Inversion - chord identification

How do you identify a chord when it is no longer built off of the root.

When learning block chords, you begin to identify the chord by the “thumb” in the right hand (C# Maj 7 begins with C# etc)

However once you invert chords things get blurry.

For instance: first inversion of C#Maj7 is E#-G#-B#-C#. However, out of the context of “inversion practice”, this chord looks like F-Ab-C-Db. My brains sees this and thinks “oh! this is an F minor chord” when it is not.

How does one break this habit? Is it just over time with more practice? Is it a lack of ear training? Please advise.

considering triplets :

one basic exercice could be arpeggios

sorry, but it is a simple exercice from “classical” piano class :

  • normal arpeggios from the root with 2 hands (beginning on the root, then on the 3rd, then on the 5th
  • one hand doing arpeggio beginning by the 3rd and the other beginning by the root
  • one hand doing arpeggio beginning by the 5th and the other beginning by the root
  • then alternate, then chose one note of the triplet to begin on one hand, an another note to begin with an another
  • then… play an arpeggio with one hand and play notes from the triplet randomly on the keyboard with the other hand

so… with this, you can consider that a chord is made with 3 elements, no matter where it is played.

of course it can be done with 7th or more notes…

but… then… it is more complicated for the brain… Hayden can switch easily from one name of a chord to an another name depending of the harmony.

what is tricky is allways to switch from one consideration to an another depending on the goal)))


Welcome to the community area Chelsia!

Very good question.

Rootless voicings are a difficult area to grasp for new jazz students.

As @marc421812 correctly says: inverting a chord does not change the chord, it’s simply another way to ‘voice’ the chord.

One of the things that makes jazz piano so creative and individual is that we have the freedom to play chords in any inversion, we can leave notes out, we can add notes in to the chord, we can even change the chord completely which is called ‘reharmonisation’.

As jazz musicians we have a lot of creative freedom to interpret chords, progressions, & tunes.

To give you an extreme example. If every jazz musician played F-7 as F-Ab-C-Eb, then everyones music would sound the same.

There is a potentially infinite amount of ways that we can voice an F-7 chord, based on the kind of sound we want to create, and this is exactly what makes jazz music so interesting, unique, and exciting… to me at least! :grinning:

I’d recommend that you check out this post:

I have received many similar questions from students over the years, and I have put all of the information into that post.

If you do have any further questions be sure to let us know and we are here to help :+1:

Thank you! I will try appregiating each chord as you mentioned!

Ok thank you so much! Cant wait to check it out.


I am classically trained but all 12 years of my training was essentially ‘read memorize repeat’ then ‘read harder music! Now memorize repeat etc’

I now write/produce songs professionally but I am 98% of the time relying on my EAR/natural talent. I definitely understand ‘voicing chords creatively’ however a lot of times I’m still unsure of WHAT the chord is I’m playing. I’m voicing based on what I hear and feel, not with what I KNOW from a strong theory or technical basis.

So this is why I am here :slight_smile: excited to learn!

That sounds exciting for you Chelsia.

I think you will really enjoy understanding the theoretical underpinnings of what you are currently playing. I also think it will be a relatively quick process for you with lots of “ah-ha” moments where it suddenly ‘clicks’.

Hopefully you will also learn some new theory to add to your compositions too :sunglasses:

If you have any questions with the lessons or materials, post them here in the forum and we will be happy to assist.


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Chord notation frustration lives on. Any tricks to speeding up the recognition process? I am echoing Zyah’s response that when I see a chord notation such as
but the sheet music in this instance - MOJAVE, by Jobim - is an
E - F#,
I now automatically think E -#9.
(After studying jazz theory for a while now, just getting to the point where I can convert it to what I think works is an accomplishment but a faulty one!)
I am always working on inversions and arpeggios but get very frustrated when trying to get a handle on the chord notations in a piece and encounter these differences. I usually write my (limited understanding at this level) version over the chord symbol and move on.
I understand the theory behind being able to use whatever inversion one wants, but a quick “read” of a chord in its 2nd inversion is a challenge and frustrating.
Any tricks to speeding up the recognition process would be greatly appreciated? Sorry to continue to beat a dead horse, but isn’t it one of the layers of the jazz onion that needs to be peeled by everyone?

Hi Noreen,

I’m sure Hayden will jump in with thoughtful and comprehensive suggestions but I thought I would offer my 2 cents…

I think there may be two aspects to your question:

  1. How to familiarize yourself with inversions (and, later, color tones) so that they become intuitive?

For me, instead of arpeggios or isolated inversions, the most helpful exercises are 2-5-1 drills because they place whatever voicing you’re using into context. It can be helpful to think or say the chord as you’re going through the drill; eventually, you’ll start to think of chords as a collection of notes instead of an ordered array.

For example, a 2-5-1 in C might be (LH only):
F-A-C-E → F-A-B-E → E-G-A-D
which translates to Dm7(+9) → G7(+9+13) → C6(+9), all rootless.
You can play those notes in your RH and the root in the LH, or just play LH alone, but the important point is to think or say Dm7 - G7 - C6 as you’re going through the drill.

  1. What to play in your LH when reading a lead sheet?

For the Jobim example, I assume someone has written Am7 on the lead sheet but the melody has an E and F#. If so, I think the answer is straightforward–use the melody as a guide to the voicing you choose. This specific case is an interesting one because of the F#–I suspect it’s a guide tone rather than a chord tone, otherwise the chord would be written Am or Am6. If the F# is an important part of the melody (guide tone or not), you need to decide whether or not to include a G (the 7th of Am7) in your LH voicing because of the potential dissonance between G and F#. If the root (A) resonates from a previous chord or a bass player) I might try something like a C-E-B in the LH–a rootless Am7(+9) voicing.

This probably sounds more complicated than it needs to; I think the important point is to work on 2-5-1 drills that include different inversions and color tones.

Hope this helps.

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Hi @noreen - thanks for posting this interesting question and yes rootless harmony can be a little tricky to understand.

Firstly, please can you share a screenshot of the bar in question? so that I understand exactly what we are referring to here.

If I understand correctly, you have a piece of double staff sheet music for a Jobim tune, and there is a bar labelled “Am6” and the voicing shown for that bar is a 2-note voicing comprised of the notes E and F#.

My first step here would be to understand what those notes have in relation to the chord.

An Am6 chord contains the notes A-C-E-F# and so the notes E and F# are both part of the primary chord tones of Am6.

When voicings chords, we have the creative freedom to drop any notes from the voicing and so it could be possible that the arranger has decided to voice the Am6 chord with just the notes E-F#.

This could function as a rootless voicing for Am6. It is a little unusual as the minor 3rd (C) is missing from the voicing but as mentioned we have the creative freedom to omit notes from voicings when playing jazz piano.

If you can share a screenshot of the bar in question I can give you a more definitive answer on this.

If I understand correctly, you now automatically see the chord as some kind of E chord, because E is the lowest note in the voicing which you now perceive to be the root.

From chatting with many students, this is a common tripping point with rootless harmony.

I have written an in-depth explanation on rootless voicings here:

In particular, see the section on the importance of “intent” when voicing chords, and when analysing rootless harmony.

My impression here is that we need to change the way that you are analysing the music.

Please post a screenshot and that will allow me to understand exactly what is causing confusion.