I'm having some trouble understanding some notation for inverted chords, the confusion seems to be that if a major triad is known as 5/3 one could assume that the second/bottom number is the second note of the chord, and the first/top is the third.

Except with a first inversion, with the third, then root then fifth. It is 6/3 but surely if the same were true for this as the root position chord, then it should be 3/6, because the interval between the third and the root, is a sixth, and the interval between a third and the fifth is a third?

And then with a second inversion it seems to change again with it being 6/4 when the interval between the bass note and the second, in this instance the fifth and the root is a fourth, and the root and and the third, is a third? Or a sixth inverted. I'm now very confused.

If someone would be willing to explain it to me, i'd be grateful.
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Fender Geddy Lee Jazz
Fender MIA Precision
Musicman Bongo
Boss TU-2
EBS TD650
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I actually just learned about this last week. I believe the first number is the interval from the bottom note to the top note and the second number is the interval between the bottom note and the middle note. For example a normal Cmajor chord would be C-E-G, a normal 5/3 chord. If we invert it and put the G as the root note, we get a chord that look like G-C-E, a 6/4 inversion. It gets more complex when we mess with 7th chords.
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I'm having some trouble understanding some notation for inverted chords, the confusion seems to be that if a major triad is known as 5/3 one could assume that the second/bottom number is the second note of the chord, and the first/top is the third.

Except with a first inversion, with the third, then root then fifth. It is 6/3 but surely if the same were true for this as the root position chord, then it should be 3/6, because the interval between the third and the root, is a sixth, and the interval between a third and the fifth is a third?

And then with a second inversion it seems to change again with it being 6/4 when the interval between the bass note and the second, in this instance the fifth and the root is a fourth, and the root and and the third, is a third? Or a sixth inverted. I'm now very confused.

If someone would be willing to explain it to me, i'd be grateful.
The numbers refer to the intervals between the lowest tone of the chord (root, third or fifth) and the tones that would appear above this lowest tone if the chord were voiced in the closest-possible voicing, in descending order.

Examining the basic triads, here's what we find:

* A chord in root (or first) position consists of a lowest tone, a tone a third above that lowest tone, and a tone a fifth above that lowest tone. Using the figured-bass rules, we'd notate this chord, as you already understand, 5/3. Since figured-bass was designed as musical shorthand, and since chords in root position are the most common variety, you won't see this notation very often.

* A chord in first inversion (or second position) in its closest voicing consists of the lowest tone, a tone a third above this lowest tone (the fifth of the chord), and a tone a sixth above this lowest tone (the chord's root). Using the F-B rule, we arrive at the 6/3 notation.

* Finally, a chord in second inversion (or third position), again in its closest voicing, consists of the lowest tone (the chord's fifth), a tone a fourth above this lowest tone (the chord's root), and a tone a sixth above this lowest tone (the chord's third). This produces the 6/4 notation.

Figured-bass is not intuitive, and I think we can all be thankful it has all but disappeared from modern notation.

edit #1: By the way, I think the reason the notation reads from the top down is because the poor keyboard player having to read this stuff was expected to put the melody's tone on top, and reading this number first in the notation made this a little easier.

edit #2: And incuboy49 is exactly right - figured-bass gets a lot more challenging when used with seventh chords. This probably explains why the only place you see figured-bass anymore is in college theory classes.
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Last edited by gpb0216 at Oct 20, 2007,
Thanks very much, I appreciate the responses. I understand now.
Gear

Fender Geddy Lee Jazz
Fender MIA Precision
Musicman Bongo
Boss TU-2
EBS TD650
EBS ProLine 2x10 x 2