I'm having a little bit of trouble finding a way of looking at how inversions relate to diatonic harmony.

When I listen to a piece of music the bass is how I usually determine which # chord it is on.

For example whenever I hear that the bass is on the fourth note of the scale I automatically assume that the harmony makes a IV chord.

However I'm starting to realize that this is a dangerous way of looking at it since inversions make it possible for it to be a ii6/3 chord or a viio6/4 chord.

With that being said If I wanted the bass to go C F G for a I IV V wouldn't it also be possible for it to be a vi6/4 > ii6/4 > iii6/3?

Doing that would put the same C F G into the bass pattern but in this case it would be harmonically functioning completely different than a I>IV>V wouldn't it?

In that case is it safe to assume that chord function isn't determined by the bass but rather the entire chord?
Quote by dannydawiz
I'm having a little bit of trouble finding a way of looking at how inversions relate to diatonic harmony.

When I listen to a piece of music the bass is how I usually determine which # chord it is on.

For example whenever I hear that the bass is on the fourth note of the scale I automatically assume that the harmony makes a IV chord.

However I'm starting to realize that this is a dangerous way of looking at it since inversions make it possible for it to be a ii6/3 chord or a viio6/4 chord.

With that being said If I wanted the bass to go C F G for a I IV V wouldn't it also be possible for it to be a vi6/4 > ii6/4 > iii6/3?

Doing that would put the same C F G into the bass pattern but in this case it would be harmonically functioning completely different than a I>IV>V wouldn't it?

In that case is it safe to assume that chord function isn't determined by the bass but rather the entire chord?

Yeah, you're right on the point that the lowest note heard does not necessarily mean that it is the root of the chord. An inversion doesn't change its harmonic function though. Chord I is still chord I through all of its inversions.

With that being said If I wanted the bass to go C F G for a I IV V wouldn't it also be possible for it to be a vi6/4 > ii6/4 > iii6/3?

I hesitate to say this is correct because when you harmonise the scale in triads, all the chords are different from each other. Comparing a C major triad in all its inversions to an A minor triad in all its inversions, they are different because A has A and C doesn't, it has a G instead. So in a strict harmonic analysis, I wouldn't think like that, I'd just say *whatever chord* in *whatever inversion* or with *whatever bass*.
However, true that the chords you figure are closely related and are valid substitutions used frequently in all kinds of music.

edit: this kind of ambiguity you're describing, as far as i can think now because I'm tired lol, really starts coming in to play when you start extending to the chords upper tensions. For example So take an Em7 chord (E, G, B, D), stick a C under that and now it's a Cmaj9. It's possible for a top voicing to emphasise it's Em7 relationship while leaving the role that the C plays to the bass. So you've got to use your head, look at where the chord is coming from and going to and look at the notes used.
Also, your ear is important if it's difficult to just do a written analysis. Does the arrangement of notes in a particular context convey a major or minor tonality? Then you're already one step closer to figuring out what it is.
Last edited by UnmagicMushroom at Sep 16, 2013,
Generally inversions don't change harmonic function, but there's one notable exception that I can think of, which is the cadential 6/4 chord. When you have. for example, I6/4-V-I the I6/4 sort of functions as a V chord because that root movement is so strong (in reality it's functioning as a double suspended V chord).

But yes, generally you can't just look at root movement to discern harmonic function.
I don't know what music theory is.

Inversions are functionally distinct, yes. They may have the same root and be of similar function, but not identical.

A 6/3 chord is not a substitute for a root position or 6/4 (especially not a 6/4). You wouldn't just throw in a I6/3 without a good reason, and that reason is almost always to accommodate bass melody.

MOST of the time in rock music you're dealing with root position chords. Even when the bass moves melodically, it might not justify analyzing it as an inversion. There needs to be some sort of rhythmic treatment that makes the inverted harmony its own chord rather than simply a change in the bass note for half a beat.

Bass line =/= inversion. For example, rocking a 1-3-5 bass line under a static guitar chord doesn't mean you're hitting all the triad inversion. But, if you laid on that 3 in the bass for a measure and then resolved to 4, it would be a first inversion chord because it conveys both rhythmic and harmonic function to the listener.

And very importantly, inversions just don't sound like root position chords. As you get used to analyzing music you'll find out pretty quickly that inverted chords tend to be unstable and move quickly to root position harmonies. They'll be the weird chords that you can't figure out at first. That's when you tune into the upper voices and listen for tensions that aren't present in root position chords (the interval of a 4th in a 6/4 chord, for example, is a dead giveaway).
Thank you everyone for taking the time to write out such detailed posts.

I've always known what inversions were but they have always been hard for me to apply on guitar simply because it isn't as harmonically available as the piano.

Learning how to play the piano has made this stuff simpler to apply and generally easier to understand. It's taken me years but I feel like I finally have an idea of where to take off regarding inversions.

I agree that rock music doesn't generally use many inversions. Generally the chords are mostly root position which is most likely the reason why inversions haven't come natural to me. This is also most likely what led me to assuming that the bass would always determine the chord.

Basically you guys are saying that inversions aren't the same as a root position chord and that their function should be analyzed differently in comparison to the other inversions regardless of their shared bass note..

My last question at this time would be regarding the use of inversions. I understand that inversions make it possible to prevent leaps in the bass in order to promote more stepwise motion. I also understand that they allow smoother voice leading along with less motion which is the goal of any good part writing.

Are there any more examples of inversions and there applications that you guys could give me? Possibly some music just so I can get an idea?

