Chord Leading. Help with harmonic movement using Root position and inversions

Chord Leading: Harnessing Harmonic Movement with Root Position and Inversions

In the realm of music theory, chord inversions offer a powerful tool for composers and musicians to create dynamic and engaging harmonic progressions. By exploring the first and second inversions of triads, one can unlock the potential for a moving bassline, the addition of passing notes, and the enrichment of chordal textures. This article delves into the intricacies of chord leading using root position and inversions, drawing insights from reputable sources such as Music Stack Exchange, Composing Music: From Theory to Practice, and Puget Sound Music Theory.

The First Inversion: A Softer Perspective

The first inversion, often referred to as the “Six Chord,” involves placing the third chord tone in the bass position while the other two chord tones remain in their original order. This inversion provides a softer and less focused rendition of the root position triad. It introduces a sense of airiness and lightness to the harmonic structure, offering a delightful contrast to the stability of the root position.

The Second Inversion: Grit and Conflict

Conversely, the second inversion, known as the “Six-Four Chord,” positions the fifth chord tone in the bass while the other two chord tones preserve their original arrangement. This inversion creates a harsher and grittier sound, thanks to the interplay between the bass tone’s overtones and the sounding chord tones. The resulting clash injects tension and adds a touch of edginess to the overall harmonic landscape.

Expanding Horizons with the First Inversion Triad

The first inversion triad grants composers and musicians the freedom to explore new avenues of harmonic expression. It can be seamlessly substituted for root position chords, infusing variety and smoothness into the bass voice melody. This versatile inversion finds its place in various musical contexts, serving as a passing chord between two root position chords or engaging in voice exchanges to enhance melodic lines.

Guidelines for First Inversion Chords

While the first inversion offers creative potential, it is essential to exercise caution and adhere to certain guidelines to maintain harmonic integrity. Consider the following recommendations:

  • Moderation is Key: While it is permissible to connect multiple first inversion chords within a musical phrase, excessive use should be avoided. Overuse may lead to a loss of harmonic stability and a sense of aimlessness in the progression.
  • Watch for Parallel Perfect Intervals: To prevent undesirable parallel perfect intervals, it is advisable to employ a “three strikes and you are out” strategy when using first inversion chords. This approach ensures that parallel perfect intervals are not sustained for an extended duration, preserving harmonic variety and interest.
  • Double the Root: To establish a more solid identity for the harmony, doubling the root of the chord is generally recommended. This reinforces the fundamental tonal center and provides a firm foundation for the overall chordal structure.

Labeling First Inversion Chords

In analytical and notational practices, first inversion chords can be clearly identified through appropriate labeling. Two common methods are:

  1. Superscript “6” in Roman Numeral Analysis: In Roman numeral analysis, the first inversion is denoted with a superscript “6” following the Roman numeral representing the chord’s root. For example, a first inversion C major triad would be indicated as “I6.”
  2. Slash Notation in Lead-Sheet Chord Symbols: In lead-sheet chord symbols, the first inversion is represented using slash notation. The root note is written before the slash, while the bass note (third chord tone) is indicated after the slash. For instance, a first inversion C major triad would be notated as “C/E.”


Understanding and harnessing the power of chord inversions, particularly the first inversion, opens up a world of harmonic possibilities. By incorporating these inversions into your compositions and arrangements, you can create captivating harmonic progressions, enrich melodic lines, and infuse your music with depth and character. Remember to approach chord leading with care, paying attention to guidelines and techniques that ensure harmonic stability and coherence.



What are chord inversions?

Chord inversions refer to the rearrangement of the notes within a chord, where a note other than the root is placed in the bass position. This alteration creates different voicings and affects the overall sound and character of the chord.

How do first and second inversions contribute to harmonic movement?

First and second inversions of triads allow for harmonic movement by introducing a moving bassline. They add variety and direction to chord progressions, creating a sense of tension, release, and melodic interest.

What is the difference between the first and second inversions?

The first inversion, also known as the “Six Chord,” features the third chord tone in the bass position. It produces a softer and less focused sound compared to the root position. On the other hand, the second inversion, or “Six-Four Chord,” places the fifth chord tone in the bass, resulting in a grittier and more dissonant quality.

How can the first inversion triad be used in compositions?

The first inversion triad offers composers the flexibility to create smooth basslines, substitute for root position chords, and add variety to harmonic progressions. It can serve as a passing chord, contribute to voice exchanges, and enhance melodic lines.

Are there any guidelines for using first inversion chords effectively?

Yes, it is important to exercise moderation when using first inversion chords and avoid excessive repetition. Additionally, composers should be mindful of parallel perfect intervals and employ strategies, such as the “three strikes and you are out” rule, to maintain harmonic interest and avoid unwanted harmonic effects.

Should the root of the chord be doubled in first inversion chords?

Doubling the root of the chord is generally recommended as it provides a stronger foundation and helps establish the tonal identity of the harmony. Doubling the root can contribute to a more robust and stable sound.

How can first inversion chords be labeled in analysis and notation?

In Roman numeral analysis, the first inversion is indicated by a superscript “6” following the Roman numeral representing the chord’s root. In lead-sheet chord symbols, the first inversion is denoted using slash notation, with the root note before the slash and the bass note (third chord tone) after the slash.

What are common uses of the first inversion triad in musical compositions?

The first inversion triad is frequently employed as a passing chord between two root position chords, allowing for smooth voice leading. It can also be used in voice exchanges and to create harmonic variety in phrases. However, it is important to use these inversions judiciously to maintain the overall harmonic structure and coherence of the composition.