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If someone inverts the chord then the bass is not the "real" root note of the chord anymore. So if I heard an "A" this might not be an A major (or minor).

So how would I know if the chord is inverted or not, if I listen by ear. Is there a special trick?

One thing I've been doing is listening to the overall tone of the chord. Regardless of inversions, for example a C chord which has:
regular: CEG
first inversion: EGC
second inversion: GCE

If I play any of these chords to a tuning app on my phone, they all appear to firmly point to "C". Which to me indicates the overall tone and that's what I listen to. Or I hum a main harmonic tone as I'm listening to the song. And whatever I hum is the chord essentially.

But is that how people normally do it by ear? just figure out main tone? because I heard somewhere that people listen to the bass notes. But I don't get how they can listen to bass notes because as mentioned the chord could've been inverted.

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There are a few ways to accomplish this.

For the perfect-pitch members of society, just identify the notes of the chord to figure it out. For example, after hearing the notes E,A, and C, I would quickly identify this as an A minor 2nd Inversion, since the A minor triad contains the notes A,C, and E.

For people with relative pitch, one could identify the intervals between the notes of the chord, determine what inversion the chord is in, and finally infer the root pitch.

For example, in a triad (3-note chord), if we identify two 3rds, then we know that the chord is in root position, and the chord key would be the base note of the chord. If we identify a third, then a fourth on the top, we can infer that this chord is in first inversion, with the root/chord key being the 3rd (highest) pitch of the chord. Likewise, a triad with first a fourth then a third on top would be in second inversion, with the root/chord key in the second (middle) pitch of the chord.

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You're asking about a triad in closed voicing, where the three notes are as close as possible to each other. So, yes there are only three options. Some people feel that in root position (1/C as bass), it sounds very stable; 2nd inversion (5/G at the bottom, it's still not too bad; and 1st inversion (3/E underneath) it's not convincing, for want of a better description.

Others will hear the lowest, others the highest note, which gives the inversion away.

Then there's the case where there's drop tuning, doubling up of certain notes - particularly on guitar and piano, and open voicings, because the chords will still be in inversions, called by whatever note is lowest.

  • I disagree--it's 1st inversion that doesn't sound shabby and 2nd inversion that doesn't sound convincing. In music theory, I6/4 (2nd inversion of the tonic chord) sounds so unconvincing that it no longer is used like a tonic chord--it is used like a strongly pre-dominant chord instead. – Dekkadeci Apr 21 '17 at 12:17
  • @Dekkadeci - that's absolutely fine. You've found your way to differentiate, and you're disagreeing with what others have found helps them. We all have to find our own way, I portrayed what 'some people' use. – Tim Apr 21 '17 at 14:13
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To identify the chord, I hear it as a function (tonic, dominant, etc...) in relation to the song's key.

For the inversion, I listen for the bass note. This makes the biggest difference among the inversions to me. A chord played on its Third (1st inversion) sound very "intermediate" - like it wants to "move on". A chord played on its Fifth sounds like a suspended 6-4 chord.

So basically both the chord function itself und its inversion have a certain sonic character to me. A lot of conscious listening and playing by ear helps memorizing these characters and identifying them.

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