Also how can I make wise choices about which inversions to use?

For example there are only a few choices in triads but once (like UnmagicMushroom said) you get into 9/11/13 chords you really start getting a lot more choices. Like you said I can see why you wouldn't just want to throw in "whatever inversion of whatever chord"

Is there a way of deciphering which inversion to use or is this one of those topics that don't generally have an answer?
Last edited by dannydawiz at Sep 17, 2013,
Like JRF said, there are times when certain inversions can function as other chords, for example first inversion iii chords can sometimes function as V13, ot very common though.
Quote by dannydawiz
Also how can I make wise choices about which inversions to use?

Think of the bass as a secondary melodic line in counterpoint with the top voice. Then fill in the gaps appropriately.
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That must make things confusing with chords having multiple names. Thank goodness it isn't very common assuming what you said is true RG.

This whole concept makes harmony much more complex now that I'm finally beginning to grasp it. I'm excited at all of the new things I should be able to discover while messing around with chord inversions.

I used to think for example in the key of C major for simplicities sake that if a C was in the bass then no matter what the tonality would have to be major. However with the use of inversions I now understand that the tonality could be minor as in the case of using a 1st inversion A Minor Triad in order to put the C in the bass.

So my 2 questions now are...

1. If I were to get an A minor triad in any inversion then would the harmonic function always be a vi regardless of where the bass is? I'm just speaking generally since I already understand from RG that there are some exceptions but they are very uncommon. I understand that it would be something like Am/C or Am6-3 but regardless does this mean it would always function as some type of vi?

3. If I were to get any minor triad in any inversion, then does this mean that the tonality will always be minor regardless of where the bass is?

I ask because after reading Nietsche's post regarding the bass as a secondary melodic line, I should note that I've been coming across situations where I would compose something and want an F G A in the bass but I wouldn't want the same boring Major Major Minor pattern that I'm so tired of hearing in cliche radio music.

As a composer should I think of inversions as tools that allow me to bring in different tonalities on any given bass note?
Quote by dannydawiz

So my 2 questions now are...

1. If I were to get an A minor triad in any inversion then would the harmonic function always be a vi regardless of where the bass is? I'm just speaking generally since I already understand from RG that there are some exceptions but they are very uncommon. I understand that it would be something like Am/C or Am6-3 but regardless does this mean it would always function as some type of vi?

3. If I were to get any minor triad in any inversion, then does this mean that the tonality will always be minor regardless of where the bass is?

I ask because after reading Nietsche's post regarding the bass as a secondary melodic line, I should note that I've been coming across situations where I would compose something and want an F G A in the bass but I wouldn't want the same boring Major Major Minor pattern that I'm so tired of hearing in cliche radio music.

As a composer should I think of inversions as tools that allow me to bring in different tonalities on any given bass note?

1) Yes. Inversions typically function as the same chord.
2) Usually we would say the quality of the chord (i.e., whether it's major/minor) not the tonality, but yeah you have the right idea.
I don't know what music theory is.

Quote by jazz_rock_feel
1) Yes. Inversions typically function as the same chord.
2) Usually we would say the quality of the chord (i.e., whether it's major/minor) not the tonality, but yeah you have the right idea.

Now that I'm looking back and realizing what I wrote I feel stupid considering the difference there is between the two terms.

Thank you though Zach! I appreciate you're help! Along with everyone else who answered my questions!
Inversions do change diatonic function which is why we have figured bass to explain it.
It's important to distinguish overall harmony from what individual instruments are doing. Inversion typically refers to the broad harmony and sort of implies an independent bass part. In that sense, only the bassist (or pianist's left hand) can define a harmony's inversion. You can stack your F7b9#11b13 however you want, but if the bass is playing an A, it's in first inversion.

Now, it's extremely useful to have all your triad and 7th chord inversions ready because you'll need them for voice leading, but as long as you the guitarist are not playing the bass part, you're not really playing an inversion of the harmony- you're just playing an inverted guitar chord shape.

Since you can't do anything about inversion per se, your choices should be based on voice leading - do want open or closed voicing? where do you want the half steps? What register do you need to play in? Does the high note trample on the melody?
Let me see if I understand what you're saying graves.

Basically I can be playing any sort of inversion that I want on guitar but if the bass guitar or the left hand of a piano is playing a different note in a lower register than the guitar then it no longer makes the OVERALL harmony an inversion.

The individual instrument may be playing an inversion however when you add the bass in the harmony changes.

For example if I were to play a C Maj 6-3 on guitar that would put the E as the lowest note.

However if the bass were to be playing a C then the overall harmony would still be C major with the inverted C Major on the guitar only changing the voicing.
Last edited by dannydawiz at Sep 18, 2013,
Quote by dannydawiz
Let me see if I understand what you're saying graves.

You got it.

Any time you're accompanying an actual bass part (even if it's your own lower register), the "inversion" of the upper voices is a matter of preference and practicality that doesn't much affect how the overall harmony is analyzed.

But hose guitar chord inversions are probably the best way to think about chord voicings generally. A "first inversion" Cmaj7 chord voiced x7948x sounds very different from a "root position" x3200x. The placement of the half step really changes the character of the chord, no matter what the bass is doing. For guitarists, it's all about effective voicing and voice leading.
I understand graves thank you for bringing me to that realization. Understanding all of these things is really changing my frame of music. Now when I listen to music I see everything as one big piano

Also when you say effective voice leading I'm assuming that you mean as little motion as possible with contrary motion in the melody and bass. Or maybe I've just been listening to a little to much baroque music lately.