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In most Western music, composers have 12 tones to work with, but not every note works in every situation. To center a piece of music, composers generally work within the confines of a single key. One particular pitch, the root note, anchors a given key.



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What Is a Root Note?

In music theory, the root note is the pitch that establishes the tonality of a musical key, chord, or scale. The root of a chord gives the chord its name and establishes the relationship between all other notes in the chord. For instance, in a C major chord, the C note is the root of the chord. You can add other pitches to that C chord, but C will remain the root. In an A minor chord, A is the root. In an F sharp seventh chord, F sharp is the root. The root of a scale is the note on which the scale begins. In an A major scale, the A note is the root of the entire scale. In a C minor scale, C is the root of the scale.

Most Western music is written in either a major key or a minor key. In both cases, the root note of the major or minor scale establishes the boundaries of the key and it gives the key its name. In the key of E minor, E is the root. In the key of G major, G is the root. Interestingly, the key of E minor and the key of G major use the exact same set of notes and diatonic chords, but changing the root completely changes the tonality of those notes; the notes and chord names remain the same, but the sound dramatically changes.

Root Notes and Chord Inversions: 4 Ways to Play a Chord

Is the root of a chord always the lowest note? Not always. With chord inversions, can rearrange any chord so that another tone is the lowest-sounding note. There are four predominant ways to arrange the notes in a given chord.

  1. Root position chord: In a root position chord, the root is the lowest note played. For instance, an F major triad in root position will have an F as its lowest note. The other chord tones—the major third (an A note) and the fifth (a C note)—will sound above that low F.
  2. First inversion chord: A chord in first inversion has the third note as its lowest note. For instance, an E minor triad in first inversion would have G (its minor third) as its lowest note. The root (an E note) and the fifth (a B note) will sound above this low G note.
  3. Second inversion chord: A chord in second inversion has the fifth as its lowest note. For instance, a D minor chord in second inversion will have an A as its lowest note. The other chord tones (D and F) will sound somewhere above it.
  4. Third inversion chords: Third inversion chords require a fourth chord tone (either a sixth or a seventh in addition to the triad) as the lowest note. For instance, an F7 chord in third inversion will have the note E♭ (the dominant seventh of the chord) as its lowest note. All other chord tones will sound above it.
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How to Identify a Chord’s Root Note

Suppose you hear a chord and want to figure out which note is the root. In that case, you will need to draw on an understanding of music theory—particularly major scales, minor scales, and the major and minor triads associated with each scale. For instance, if you see a chord written on a musical staff that includes the notes G, B♭, E♭, and D♭, there are three steps you can take to figure out which note is the root.

1. Start by assuming the lowest note is the root. In the case of a chord with notes G, B♭, E♭, and D♭, you'd hypothesize that G is the root of the chord. If G is the root, B♭ could be the minor third scale degree in a G minor chord. D♭would be the flat fifth of G—which would make it a diminished chord. E♭would be the flat sixth of G—but flat sixth tensions are incredibly rare. So this chord almost certainly isn't a G chord.
2. Try playing the chord on an instrument. Listen carefully to the sound it produces. This step will require familiarity with the sounds of different chords. You'll need to recognize by ear what a major chord, minor chord, dominant seventh chord, diminished chord, and augmented chord sound like. In the case of a chord with notes G, B♭, E♭, and D♭, a trained ear will recognize the sound of a dominant seventh chord.
3. Study the notes and look for a chordal relationship. Most chords contain a root, a third, and a fifth, and perhaps other notes as well. (For instance, a dominant seventh chord contains a flat seventh in addition to those other pitches.) See if you can find a relationship between the notes G, B♭, E♭, and D♭. If you do this, you will realize that you are looking at an E♭seventh chord. E♭is the root (even though it isn't the lowest note), G is the major third, B♭ is the fifth, and D♭ is the flat seventh.


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How to Use Root Chords and Inversions in Music

Guitarists (particularly beginners) may favor guitar chords where the root is the lowest-sounding note, but advanced players embrace other chord types. Pianists regularly use first, second, and third inversion chords, breaking chord inversions into arpeggios. Bass players, on the other hand, rarely play inversions; instead, bassists typically play the root of a chord on the downbeat (first note) of a measure. They can embellish with additional bass notes during the rest of the measure, but composers and arrangers rely on bassists to establish a song’s tonality by prioritizing roots.

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Grab a MasterClass Annual Membership, stretch out those fingers, and get your strum on with a little help from the Jimi Hendrix of ‘ukulele, Jake Shimabukuro. With some pointers from this Billboard chart topper, you’ll be an expert on chords, tremolo, vibrato, and more in no time.