How to remember inversions for chords

I've started learning scales which has come easily to me, I visualize the scale in my head vividly before touching the keyboard and it comes out well, no problem.

I've also memorized each major and minor triad, I already knew some so filled in the blanks and can do that. But I have trouble memorizing the chords to each scale, it's frustrating. I know for minor which is usually my main scale choice - it's min - dim - maj - min - min - maj - maj but I cannot just remember that when I'm playing and I want it to become natural and subconscious where I just know where everything is.

There are also inversions, I know how to form these: Cmin: C - Eb - G Cmin(1st): Eb - G - C Cmin(2nd): G - C - Eb

No problems there but how do I remember those for each chord? Seems like a lot of work..

On top of theory which I don't over-practice, I'm also learning to play songs and figure out melodies to ensure it's practical but any tips would be very helpful.

• If the basis for a too broad question is whether you can imagine reading a whole book on the subject then I think this question fits the bill. Aug 5, 2015 at 12:17
• This may be a more focused question - after music theory, what is the most effective way to improvise? I feel I'm ok with scales and chords but cannot create an effective melody, not sure what to focus on. I had the idea to play and learn other songs to get a feel of the keyboard as well as learn and develop skill. Aug 5, 2015 at 20:37

6 Answers

Take just the major. The chords produced from the scale notes are- Maj,min min,Maj Maj,min dim. A sort of pattern. If you need the chords for the relative minor, start at the min dim point of the cycle. They're going to be the same chords, with an option of Maj for the 5th in a minor key.

For inversions, try playing 'broken chords', as in your example - C Eb G, Eb G C, G C Eb. as individual notes in threes, or as triad chords.

• I prefer to start with minor as that's the key most of my favourite songs are produced in as well as piano pieces I want to practice. I know about 6 minor scales so far. I know the pattern for the chords within the scale but not sure how memorise the chords so I know where everything fits naturally. Aug 5, 2015 at 10:26
• That's fair enough - but the 'default' or 'datum point' in music is seen as the major, and most things will refer back to that. So, your A minor becomes my (and most people's!) C major. There's also the red herring of 3 different ways of putting notes in minor scales.
– Tim
Aug 5, 2015 at 10:31

Start with tonic, subdominant and dominant (I, IV, V7). Take a simple tune you are fond of that has only those chords and play it in different keys, going around the circle of fifths (which you should memorize first before giving this activity a try). An old rock and roll tune would work well for this.

You can gradually add more harmonic complexity.

For learning jazz improv for keyboard, I am very fond of Bradley Sowash's books.

The way I did it was to learn a key on the opposite side of the spectrum. I play piano, so I learned C first. Then I chose to learn F next. Looking back I should have chosen G because it's more popular. Learning two opposite keys really helped me because they forced me to learn the difference between them and how those differences worked between all the other keys.

That being said, everyone has trouble memorizing each chord in each key. They need to practice each key to be comfortable at it. Learning other keys makes this easier, but there is no substitute for practice.

• A better 'opposite end of the spectrum' may have been F#. The exact opposite. Moving to F or G actually only gives one black key on the piano, so the spacings are pretty well the same as they are for C.
– Tim
Nov 15, 2016 at 18:18
• Sorry, this still doesn't address the actual question.
– Tim
Nov 15, 2016 at 18:20

One summer, between my first year and second year ear-training and harmony at UC Berkeley Music program, I committed myself to playing simple cadences in all keys in all inversions. For example, I-IV-I-V-I, just triads, but both major and minor and in all inversions. Actually, first I went through the cycles for I-IV-I and I-V-I. All keys. All inversions. I spent about 20 or 30 minutes a day doing this. Some keys were trickier than others, but that's to be expected. The first time going through something like this, it can be so hard to figure out that you forget what the next chord is even supposed to be, even with the simplest of cadence patterns. But after a few times, it gets much, much easier. I think there is some sort of biology involved--neurons or connections start to form for tasks that get repeated, and they magically start to feel so much easier.

The main upshot of doing this was that when I return to class for 2nd year ear-training, the class-work was super easy (even though I was a middling student the previous semester) and I coasted at the head of my class for a couple months.

Anyway, if you break it down, first do just a two-chords from a longer chord pattern, and do them in each inversion, then the patterns for them will become more apparent, and you can build on this to put together longer chord chains.

The main thing is to not let the uncomfortable quality of a new task be discouraging until giving it a few good tries and a few good night's sleep to bake in. If something is still feels mind-bogglingly hard then try to find a way to break it down into smaller pieces. It is a special feeling to sit down after struggling one day, having a good sleep, and coming back the next day and the task is discernibly easier. Bodies and brains are kind of miraculous.

The easiest way to remember your inversions is to know the notes that comprise each chord. It might seem like you have to memorize each inversion, but you don't really have to. Take Cmaj for example - C E G. As long as you know those notes, then you have the basis to form the inversions for that chord. I do not recommend trying to memorize the inversions, I suggest memorizing or really learning the notes that form the chord in its root position, and then derive inversions from there. With time, it will become second nature.

My answer is maybe a little too simple, but no one has said it, so I would suggest that instead of memorizing each inversion--hardcoding it into your brain--you simply remember that first inversion will always have the root as its highest tone, with the other tones added below (going right to left) as you first come upon them.

Ditto for second inversion, except that the second tone will be the highest tone.

This way, you can construct these inversions progressively faster over time with practice, instead of simply memorizing them without immediately grasping the logic as to how they are put together.