Top Piano Chord Inversion Exercise
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Would you like to learn a piano exercise for mastering chord inversions in weeks instead of years? It’s possible, but this would have to be a thoughtfully constructed exercise that cycles through various chord inversions without creating confusion. Well, Jonny’s 21 Inversion Exercise does just that! In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny shares an innovative piano exercise loaded with 21 chord inversions while drawing on the familiarity the major scale. This enables late beginner and early intermediate students to master triad inversions as a natural extension of their major scale studies. You’ll discover:
- Intro to Piano Chord Inversions
- How to Practice Piano Chord Inversions
- Piano Chord Inversions Exercise in All 12 Major Keys
At the conclusion of today’s lesson, you will be able to more quickly recognize and play basic chords on piano in any inversion.
One of the great joys of playing piano is that the piano is a polyphonic instrument. This means the piano can play several notes simultaneously. If you are unfamiliar with instrument classifications, you might be surprised to learn that this is not as common as you might expect. Other examples of polyphonic instruments are guitar and harp. However, most orchestral instruments are monophonic. These instruments play one note at a time. This includes woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone) and brass (trumpet, trombone, french horn) instruments. While bowed string instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass) can play multiple strings at once, they are classified as monophonic instruments because they are regularly played one string at a time. Therefore, piano students encounter much more music theory regarding chords and inversions early on. However, a proper understanding of chord construction opens up limitless worlds of sonic potential for the piano student to enjoy.
A musical chord is three or more notes sounded together. The simplest chords in music are triads. Triads contain only three notes and are formed by playing every other note from a scale. Examples of triads are C–E–G or D–F–A. If you have just two notes, this is an interval. Certain intervals, however, may imply a chord in specific musical contexts.
The name for each triad contains two descriptors—its root and its quality. The root of a triad is the note upon which the chord is built. When this note is arranged on bottom of the chord, it is said to be in root position (ie: Root–3rd–5th). The quality of a chord is determined by the notes above the root. For example, C major (C–E–G) and C minor (C–E♭–G) have the same root but are different qualities. On the other hand, C major and G major are the same quality, but they are constructed on different roots.
Identifying and naming triads can be challenging for beginners for two reasons. Firstly, determining which note is the root is not always obvious. This is especially true when a chord is played with both hands and contains doublings (repeated notes). Furthermore, the root does not always appear as the bottom note. However, you can learn a simple method to find the root of any chord by clicking here. A second reason students struggle to name chords is that determining chord quality requires some knowledge of intervals. For example, a student must be able to recognize a major 3rd (four ½ steps) from a minor 3rd (three ½ steps) and a perfect 5th (seven ½ steps) from a diminished 5th (six ½ steps). If you need help mastering all your intervals, check out our Ear Training–Intervals Crash Course (Levels 1–3).
A chord inversion describes an occurrence in which the lowest sounding note is a chord member other than the root. For example, a first inversion chord contains the 3rd of the chord in the bass voice. Similarly, a second inversion chord features the 5th of the chord in the bass. Therefore, a triad may appear in either root position, first inversion or second inversion. However, when dealing with seventh chords, you may also have a third inversion which features the 7th in the bass voice.
“Inversions are valuable for creating bass lines with melodic interest greater than that possible with chord roots alone.”
—Robert W. Ottman, Music Educator and Author
In the notation of popular music, chord inversions are expressed as slash chords. A slash chord is a chord symbol with two parts separated by a slash. The letter in front of the slash represents the primary chord and the letter after the slash indicates the bass note. Therefore, in slash notation x/y indicates a chord of x with a bass note of y. The illustration below show a C major triad in all three positions with slash chord symbols where appropriate. Note, chord symbols for root position chords never require slash notation.
Since recognizing and playing chord inversions is so important for piano students, it is important to exercise this skill. Of particular importance for piano students is becoming familiar with the standard fingerings for root position chords and their inversions. In fact, one of the easiest ways to spot a self-taught pianist is the use of nonconventional and inefficient chord fingerings.
