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I'm a guitarist who tends to write by ear but is trying to understand more theory. I came up with this progression I'm using for a song while noodling around with variations of the classic I-V-IV-V.

A - Esus4 - D - F#m - Esus4 - E

I'm playing all of these chords using their 2nd inversion, except F#m which is using the 1st inversion.

I have two questions:

  1. Is this a technically "correct" progression? I know Esus4 would typically resolve to E, but it sounds good resolving to D.

  2. How big of a difference do inversions make? I tried it with the root forms, and it sounded right, but not as good. Do the inversions have any effect on the progression in terms of the key or mode of the song?

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Rather than asking whether this is a “correct” progression, it would be more suitable to answer whether your analysis of this chord progression is correct. Unless you are following some functional harmony rules, there aren’t any hard restrictions on the sequence in which you are “allowed” to play chords. So yes, your analysis of this progression is correct with respect to Roman numerals.

With regard to the inversions, no they do not change the general analysis you have given. If you are working in the context of classical music you can notate the inversions with superscripts (or super & subscripts for 2nd inversion), but in the context of pop music it isn’t necessary for Roman numerals. However, it would be appropriate to write the chords as A/E, Esus4/B, F#m/A, D/A.

I wanted to note that the resolution won’t be as strong with the chords inverted, but that doesn’t by any means make it “incorrect”. It would be considered a stylistic choice. And there are other ways to interpret these chords based on their inversions (for example, A/E could be considered E6sus(2/4)) but that would be more appropriate if you considered the E chords to be a droning harmony with upper structures changing. Based on the context of the question, I don’t think that applies here.

Note: another reason that one might avoid notation such as E6sus(2/4) is that you can easily call that chord E6sus4add9. But that’s an awfully ugly name for a chord, and doesn’t fit on a lead sheet very well. It’s not “wrong”, but calling it A/E is easier for musicians to read and understand. Also, note that a chord with a slash (/), is of the form (harmony name / bass note). So A / E means “play an A chord with E as the lowest note”, aka in 2nd inversion. The note after the slash doesn’t strictly need to belong to the harmony. For example you could see A / Bb. It might sound odd... but it’s not prohibited or unheard of.

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Inversions are important because they affect voice-leading. And, when a chord sequence is not simply functional (not every sequence HAS to analyse in a 'circle of 5ths' way!) voice-leading becomes more important.

As an example, consider the sequence Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7. It's obvious how it would 'fall under the fingers' of a keyboard player - same hand position walking up, all on the white notes.. It doesn't really analyse in a functional way, but when played in close position, each note of the chord moving up in step, it demonstrably 'works'. Theory will have a name for doing this sort of thing, but (I hope) no-one would try to analyse it 'functionally' as a string of dominants-of-dominants.

But it 'works' largely because each note of each chord IS adjacent to the next. If the voicings jumped around it wouldn't work nearly so well.

A guitarist might be more likely to play Cmaj7, Dmaj7, Emaj7, Fmaj7 - moving the same shape up the fretboard. A bit more 'outside' without the restriction of 'white notes only' forcing a mode. But still OK. 'Bad bad Leroy Brown' does a variation of it. And, if you try to force C, D7, E7, F, G7 into a 'cycle of 5ths' straitjacket (beyond 'it gets from the tonic to the dominant') you're a fool. It works because it walks up.

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It looks pretty standard. Assuming you are in the key of A maj (which is strongly implied by the chords) your progression maps as follows.

A - Esus4 - D - F#m - Esus4 - E

I - V - IV - vi - V - V

The sus chords on the V are interesting. One would typically sus the I after the V (a suspended resolution). Since the 4 of E (the V) is really A (the I) it sounds like a premature resolution (at the end, going back to A).

Inversions really do change the harmonic character of the progression, i.e. of the harmony. That is why they are so important. Playing everything in first inversion could create the same parallel harmony as everything in root position (depending on the order of the other notes). Inversions can make the resolution stronger if used correctly (from a classical harmony perspective). On guitar we usually play I IV V in such a way that the movement among the notes is minimal (1/2 and 1 steps if possible). An example would be I - IV (6/4) - V (6), where (6/4) and (6) are the old notation for second and first inversion. In A this would be (A, c#, E) -> (A, D, F#) -> (G#, B, E).

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...Is this a technically "correct" progression?

There is no such thing as a correct progression. The only place you have to deal with that is when a teacher corrects a 4 part chorale harmonization :-) My point is that technically correct only applies to the extent that the style of the music has such technicalities.

Your chords fit into A major. Assuming you repeat this progression the changes D F#m hit the subdominant region then Esus4 E hits the dominant region, leading finally to the tonic A at the repeat. Subdominant to dominant to tonic is the model of functional harmony. Also, you are aware that you are using the common I V IV V harmonic template.

You are on solid harmonic ground. Rhythm and melody should become the next obvious points of concern.

...I know Esus4 would typically resolve to E, but it sounds good resolving to D.

In styles that use jazz symbols sus4 chord very often don't behave like 'classical' counterpoint suspensions. Technically in that counterpoint style the suspended tone would be the A and it would resolve to G#. I'm not sure of your exact chord voicings, but I imagine you are holding an A tone over chord A, Esus4, to D and I think it then continues into the F#m. You could think of that more as a pedal tone than a suspension. If the A continues to be held into the next Esus4 and then resolves to the G# on the final E chord, then the ending provides the traditional suspension resolution.

...How big of a difference do inversions make?

The the classical style it makes a big difference as the bass moves more melodically and voice leading rules are applied. IMO, In rock style, inversions are often used simply for the sonority and there isn't any concern for voice leading. In other words: in classical style 2nd inversion is dissonant and technically requires resolution, but in rock style 2nd inversion has a sort of 'rumbling' sound that is desirable and does not require resolution. I'm thinking of power chords in 2nd inversion. But you could also exploit the sonority of inversions in other styles too.

One important thing to keep in mind is the difference between chord inversion on instruments like piano and guitar and whatever might be played by the bass.

Pianists and guitarist often speak of chord voicings. In isolation these voicings are really chord inversions. So a drop voicing could be a 2nd inversion chord. If a bass is playing at the same time and playing chord roots then technically the harmony is in root position.

Chord voicings on piano and guitar will most likely follow smooth voice leading, but in terms of inversions and the actual harmony be sure to look at what the real bass part is doing.

...Do the inversions have any effect on the progression in terms of the key or mode of the song?

None that I can think of.

In classical style the contrapuntal handling of the inversions really will clarify the key.

In rock style inversion often are about sonority or you might use the word timbre. I think in terms of acoustics the various inversions reinforce different overtones. Overtones are responsible for timbre.

It's hard to comment further without more musical detail. Any concern about composition technique will depend on those details and the style of the song.

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