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Week 19: What are the best Chord Inversions to learn first?

First, a definition of ROOT.

A root is a note within a chord that has the same name as the chord it’s in. When the notes of a chord are arranged in such a way that the root is the lowest note of the chord, we say the chord is in root position.

In our courseware we present all our piano chords in root position at first. If you know the root is on the bottom, you can easily identify the chord you are playing by recognizing the root. So our advice is to learn all the piano chords (majors, minors, and sevenths) in root position at first.

When it’s time to move on, go ahead and relearn these same chords in second inversion. Second inversion is when the fifth of the chord is on the bottom. That’s a little technical. Let me explain.

The C chord consists of the notes C E G.

The C major scale is C D E F G A B C.

Thus the notes of the C major chord are comprised of the first (C), third (E), and fifth (G) notes of the C scale.

We said the second inversion has the fifth of the chord (G) on the bottom. Therefore, instead of spelling the chord out in root position, C E G (lowest note to highest) we’ll spell it out in second inversion G C E (lowest to highest).

Here’s why you should learn your basic chords in root position, and then relearn them in second inversion. In a typical chord progression in a typical song chord roots jump around a lot. A typical chord progression may be Em A7 Dm G7 C. If you played all these chords in root position, your left hand would jump all over the keyboard. Alternatively, if you played the same chord progression but alternated each chord between root position and second inversion, your left hand would remain in the same area of the keyboard (relatively) all the time. Try it.

By alternating inversions you can play chord changes faster, more accurately, and even without looking. This alternating inversions trick works especially well when playing chords in the Circle of Fourths pattern. Refer to our cassette “Circle of Fourths Practice” found in the How to Play Piano by Ear album for more information on the Circle of Fourths.

Although alternating between root position and second inversion is commonly used in basic pop music styles — not so in jazz. Jazz pianists have very special voicings for their chords and tend to favor alternating between first inversion and third inversion. See Lesson 34.

For more information on jazz chords, refer to our program Power Chords. If you are still mostly a beginner, you’ll find more basic information about chords and their inversions in Popular Chord Style Piano and in Praise.

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