How do I read inversions fast?

picture above is D minor in 1st inversion.

I usually find inversions by stacking up notes in a closed interval, but it takes too much time.

Is there a fast way of discerning inversion chords and spotting the root on the fly?

Or is it that years of stacking up the notes makes the same process fast?

• I find your question confusing. You ask about discerning the inversion, but the inversion is given (by the figure 6-5). Do you mean, how does one find the inversion when no figure is given? In terms of finding the root, that also depends on whether or not a Roman numeral or figure is present. Commented May 18 at 6:18
• Are you asking about how to translate roman numerals to a chord symbol (like Dm7/F in this case)? Commented May 18 at 19:42

It's unclear what you mean by "find inversions", but I think you mean "find the root."

I don't think there is one absolute, foolproof way, but that isn't really what quick short cuts are about. Here are a few short cuts...

• If you see a second, the higher note is a likely root
• If you see a perfect fourth, the higher note is a likely root

I use "likely", because this isn't foolproof. It's more like a quick way to select a potential root, then read the whole chord to verify.

Part of the reasoning behind this is comparing stack of intervals for a root position chord 3 5 7 with an inverted chord 2 4 6. Disregarding suspensions and other non-chord tones, and add9, etc. we can see that an inverted 2 figure is the inversion of the root position 7. The lower tone of the 7 is the root, therefore the higher of the 2 is the root. This will be an unambiguous relationship for diatonic seventh chord.

On the other hand the situation with perfect fourths will be ambiguous, because major and minor seventh chord in root position contain two perfect fifths. Depending on the exact inversion, either of those two perfect fifths can invert to perfect fourths. Example, Gm7 contains two perfect fifths G D and Bb F which invert to perfect fourths D G and F Bb, as in second inversion D F G Bb. So this is not a perfect short cut.

...is it that years of stacking up the notes makes the same process fast?

Years of practice, well maybe one intense year is enough, is probably how you develop this skill. But I don't think it's practicing stack up the notes in thirds entirely. Quite a bit of learning common harmonic patterns helps. For example, Dm7/F or in RNA C: ii6/5 will be frequently encountered in passages like C: ii6/5 V7 I. You get used to reading passages like that. For me it tends to go something like this: first I see bass ^4 ^5 ^1, from that point I know the common harmony options on bass ^4 are either IV or ii and the quick difference between those options is whether there is ^2 in the harmony above, as second quick check is whether ^2 is present with tonic ^1, that provides the basic info to distinguish ii, ii6/5, IV etc. Essentially it's F C versus F C D and you get used to reading it.

You might also consider why you are trying to find the root of the inversions. If you are doing some kind of analysis, you certainly have time to read chords carefully. After a while that should be a matter of seconds to read and label a chord. If this is something you do while playing, keep in mind you don't need to be aware of all the chords as you play. A generic recognition of chord movements, like 6/3 resolving to 5/3, without regard for the specific roots, while playing is often enough to get the gist of the harmony. Full analysis can come after the reading/performance.

Oh, one other short cut. When reading the chord tones and mentally stacking them up, don't worry about specific sharps/flats to get the basic inversion/root details. Just read the seven letters A B C D E F G in thirds, which is much less than thinking about all the possible spellings with sharps/flats. After you get the basic letters and inversion, you can read any accidentals and apply all against the key signature. For example, let's pretend your example had key signature of three flats, E flat major, you read unspecified letters F C A D, D root, as a tertian stack D F A C, no accidentals so it's purely diatonic, root D in E flat major is vii, and the seventh chord is viiø7. In words, that's tedious. But when you build up from the generic info to confirming the details it happens quickly in your head.

Focusing your attention on the last three chords of cadence points might be a good way to build up this skill on a fairly confined set of possible chords. When that becomes comfortable, you can move on to other harmonic passages.

