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Understanding Chords and Inversions

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Chords form the basics of any music, whether that be classical, jazz, pop. You name it, it can be usually be 'chordified'. However, wrapping your head around chords can be a little bit of a challenge at the start - especially seeing as it appears chords can be played in several different ways.


Let's start by asking the basic questions;



What is a Chord?



Usually you will learn at the beginning of your piano journey that a chord is a group of three different notes. This is usually true for how you will likely be learning if you are a beginner, however a more accurate definition would be;


Three or more notes, at least two of which are different.


When we refer to two notes played together (or in succession) we refer to them as intervals.


However, it should remembered that doubling up a note creates a chord in its own right. For example. Playing a C with 2 Gs (such as the G below and above it) at the same time results in a C5 chord.


But that's a little more complex. As far as we're going to investigate on this post, chords are made up of three different notes.



What is a Triad?



Triad chords are the most basic form of chords you could hope to find. They are made up of notes 1, 3 and 5 of the root note's scale.


So, using a straightforward example of C major, to find the triad chord we can use the scale and count notes 1, 3 and 5:


C D E F G A B


Therefore, C - E - G is a basic C major triad.


The same can be applied to a minor scale. To use the relative minor of C major as an example (A minor), we can find an A minor triad:


A B C D E F G#


So an A minor scale is made up of A - C - E.


If we were to play the notes of either of these chords as written ascending (for example, playing C major with our C on the bottom) we would be playing in what we call root position. This is quite literally because the chord's 'name' is being played on the bottom (the root!).




What is the Difference between Major and Minor?



Major and Minor chords refer to a different tonality.


Major can sound happy, fun / funny, optimistic, bright and many other positive emotions.


Minor, on the other hand, can sound sad, pessimistic, depressing, frightening / foreboding and other such emotions.


If we take either triad used in my example above, we can switch the tonality simply by changing one note;


The middle note (i.e. the third note of the scale) is what gives a triad chord its tonality, and the difference between major and minor is just a semitone:



What is a Semitone and a Tone?


A semitone is the distance between any note and the note immediately left or right of it - black or white. For example, E - F would be a semitone. C - C# would be a semitone, as would B - Bb.


A tone is literally two semitones! Therefore, C - D would be a tone, for example. As would E - F#, or Db - Eb.



Creating Tonality with a Semitone Change



Play your C major chord as you would. The notes - ascending - should be C - E - G.


Now, substitute the middle note for the note that is immediately one note below (black or white).


Did you manage it?


You should be playing the black note immediately left of the E (the second of the pair of black notes). This is an Eb. You are now playing C - Eb - G, which is C minor.


Now play A minor in root position (A - C - E).


What do you have to do to create an A major chord?


If you said to increase the middle note by one semitone then you'd be absolutely correct!


This would move C to C#, which is the first of the pair of black notes.


This means you should be playing A - C# - E, which is an A major chord!


Note how the tones sound - major is brighter and happier, whereas minor is sadder and more melancholy. And that difference comes from just altering one note!



Counting Tones and Semitones to find Chords and Scales



Don't worry - in time you will become so instinctive with chords that you will just be able to play them. But using this simple trick of counting, you will be able to find the scales and root position triad starting from any note (providing you don't start so high you run out of keys!).


Using a C major scale as an example:


C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C


Can you identify the intervals as either tones or semitones between each note?


The answer?


Root - Tone - Tone - Semitone - Tone - Tone - Tone - Semitone (back to root).


When writing out a scale, it is important to remember to only use each note name once. Consider this when writing out a more complex scale.


A sharp raises the note by one semitone, whereas a flat lowers the note by one semitone.


Therefore, if I were to insist you find a G major scale using the same structure as above, you could do so.


G - A - B - C - D - E - (F# / Gb?) - G


Above I have transcribed the G major scale using both F# and Gb. Which do you think is correct?


Harmonically speaking, that note is both, but don't forget that we only use each note name once.


We can't refer to that note as Gb because we are already using our G, yet we aren't playing an F. So F has become F#.


Using a similar tactic, can you write out the scale for F major?


Correct answer:





F - G - A - Bb - C - D - E - F


We have played A, so the black note we play can't then be A#. Yet we miss out the B completely, so we can refer to it as B flat.


Knowing how to find the major scales of any note, you can now identify the triad of any note using the 1 - 3 - 5 method at the top!


