you could play the C Major chord pictured above in all three of these ways:

C Major – Root Position

C Major – 1st Inversion

C Major – 2nd Inversion

Why Should You Use Chord Inversions?

Reason One: They Can Make Your Song EASIER To Play!

The basic idea here is to allow you to play more of your song in one “area” of the keyboard without having to move a “long way” up or down the keyboard to get to the next chord. If you choose your inversions carefully, you may be able to play the same song with far less movement!

For example, look at the “C Major – 1st Inversion” above; if your next chord after C was an Em, look how easy that would be; two of your fingers are already on the correct notes. Just move the C note down to a B and BAM – you have an Em!

C Major to E Minor
Reason Two: They Can Alter How The Song Sounds!

If you play your chords using inversions to get them “closer together” in one area of the keyboard, this can result in more subtle chord changes (because the overall pitch isn’t jumping around as much). This can have a significant effect on the sound of your song (note that this might NOT be what you want; maybe you WANT “bigger” more pronounced chord changes).

Song Example – House Of The Rising Sun (as performed by the Animals)

This is a fantastic 60’s song that I always wanted to learn; as I started working on it, it became clear that it would be a great example for using inversions.

The chord progression for the verse is:
Am – C – D – F – Am – Em – Am – Em. The video below shows those chords being played in their root positions. Take note of the movement up and down the keyboard that is used.

House Of The Rising Sun – Verse chords played in root position

The next video shows how you can move all of the chords much closer together using inversions – not only making it easier to play, but I think it sounds cooler this way:

So just to compare the 2 versions, here is a sound byte of each version played at a normal speed (I just used the piano sound instead of an electric piano/organ sound so you can hear the chords a bit more clearly):

How I Practiced (And Still Practice) Inversions

I would take a chord progression I was familiar with, and then just start trying out different inversions for 1 or more of the chords to see how they work out together. They can seem overwhelming at first, so I took it slowly – I started by playing progressions I knew using the 2nd inversion for each chord (this doesn’t accomplish the reduced movement if you do the same thing for each chord 🙂 ) but it does get you used to the fingering.

Then, I would try modifying my progression to move chords closer together like in the House of the Rising Sun example above. And then as I got familiar with doing that, I would start playing the same progression concentrating on playing it with the different versions of chords each time through.

I have backing track posts in the Learning & Fun Stuff section of my site. These are basic chord progressions with drums, simple bass and guitar that you can play along with. I’m adding to those as I can, but they can be helpful for practicing things like inversions, or improvisation techniques. Check those out and use them to try out some different inversions for the common chord progressions there. Now whenever I learn a new song, I will always try out various inversions to improve the ease of playing the song and also try to improve how it sounds.

I hope this helped you out with piano chord inversions! Please feel free to contact me if you have any comments!