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I am confused with what I've read in various sources concerning chord notations. Is there a standard notation for chord inversions? As far as I understand, a chord inversion is determined from the bass or a chord : for instance, the 4-sound chord "Low C - EGC" (the latter three being in closed position) is in root position, as the intervals between the lower note and the others are 3rd, 5th and 8ve.

I was taking this for granted until I read some books/websites naming this a first inversion of C, as they look for the triad only.

Some sources also note the previous chord Ib (if C is the tonal center) Ia being the root position and Ic the second inversion. I guess this notation only considers the triad, but I'd like to be sure of its correct uses, specially in a context like Bach chorales where the "bass+upper triad" separation is, I think, not always relevant.

Many thanks.

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What site called E-G-C second inversion? If you look at it that way, it should be first because the third is the lowest note in the chord. –  Dom Nov 26 '13 at 14:35
Sorry, my mistake. I think I read it in "A Classical Approach to Jazz Piano", a book by Dominic Alldis. The author describes the triad inversions but always "supports" them with the root in bass. –  kurto Nov 26 '13 at 14:40
Looking at particular chords played on guitar,specifically,although this will apply to any instrument capable of playing 3+ notes simultaneously, and the fact that a 5th note can be dispensed with, I feel this inversion thing can only be addressed when all 3 (of a triad) notes are present, in closed form. Any scattering becomes a red herring. –  Tim Nov 27 '13 at 9:48
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think the confusion comes when ideas are lumped together. From a harmonic perspective, the bass note determines what is the inversion of the chord and given C in the bass and E-G-C the chord is a C in root position.

That being said however, from a pianist perspective, the closed form in the upper voices is a C chord in first inversion. When grabbing chords fast it is good to recognize if the notes make a common chord shape and just understand the notes in the right hand are E-G-C and that is a first inversion C chord and that you play a C in your left hand. You are still playing a C in root position, but the actual voicing differs slightly because of the notes in the right hand.

So the chord itself should be analyzed as a C in root position (especially in Bach chorales), but as a pianist it is useful to know the upper chord is a C in first inversion when looking and music you will be playing. Voicing is very important and this is just one way to help make sure the chords are voiced right.

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Thank you. My question is then : is figured bass notation used only when you consider the "harmonic full picture" and lower-case notation used only when you consider a triad (e.g for voicing purposes, hand positions) ? –  kurto Nov 26 '13 at 17:16
Figured bass is mostly a harmonic tool to tell you the inversion of a chord. I don't know 100% about the lower-case notation because I am not too familiar with it, but based on the information about you given that seems to be the case. If you can post sample notation I'll tell you for sure. –  Dom Nov 26 '13 at 17:23
See here : mangaloreanrecipes.com/recipes/vocal-music-text-book/… In this logic, would you keep writing a, b, c if you added the root of the chord in the bass? –  kurto Nov 26 '13 at 20:41
I would say yes because this notation is more about voice leading closed chords on piano. i.e. the easiest way to play a string of chords on a piano in closed postion. I will admit I have never seen that notation before. –  Dom Nov 26 '13 at 22:03
What if you have a Csus4 in first inversion? Would it be Csus4 or Fsus2? –  Caleb Apr 2 at 1:35
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Here is a diagram I made to illustrate the points discussed in the other answers.

enter image description here

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