Once you have spent some time on chords ear training you should be able recognise major, minor, augmented and diminished triads by ear.

A useful next step is to work on recognising the different inversions of each chord.

Recap: What is an inversion?

An inversion of a chord simply means arranging the notes of a chord in a different order. For example, with a triad chord you have the 1, 3 and 5 notes of the scale and the 1 is lowest in pitch, 3 in the middle and 5 highest. In its first inversion you would move the 1 note up to the top (one whole octave higher) so that it is still the same note – but now in a higher register than the 3 and the 5. So the 3 note is now the lowest, the 5 in the middle, and the 1 on top.

How to recognise chord inversions

At first you will just hear all the inversions of a chord as sounding the same. For example, all inversions of a major triad will have the same overall “bright and happy” sound, while all the inversions of a minor triad will have the same overall “dark and gloomy” sound.

However, it is possible to train your ears to tell not only the type of chord (e.g. major) but also which inversion is played (e.g. first inversion).

There are three ways you can learn to tell different inversions apart:

1. Overall spread of pitches

This is a vague and somewhat unreliable approach but it is the way you will instinctively start to hear the differences.

Play each inversion of a major triad. You will hear that the pitches are spread out differently in each case. For example, the first and second inversions will sound “wider” or “larger” than the basic root form of the chord.

This is particularly noticeable with four-note chords, where you may find clusters of pitch forming. For example, if you take a dominant seventh chord (e.g. G B D F) and listen to its first inversion, you find the root note (G) is now right next to the 7th note (F). This creates a much stronger dissonance and makes the note feel jumbled and dense compared with the root form where pitches are more spread out.

2. Listen for the top and bottom notes

A more reliable approach is to start listening out for which note is at the top (or the bottom) of the chord. For example, if you can hear that the root of the chord is on top, you know it is the first inversion of the chord. If it is the third of the chord on top, it is the second inversion, and so on.

This is a particularly good approach if you are taking a functional approach to relative pitch, for example using solfege. You should be used to hearing the “roles” of each note, and so with a bit of practice it should be easy for you to listen out for the top note of the chord, and then figure out which degree of the scale that is – and hence which inversion of the chord it is.

3. Listen for the intervals in the chord

This is another good approach. If you are studying interval ear training you will be developing the ability to recognise the different types of interval. The intervals in each inversion of a chord are different, and so by listening out for the intervals present in the chord you can identify which inversion it is.

For example, the root position of a major triad chord has an interval of a major third between the bottom and middle notes and a perfect fifth between the bottom and top notes.

The first inversion of that same chord though will have a minor third between its bottom and middle notes and a minor sixth between its bottom and top notes.

So if you can hear a clear perfect fifth you can be confident it is the root position, but if that minor sixth is present you know it’s the first inversion.

You can listen for the intervals from the bottom note to each other note (as in the examples above) or between each pair of neighbouring notes. Both will allow you to dissect the chord into its component intervals and so identify its inversion.

Your approach

You do not need to choose a single approach for this skill. It makes sense to focus on the one which best matches your ear training practice but you should feel free to combine all three.

Each approach can offer a different “clue” as to the inversion you’re hearing, and by using the clues from all three approaches you can quickly develop a versatile ability to identify chord inversions.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • How can I learn to identify chord inversions?
  • How do you hear which inversion a chord is?
  • How do the inversions of a chord sound different?

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