Like intervals, triads can also be inverted. As long as we have the same three notes in each version of the triad, our ears will identify it as the same chord. I.e. if we hear a C triad spelled C-E-G from lowest to highest note, and then we hear a C triad spelled E-G-C from lowest to highest note, our ears still tell us that the chord is C, the order of the notes is not important.
Since there are three notes in a triad, there are three possible variations we can have, we call these positions. The three positions possible for a triad are root position, first inversion, and second inversion. You can immediately recognize root position triads because they will always be made up of two consecutive intervals of a third. Another way to think of this is to simply check if the notes of the chord are written on three consecutive lines or three consecutive spaces (see example below). Inverted triads will not have this characteristic.
In order to determine the inversion of a chord we need to look at the lowest-sounding pitch. We call this note the bass note. Let's look at a C major triad in root position, first inversion, and second inversion paying special attention to the note in the bass for each position.
To find the inversion of any triad we only need to pay attention to which part of the chord is in the bass. If the root is in the bass the triad is in root position, if the third is in the bass the triad is in first inversion, if the fifth is in the bass the triad is in second inversion.
In order to determine both what position a triad is in, and what its quality is, we need to be able to shuffle the notes of the triad until they are in root position. This often requires moving one note up or down an octave. Let's begin with an inverted triad. We then need to see if moving a note by an octave (usually the top or bottom note) will result in a root position triad. If we look at the inverted triad we created with the button above, we can see that two of the notes are already on consecutive lines (remember that root position triads will always be on three consecutive lines or three consecutive spaces). So the E and G we see below are probably already in the right place. If we move the C down an octave, do we get a root position triad? Yes, indeed we do. We can now see which note is the root by looking at the bottom note of the root position triad: C. Now that we know that this is a C triad, which chord tone is in the bass of the inverted triad? The third is clearly the bass note, therefore the triad is in first inversion.
When you find the root position triad you should also find its quality since the inverted version of the chord would be more complicated to solve. A triad's inversion has no effect on its quality, therefore since C-E-G is a major triad, then the inverted triad is also major. Therefore we can fully describe the inverted triad we saw above as a C major triad in first inversion.
To summarize, we can follow a few simple steps to find the quality and inversion of any triad we are presented with:
Let's try this with a few examples. Click the example button to see an inverted triad. Do you best to find the root, quality, and inversion of the triad, then click the answer button to see how you did. *Keep an eye on the clef!