• this is a very simple question but by ii6/5 you meant ^6 ^2 ^4 ^7?
– Sean
Commented May 20 at 2:14
• @Sean, 6/5 means first inversion seventh chord, so for ii6/5 the scale degrees listed from bass up would be ^4 ^6 ^1 ^2, in C major it's F A C D. Commented May 20 at 15:25
• @GratefulDisciple, the Roman numeral represents not the bass, but the chord root. But, yes, the Arabic numerals represent the intervals above the bass, like figured bass. Commented Jun 1 at 16:12
• @Sean In that kind of chord notation, the roman numeral represents the chord root while the arabic numerals represent the inversion (see common examples). It is a variation of Figured Bass chord notation very common in the Baroque era where composers like Bach simply notate the bass note with those arabic numeral indicating the chord + inversion to be played by the continuo. See an example by Handel. Commented Jun 1 at 16:17
• @MichaelCurtis My mistake. Edited above. Thanks. Commented Jun 1 at 16:18

I feel like a comment by Aaron deserves expanding into an answer.

picture above is D minor in 1st inversion

Is it, though? It's true that if you were to walk up to me and ask "what do you call a chord that contains the pitches D, F, A, and C," I'd probably knee-jerk answer "D minor seventh." But you could also call this collection other things depending on how it works in the context of the music. Not every note in a stack has to be a member of the chord; after all, there's an E within this beat, and nobody's suggesting it's a chord member. What if this is actually an F chord, with a D added? The F in the bass and the fact that the D takes less than the full beat and moves to an F make this a very real possibility. We can't say for sure without seeing more of the context.

Now, returning to the spirit of your question, how do you get faster at identifying a chord that is not in root position? The short answer is just "by doing it a lot." The longer answer would be this:

1. Start by drilling the ability to name chord members. If I say "What's in D minor," you should be able to quickly say "D, F, and A."
2. Practice the reverse: "What do you call D, F, and A?" "D minor." To be able to do this with inversions probably means being able to visualize the notated pitches so you can rearrange them mentally to find that "snowman shape," so this is probably also dependent on getting very comfortable with reading and writing staff notation. Also, if I ask you "What do you call F, A, and D," with practice you won't even have to do that mental work to arrive at "D minor first inversion," because there only three inversions of a triadic chord, and you'll get more familiar with all of them. (BUT!!! bear in mind the disclaimer that these are just the simplified, "Occam's-razor" answers, and that context could present you with these pitches in a different function and they could be a different chord; like if the D were in fact suspended from a previous chord and resolves to a C, then it's really an F chord.)
3. Learn the fundamentals of tonal harmony and practice lots of analyses. This is perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle because it provides that context that will let you name the chord correctly in the first place, but also be able to "predict" what you think the chord is likely to be even before reading the dots, let alone turn them into letters and thence into chords. I.e. if I say "C chord. F chord. G chord. What's next?" ... then you probably suspect a C, so as you start reading the chord, this can speed up your identification. Or you might discover you've been thrown a curveball like A minor, though even these curveballs follow a limited number of options that are frequently used.

Only by knowing which set of notes constitutes each particular chord.

The one shown is actually Dm7, with a C note included, in first inversion.

By knowing which notes make up each basic triad, there's no need to re-write them, just go to your memory bank for what the triad is. Then look at the lowest note, which defines the inversion - I think that's already known. So, yes, we have the three notes making Dm, and with F ♮ at the bottom, it Dm. But then, spot a C note, not part of the triad, so it's more than Dm, it's Dm7.

So, best way (for me) was to learn which notes are in each triad, no matter what octave they're played in.

• Without the RNA, I don't think your method works here. There are two possible triads: F major and D minor. How do you discern which is the correct one? Commented May 18 at 7:51
• @Aaron - well spotted. I missed that one, it's too early in the morning here! However, there are very few four note chords which could have different names - this one and m7b5 /m6 come to mind. those apart - what else is there? It certainly works for, what OP thought, triads. And it's F6 anyway, as the full chord. It stays till someone comes up with a better idea - OP's is no better than mine.
– Tim
Commented May 18 at 8:07