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Part-writing Inverted Chords: Primary Triads In First Inversion

“Great title, Doc,” you say, with possibly just a tinge of sarcasm. “But what in the world is an inverted chord? How can a term like that even make sense?”

Admittedly, it can be a bit mind-boggling to try to imagine how a chord—which is, after all, just a particular sort of sound—can be turned bottom-uppermost. But in music theory “inverted” and “inversion” have specific technical meanings—yes, sadly, more than one. But let’s look at the meaning appropriate to this context.

In previous Hubs on part-writing—see the sidebar link below the picture for a summary—we have seen that triads are built upwards from a tone which we call the “root.” Above the root we find two other “chord tones”: the third and the fifth. And in each case, the root of the triad has also been the chord tone found in the bass—hence the term “root position.”

Another kind of inverted chord?  Irish guitarist Wallis Bird plays left-handed by turning her standard-strung guitar upside down.  Image courtesy Roland Frisch and Wikimedia Commons.

Another kind of inverted chord? Irish guitarist Wallis Bird plays left-handed by turning her standard-strung guitar upside down. Image courtesy Roland Frisch and Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Part-writing Chords: Summary I
    "Part-writing Inverted Chords" Hubs presumes basic part-writing skills. Here's a 'syllabus' and a summary of what's needed--and a guide to where you might want to start if the present Hub feels a little too advanced.

An inverted chord is one in which the root is not the bass tone. In this series of Hubs we will be considering (and working with) triads in which the third of the chord appears as the bass tone instead. Such chords are referred to as “first inversion triads.”

The primary triads in any key are usually considered to be the triads built upon scale degrees 1, 4, and 5. For example, here are the primary triads of C major, each given first in root position and then in first inversion.

Example 1

part-writing-inverted-chords-primary-triads-in-first-inversion

Note that it doesn’t matter what the precise voicing of the upper tones of the chord is for purposes of determining the ‘position’ of the chord: if the bass is the root, then it is a root position chord, and if the third is the root, then it is a first inversion chord.

Before we come to grips with specific first inversion triads, though, let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of first inversion chord for a moment. After all, they represent a new complication for us: why is it worthwhile to ‘invert’ chords in the first place?