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 close 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.

  • 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
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 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
    Commented Nov 27, 2013 at 9:48

2 Answers 2


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 close 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.

  • 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
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 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
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 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
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 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
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 22:03

Here is a diagram I made to illustrate the points discussed in the other answers.

enter image description here

  • they don't have other special names like "mellow" for 1st inversion or "melancholic" for 2nd?
    – bobobobo
    Commented Sep 26, 2020 at 23:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.