Piano Essentials: Basic Triads and Inversions

triads and inversions

Regardless of genre, one of the essentials of piano playing is understanding basic triads and inversions.

Like many elements of music theory, triads and inversions are concepts that can be understood and applied in various ways, along a whole spectrum of difficulty from the bare bones to more complex ideas.

This article is really about the basics. What is a triad? What are some types of triad? What are they used for? What is an inversion? When do you use an inversion? and so on. In answering these questions below, I hope to further your understanding of triads and inversions.

Good luck, and have fun!

What is a Triad?

A triad is simply a group of three notes played together. Sometimes used interchangeably with the word ‘chord’ as basic major and minor chords are triads (i.e. are formed of three notes). However, a chord is simply any group of two or more notes played together. Meaning that while all triads are chords, not all chords are triads — as they may be formed of 2 / 4 / 5 / 6 or more notes.

What are the Most Common Triad Types?

The most common triad types are the major chord and the minor chord. The formation of these is shown in the table below:

Major Chord Triad Minor Chord Triad
Root  (1) Root (1)
Major 3rd (3) Minor 3rd (b3)
Perfect Fifth (5) Perfect Fifth (5)
E.g.  C  E  G E.g.  C  Eb  G

There are ways of extending or altering major and minor chords of course, but the simple fact is that the basic major chord and the basic minor chord are both examples of triads, formed on the above principles.

What Are Triads Used For?

Usually triads are used for, loosely speaking, accompaniment. That may be accompanying a singer, another musician, or yourself (e.g. left hand plays triads to accompany right hand playing melody).

The articulation may differ — that is to say that the triads could be played as block chords, arpeggios, or in any kind of rhythm and style. But the underlying principle, formation, and fact that they’re generally for accompaniment purposes remains the same.

What Is An Inversion?

An inversion, musically speaking, is when a chord is played with its comprising notes unchanged, but put in a different order. The best way to demonstrate this is probably with a table showing the inversions of a C major triad.

‘Root Position’ C – E – G
1st Inversion E – G – C
2nd Inversion G – C – E

These are all C major triads. None of them is in any way not a C major triad. Each will sound slightly different in terms of pitch and character. But all would perfectly accompany anything that would normally sit above a C major. They are different iterations of the same thing, the same idea. This is the key to what an inversion is.

When Do You Use Inversions?

The short answer is for good voice leading. Voice leading is a vast, complex, detailed concept with many different schools of thought, and so there isn’t really time to explore it here. But putting it very simply, voice leading is the attempt to use things like inversions to make chord changes more appealing, more seamless, nicer sounding, or easier to play.

One simple example appears if we consider a chord change of E minor to C major.

Example 1 – Both chords in root position:

E minor = E – G – B

C major = C – E – G

There’s nothing at all wrong with this chord change. However, with use of inversions to create voice leading, the change can be made much easier — not only much easier, but also more seamless, with less sonic disruption. To many, the iteration below is simply ‘nicer’ or ‘better’. Really that’s a matter of opinion, genre, etc. The fact remains though that it has its value and it’s important to know.

Example 2 – E minor root position, C major first inversion:

E minor = E – G – B

C major = E – G – C

The appeal of this is instantly visible. Two of three fingers don’t even need to move (as opposed to all three in example 1).

Summary

This brief and basic introduction to triads and inversions hopefully explains the core concepts in an intelligible way. Make sure you apply this knowledge, find examples, explore the differences between parts with and without voice leading, and so on. It’s important you explore and apply these concepts to cement that new knowledge in your mind.

alexbruce@makingmusicmag.com'

Alex is a writer for Guitartricks.com and 30Daysinger.com. GuitarTricks.com has over 11,000 lessons covering everything a beginner guitar player needs to know to get started, as well as more complicated techniques like tapping, sweeping, scales, and more.

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