[Smt-talk] "inversions"

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Wed Mar 19 09:39:26 PDT 2014

I have not been diligent about pursuing this distinction in the in-progress text that we use at UB, but this thread makes me realize that I need to do better.

Terminology is useful here, for another reason as well. A lot of students, both pianists and non-pianists, develop the bad habit of conceptualizing keyboard chords with what appears to be a root-position chord in the right hand, no matter what is in the bass—i.e. root in the thumb, third and fifth directly above it. It has always seemed to me to be a crucial first-semester task in harmony instruction to break them of this bad habit, and give them the mental freedom to conceive of each chord with a variety of RH configurations.

The problem is coming up with a terminology that enables this mental freedom without confusing other aspects of the game. Certainly we need to be able to refer to RH-positions somehow; the question is how.

• Borrowing from string terminology might be useful, calling the configurations RH-first-position, second, and so on. I foresee a problem in confusing these terms with first-inversion, etc., and the problem will be exacerbated when you get to third-position, which has the fifth in the thumb NOT the third...ugh!

• Likewise talking about RH-root-position, RH-first-inversion, etc. This will inevitably cause great difficulties; just imagining asking a student in a keyboard-tutorial for "a first-inversion chord with RH-second-inversion, leaving out the third". Super-ugh!

• Even worse would be RH-5/3, RH-6/3, etc...

If a labeling system is turning out to be problematic, the only viable recourse is to fall back on first principles, and ask what the labeling is supposed to accomplish. In this case, it is to differentiate between the various hand positions...and surely the anchoring point for each of these positions is what the RH thumb is doing. We might get where we want to get by focusing on that thumb, instead of pretending that the RH chord is a real chord on its own...

For that reason, I wonder if the most useful labeling system might be "thumb-on-root", "thumb-on-third", "thumb-on-fifth". This is ugly, but it seems to do the trick (although it fails to capture, say, the distinction between a R-3-5 and a R-5-R configuration, both of which would be called thumb-on-root). Most important, I don't foresee any ugly collisions with other notations and labels. 

But I'm sure that, given the collective wisdom and creativity of the folks on this list-serv, that someone can do better.


> From: Trevor de Clercq <trevor.declercq at gmail.com>
> To: smt-talk Talk <smt-talk at societymusictheory.org> 
> Sent: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 3:23 PM
> Subject: [Smt-talk] "inversions"
> Hi all,
> My students with some piano background often confuse chord inversions with what their right hand is doing, such as a "first inversion" chord means that the chordal third is played by the thumb of the right hand, even if the root is in the bass (left hand).  This misconception seems to be something derived from their previous piano pedagogy as far as I can tell.
> My question: Is there a technical term for different voicings of the right hand?  I realize I can't retrain the piano teachers of the world to use a different term.  But does something like "first voicing," "second voicing" exist?  Maybe this is more a thread for the keyboard world, but it impacts my music theory teaching.
> Oh, and dear fundamentals textbook authors, PLEASE stop explaining and drilling inversions of chords using only the treble clef.  It reinforces this misconception and leads others down the same path.  I realize it's a convenience thing (cost of paper and ink), but it unnecessarily confuses so many of our students.
> Best,
> Trevor de Clercq, PhD (Music Theory, Eastman 2012)
> Assistant Professor
> Department of Recording Industry
> Middle Tennessee State University
> Murfreesboro, TN 37132
> (office) Ezell 104A
> 615-898-5821
> trevor.declercq at mtsu.edu
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Prof. Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Director of Graduate Studies
Director, Slee Institute of Tonal Harmony (420 Baird Hall)
Academic office: 410 Baird Hall
Office Phone: 716-645-0639
cjsmith at buffalo.edu

Mailing address;
Music Department, 220 Baird Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
Department Fax: 716-645-3824

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