The following example reflects a traditional piano chord inversions exercise. In this case, the exercise isolates a single chord (C major) which the student performs in each position with the proper fingering. Such exercises help students recognize triads when inverted and build muscle memory for ergonomic piano fingerings.
A Note About Piano Fingerings
It is important that students internalize the principle for when the fingering 1-2-5 is called for instead of 1-3-5. For example, in the right hand, 1-2-5 is used to play a first inversion chord shape. However, in the left hand, 1-2-5 is reserved for second inversion chord shapes. The principle behind which fingering is correct pertains to the distance of the note adjacent to the pinky. When the note adjacent to the pinky is an interval of a 3rd, the fingering 1-3-5 is used. However, if the note adjacent to the pinky is an interval of a 4th, the fingering 1-2-5 is used to allow for the larger distance.
In this exercise, the fingering 1-2-5 does not occur simultaneously in both hands. Upon first exposure, beginners are likely to find this confusing and difficult. However, by playing traditional inversion exercises slowly and patiently, students eventually develop proper fingering habits for a lifetime of playing efficiency.
This traditional exercise is a perfectly valid way to practice chord inversions on piano. In fact, our library contains a Smartsheet lesson for Major Chord Inversions and Minor Chord Inversions that is similar to the traditional exercise shown above. Each lesson is perfect for beginner students who are encountering inversions for the first time. These Smartsheet lessons are also ideal for intermediate students who want to explore inversions for all chords grouped by common shapes.
So how does the 21 Inversion Exercise differ from the piano chord inversions exercise shown above? Well, traditional inversion exercises only drill one chord at a time. Considering that are 48 triads in music, you would need to play 48 different exercises to cover them all! This is not practical for most students. Therefore, after a student’s initial exposure to chord inversions, a hybrid exercise combining several chord inversions is much more efficient.
Jonny’s 21 Inversion Exercise is an innovative and practical way to practice diatonic chords and their inversions. Why 21 inversions? Well, since each major key has 7 diatonic triads and each triad has 3 positions, this exercise covers all 21 possible diatonic triad shapes. However, this exercise cycles through the chords in a formulaic way that is easy to memorize.
Let’s check out the 21 Inversion Exercise in C Major. The following example is from today’s lesson sheet. In fact, the complete lesson sheet is downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose the lesson material into any key with our Smart Sheet Music.
This exercise includes all 3 inversions of the following 7 chords: C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor and B diminished!
Perhaps you are wondering how this exercise is organized? In fact, it’s best that you examine and internalize its structure. That’s because for most students, the exercise is much easier to play than it is to read. By following just 5 steps, you can play this exercise in any key.
- Pick a major scale.
- On the first scale tone, play a major chord in root position.
- Next, raise the top note to the next scale tone.
- Then, raise middle note to the next scale tone.
- Lastly, raise bottom note to the next scale tone.
By the time you get to step 5, you are playing a root position triad on the second tone of the scale. From there, repeat steps 3 through 5 until you end up on the tonic triad in root position an octave higher than where you began.
You can use the 21 Inversion Exercise as a daily warm-up exercise. It’s also a perfect way to strengthen your existing repertoire by mastering the all the chords in the a specific key. For example, if you are struggling to play “Jonny’s Bamba” from our Key of F Major (Level 1) course, try mastering the 21 Inversion Exercise in F major. Not only will it help you play “Jonny’s Bamba” more fluently, it will also help you play all your repertoire in F major! In fact, any of our Level 1 Key Courses make for a perfect follow-up to today’s lesson.
In the next section, you can view the notation and demonstrations of the 21 Inversion Exercise in all twelve keys.
Congratulations, you have completed today’s lesson on Jonny’s Top Piano Chord Inversions Exercise. By now, you understand how this strategic piano exercise can help you master essential chord inversions in weeks instead of years. As a follow up to today’s lesson, consider one of the following resources.
Additional Related Resources
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Ottman, Robert W. 1998. Elementary harmony: theory and practice. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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