If a piano were only one octave wide, learning chords would be as easy as
learning to hard boil an egg – there’s only one way to do it. Because the piano has multiple octaves, though,
it means that there are many, many chords to play and many ways to play them.
These many ways to play chords are called “inversions,” and they come in handy because not everyone wants a
hardboiled egg, so to speak. Some want scrambled, some want poached, and so on.
When it comes to chords, the multiple octaves create the opportunity – depending on a musician’s or composer’s
desires – to play a variety of chord inversions on piano.
Like many elements of piano, the concept of chord inversions on piano is easy to learn, but takes time to
master. An inversion means playing a chord’s notes in different positions on the keys. For example, a basic C triad
usually involves playing middle C, then E, then G.
However, an inversion of this chord would mean making E the lowest note, then playing G, and then the next
higher C. These are the same notes, but switching the position and octave of certain keys creates inversions, and
therefore, a slightly different sound.
Normally there are three different chords when speaking of inversions. The “root position” means that the note
for which the chord is named is the lowest note, or root, of the chord. For a C triad, playing C, E, and G would be
the root position chord. There is also the “first inversion” which simply makes E the lowest note, and replaces
middle C with the next octave’s C.
Finally, the “second inversion” means going one step further and making G
the lowest note, C the next, and E the highest note. If you were to still go higher, you would find yourself
back at the root position again, just an octave higher than where you started. You can experiment with
inversions by playing them all up and down the piano.
Triads are not the only chords that have inversions. In fact, any chord you play has its sister keys in other
inversions. Because of the repetitive structure of octaves, any note played could also be played in the next octave
up or down.
This means that major chords, minor chords,
suspended chords, 7th chords, four-note
chords, or any chord you crazily conjure when you’ve overdosed on apple juice and cupcakes can all be inverted.
With triads, the most inversions you can play is two; however, with other types of chords the number of potential
Chord inversions are extremely useful for a variety of reasons. Essentially, inversions enchant the ears by
adding layers of color to the chords. Inversions also aid the fingers by making it much easier to switch between
chords. Try to play the root position C chord, then switching to a root position G. Not so easy! But if you switch
from the 2nd inversion C chord to a root position G, you have a much simpler task.
To practice your chord inversions on piano, you can start by just experimenting with triads. Start with one hand
in the root position, and then slowly figure out how to rearrange your fingers through the other inversions up and
down the piano.
Try this in different keys, with both hands, over and over again. Not only will you enjoy the blending tones
from the notes, your fingers will become much more adept at knowing where and when to play these chords!
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