For minor scales, I will refer to A minor - the relative minor of C major;


A - B - C - D - E - F - G# - A


Our structure here is:


Root - Tone - Semitone - Tone - Tone - Semitone - Tone and a Half* - Semitone


these three semitones - or one and a half tones - create what we call a harmonic minor scale. It is the odd one out when we switch from major to its relative minor, and is a minor scale that is much more frequently followed in classical music structure than contemporary.


Now let's try a difference scale. Let's try and find E minor.


Correct answer:




E - F# G - A - B - C - D# - E


Two sharps for the price of one, and well done if you got it!


Because the note 'F' is skipped, as is 'D', we sharpen them. We can't use the note names 'E' or 'G' as flats because they are already being used as natural notes!


Can you now identify an E minor triad from the E minor scale?


Correct answer:




E - G - B


And harking back to an earlier point, how would we turn that into an E major chord?


Correct answer:




Increase the middle note (G) by one semitone. This would move it up to the black note immediately to its right (the middle note of the group of three) - which is a G# ••. Therefore, E major is E - G# - B.


•• We can refer to this note now as G# because an E major chord is not part of the key of E minor, which the scale represents. We haven't necessarily moved directly to the key of E major, but any chord that falls in the key signature we were in - such as E minor - would be able to be made with the notes of the scale by default. Because we now have a G# we know we are at least no longer in E minor.


Take a look at the diagram below to see how these root position triads might be notated in treble clef in the key of C major:



From Left to Right - C major, F major, G major, A minor, E minor, E major.


Finding Relative Majors and Minors



Major chords transitioning to their relative minor is a very common chord transition, so it is a nice one to get used to. It can also help in your understanding of scales, as with the exception of that aforementioned 'seventh' note in the harmonic minor scale, they share identical sharps and flats.


In fact, that's exactly the definition:


The relative major / minor refers to a key signature that shares the exact sharpened or flattened notes (with that seventh exception!).


However, we're talking chords.


I have already nodded to the fact that C major and A minor are relative major and minor to each other respectively, and you can deduce that from the fact that they both share the same amount of sharps and flats (that is - none - all white keys!). With the exception of that pesky G# in A minor - but that's an oddity you'll have to bear with me on!


So, when we are playing chords, how do we find the relative major or minor?


Simple. When playing a major triad - such as C major - in root position, we remove the top note (G) and substitute it for a lower note. If you want to consider it in tones and semitones again, it is a note one and a half tones (three semitones) - below the original root note - now the new third note.


So, our C and E stay firmly in position, yet we have swapped the G from C major (C - E - G) to A at the bottom (A - C - E) to create A minor.



Understanding Inversions



Now you understand more about triad chords in root positions, we can explore inversions in a little more detail. This is perhaps where people get a little more confused as if root position hasn't been taught straight away then learning chords as their inversions first off can be strange.


But the simple trick to remember is that triad chords can be played in any order (any chord can, in fact).


So, if you have a triad of C major made up of C - E - G in root position, you can also play E - G - C / G - C - E . In fact, if your span is long enough you could even play E - C - G or C - G - E ascending. And if you use two hands you can definitely double up on notes, such as C - G - E - E - G - C!


The point is, there are an unlimited number of ways to recognise a chord.


However, for the sake of this blog we'll just focus on root position (which I believe we've covered quite well) and the two inversions - first and second.


First inversion would remove the note from the bottom (the root) and replace it with the same note one octave higher. For example, C major root position C - E - G becomes C major first inversion E - G - C.


Second inversion would add onto first inversion by replacing the new bottom note from first inversion with the same note one octave higher. So our first inversion of C major - E - G - C - now becomes C major second inversion G - C - E.


It's worth pointing out, of course, that these inversions are specifically written as triads. But the same principle applies to the order of notes. The whole point of an 'inversion' is to emphasise what note is on the bottom.


So E - C - G could also be C major first inversion, as could a two handed E - G - E - C - E!:



The above shows respectively three ways in which C major could be written, starting with root position, then first inversion, then second inversion. Note it is the note at the very bottom (i.e. the left hand) that dictates this, and the order of the notes above do not actually matter!


Now that you are more familiar with chords, take a look below and see if you can identify the chords and whether or not they are root position or an inversions:



Answers Below:




Left to Right:


C major root position

G major first inversion

F major root position

F major first inversion

C major second inversion

F major first inversion

G major root position

F major root position (don't let the right hand fool you - that is indeed a second inversion F major, however because we are playing F in the left hand it is still root position!).



Conclusion


I hope that has helped you understand chords and inversions a little more, but really the best thing you can do is go and play them for yourself. Experiment and find them and practice transitioning and listening to the differences between major and minor.


 

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