When writing 1st inversion chords do you write intervals above the bass (For example a 6th and a 3rd above the bass or a 6th and a 10th above the bass) or do you first spell the chord in your mind and write the notes off the note names. For example In this exercise I have i6 chord and I have written a 6th a 10th and a 13th above the bass note. I could also have spelt the chord and written the correct notes that way. Which way is best?

In other words, would an experienced composer write chords fluently remembering and recalling the notes in a chord or knowing the intervals formed amd writing them in that way.

C minor written in first inversion

  • 2
    One thing that helped me understand inversions is that only the bass note determines the inversion. You don’t have to spell the chord in any particular way (that’s the voicing) to make it inverted, just change which is the bass note. Note that the two ways you ask about are not the only two ways to think about inversions. Sep 12, 2021 at 13:07
  • +1 to Todd's observation. As you do theory exercises, you're instructed to use certain inversions, but a compositional process might go more like 1) "What's a nice melody," 2) "What chords harmonize it nicely," 3) "What makes an interesting bass line. Those might come in totally different orders, but only at the end might one ask oneself out of curiosity which inversions you've wound up with. Sep 12, 2021 at 16:11
  • Todd , not sure if I understood you correctly but you do have to spell it if you are to double the correct notes. An inverted chord in 4 part harmony isnt just changing the bass note.
    – user35708
    Sep 13, 2021 at 5:16
  • @armani I think Todd was going for the concept that there's no difference between GCEG, GECG, and GGCE (bottom to top) - they're all C triads in second inversion no matter what spelling order (voicing) the upper notes are in. The "6/4" in the figured bass symbol doesn't have to be taken literally, it could be a fourth or an eleventh, a sixth or a thirteenth, et cetera...
    – user45266
    Sep 13, 2021 at 8:01

4 Answers 4


I think it makes more sense to know the constitution of all chords. That way, you'll know what letter name note is which chord tone. Example - C▵7 is made up from C E G B. Now you can easily see which needs to go under for each inversion.

There's also the 'close/open' voicing to consider. That may be a consideration for writing answers. Aren't there any answers available for the questions you're doing? One would hope so, along with explanations why.

I don't think one way is necessarily better than the other - for everyone. Some would see the interval way as better, although from my point of view, that needs a bit more thought, as intervals have at least two different spellings - as in a 2 semitone interval could be M2, or D3, either of which could be found in a chord, and only one of which will be technically correct for a situation. So, for me, knowing the note names (and alterations for some of them) will always be quicker and easier when writing the dots.

It's a bit like some find it better to think of each mode in interval terms, whereas I always go back to parent scale. Better for whom?

  • There are answers but my question relates to the way in which one gets to the answer. As I explained there are two routes to get there so just wondering which is better and why
    – user35708
    Sep 12, 2021 at 10:34
  • Not sure I would have used the jazz major seventh chord symbol as an example in a question that has an image of figured bass, but a good answer nonetheless.
    – user45266
    Sep 13, 2021 at 8:04
  • @user45266 - hey, I've only just found out how to do that. It's still a novelty! But, I could do with a bigger triangle.
    – Tim
    Sep 13, 2021 at 8:27

I personally determine the notes/pitch classes of the chord in my mind and then put down the notes wherever (with the proper note in the bass). I do this regardless of the inversion of the chord.

This may have been at least partially due to my music harmony lessons only poorly explaining at best the connection between Roman numeral inversion numbers and figured bass.

Some benefits of this method are that you aren't lured into using those precise intervals above the bass (e.g. you can write E3-G3-E4-C5 more naturally for the I6 of C major despite this involving only a 13th instead of a 6th above the bass), you don't end up wondering why Roman numeral inversion numbers are often incomplete (e.g. a 1st-inversion chord with 3 pitch classes is nearly always notated with only the 6, while a 1st-inversion 7th chord is nearly always notated with only 6/5; note that the presence of a 3rd above the root in both cases is implied but not explicitly notated), and you can get used to chords that always seem to be notated without inversion numbers regardless of inversion more easily (e.g. augmented 6th chords, occasionally the Neapolitan chord when notated as N instead of ♭II).

...The biggest drawback of this method is that the Roman numeral inversion numbers can seem arbitrary until you determine their origins from figured bass (like seriously, what's with 4/3 and 4/2 as separate inversions of 7th chords?!?).



The question is fundamentally a utilitarian one, and at that level, there is no "better" or "best". As long as one understands inversions in a way that works for that person and their musical intentions — mission accomplished.

When I was first learning chords, including inversions, it was necessary for me to think through each note of each inversion of each chord. I see this same thing in other students as they learn chords on their instruments or in a music theory class.

At a certain point, it because far easier for me to understand chords intervallically. This may be in part because my primary instrument is piano: I can see the shape of a chord — its inversion — clearly when written, and I can "feel" the chord shape in my hand when playing. As long as I know one of the notes in the chord (usually the bass, but not necessarily), I can find the others.

I think in note names when I play the trumpet, though, and in general when i sing as well. This seems inherent in these being one-note-at-a-time instruments, but I more than allow it's just my experience level hasn't fully absorbed the relationships between intervals, sound, and physical action.


On keyboard instruments, it tends to be faster to understand chords by feel; that is, intervallically. (In fact, why invent figured bass otherwise? It would be "better" just to write the note names.) I'm not a string player, but I can imagine the same is true for them. For wind instruments, my experience so far suggests note-names are better, though I question that.

For composers, there is no "better". It depends on how the composer conceives of music, how they hear music, what instrument (if any) they compose on.


There isn't really an "answer."

Personally, I think I do it differently depending on whether the context is writing or playing.

Writing notation I mentally spell out chords. So, in your example, C minor, given i6 and a bass of Eb, I think to myself "E... C G". Or, I many mental recite up "C E G". It seems I don't think of the sharps and flats when the chord is diatonic. If it's something chromatic then I think of the sharps and flats.

But, when I'm just playing at the keyboard I think much more in terms of intervals. Given an Eb, I think my right hand will play a perfect fifth or fourth. It's natural to think of letter names while playing, but there is a point to not thinking of letters and thinking of intervals and relative motion. For example, if given a supposed Eb an told to complete a minor 6/3 chord, you would add C G, but if asked to complete a major 6/3, you would add B F# and now your given bass enharmonically changes from Eb to D#. That might not be the a logical explanation, but I seem to tend away from thinking of letters when playing.

Something to think about is how working on textbook harmonization exercises, like your example, you really must think about things vertically, you think about arranging tones above the bass. That makes sense, because the exercise give you a bass part (the RNA is effectively a bass part.)

Compare that to improvising some harmony in a key where you can treat your changes as voice leading. Doing this you can think much more horizontally, linearly. In other words you can treat harmony as voice leading instead of vertical stacking. For example, if you play something like...

enter image description here

...you aren't thinking at the i6 so much about "what notes should I put above an Eb?" it more about a voice leading pattern, something like "when one a root position triad, hold the fifth, drop the other two voices down by step." I don't care too much what the exact intervals above the bass are, and a really don't care what the letter names are. What I really want is my hands trained to automatically make that move (and other common moves) and my ear trained to know what they sound like.

That scenario doesn't apply to the textbook exercise, but regarding how someone conceives of a 6/3 chord, you can think of them in terms of voice leading and relative motion.

enter image description here

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