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C minor chord: inversions explained

c minor chord

You will have noticed that some songs sound more emotional and sadder than others. One of the possible reasons for this might relate to the type of piano chord being used. This article teaches you all about the C minor chord and its inversions.

C minor is one of the most well-used chords in the history of Western music. Countless pieces have been written in the key of C minor, from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to Survivor’s hit ‘Eye of the Tiger’; from Chopin’s Prélude Op. 28, No. 20 (“Funeral March”) to Adele’s song ‘Rollin’ in the Deep’.

Learning all about the C minor chord will open your piano playing up to all sorts of new possibilities and will enable you to play some of the most famous pieces of music ever written.

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What is the C minor chord?

The C minor chord has long been associated with sombreness, so you will frequently find it in sad love songs. It’s one of the most emotional chords in existence – one of Adele’s biggest hits, ‘Rollin’ in the Deep’ uses a lot of C minor chords, which really add to the emotional intensity of the song.
Once you have understood the basics behind this three-note chord you will be able to change the positioning of these three notes to create what we call a chord inversion.
To understand how the C minor chord is formed we will first compare it to the construction of a C major chord.

The notes in a C minor chord

In terms of notation there is just one very important difference between a C major chord and a C minor chord. Both chords share the same root note (C), and both share the same fifth (G). It is the third that is different: the C major chord’s third is an E but the C minor chord’s third is an E-flat. To put it another way, in a C minor chord the third has been lowered by a half step / semitone. Now you may think this won’t make much of a difference but in fact this single alteration leads to a significant change in the emotional impact of the chord. It completely changes the identity and sound of the chord. So, the three notes of the C minor chord are:

C – Eb – G

Once you become comfortable recognising and playing this three-note C minor chord there are endless possibilities for further development: you can split the notes up and play it between two hands, you can play the notes one after the other – creating what is known as an arpeggio chord / broken chord, or you can play an inversion of the C minor chord.

How to identify the C minor chord on piano

To identify a C minor chord on the piano, you first need to find the root note. This is the bottom note of the chord (so, in this instance, C) The C minor chord has three notes in it. Pay particular attention to the Eb key, which is one of the black notes on a piano and is of course what makes the C minor chord sound different from a C major chord. Be aware of how your hand sits differently when playing the C minor chord, as the middle Eb key is elevated just above the white keys. Eventually you will get used to this just by feeling where the notes are, much in the same way as you can type on a computer keyboard without needing to look at your fingers. Be careful not to overly rely on your eyesight when learning and always remind yourself of the correct hand and sitting position. This will improve your playing when you are looking at sheet music, playing on stage, or communicating with other musicians if playing in a band or orchestra. It is really important to learn how to play the piano by feel, with your hands, instead of only using your eyesight. 

C minor piano chord finger positions

The finger positions for a C minor chord are exactly the same as a C major chord. This means that all the fingering you learned in relation to playing C major arpeggios, broken chords, chord inversions, and chord progressions, can also be applied to C minor. Just like learning a language or learning a science, it always feels much easier to learn a new concept by building on information that you already know rather than thinking of it as an entirely new idea. As such, the finger positions for the C minor chord will be the same apart from some slight (but very important) differences relating to the third. Your middle finger will be playing the elevated black key (that is, the Eb) so just make sure you push your fingers further into the keyboard so that you can reach the black key more easily. It should still feel like a comfortable and natural finger position and certainly shouldn’t feel awkward.

C minor chord inversions 

When we talk about chord inversions, we are referring to the relationship of its lowest note to the other notes in the chord. As such, the C minor chord contains three notes (C – Eb – G) and its inversion is determined by which of these notes is the lowest in the chord. So, when we play the notes C – Eb – G, with the C as the lowest note, we are playing a C minor chord in root position. In sheet music, or perhaps in a chord chart, an additional symbol tells us which inversion the chord should be played in. First, we will see the name of the chord, which indicates whether it is a major or minor chord (so C major is labelled ‘C’ and C minor is labelled ‘Cm’). Then a second symbol will be written after a slash, which tells us which inversion should be played. For instance, Cm/Eb means a C minor chord in first inversion, because it is asking you to play the Eb as the lowest note. Cm/G is a C minor chord in second inversion, because the G should be the lowest note. or second inversion.

Once you have got the hang of how to play the C minor chord in each of its inversions you can apply the same principles to other chords. Remember, the inversion of a chord is always determined by its lowest note.

Cm – Root position

When we say that a chord is in root position, we mean that the root of the chord is the lowest note. The root of a C minor chord is C, so a C minor chord is in root position if the C is the lowest note. It doesn’t matter what order the other two notes of the chord (i.e., Eb and G) appear in as long as the C is the lowest note the chord is definitely in root position! The root of a G major chord is G, so a G major chord is in root position if G is the lowest note.

Cm – Root position

Cm – Root position

Cm/Eb – First inversion

A chord is in first inversion when the third of the chord is the bottom note. So, in the case of C minor, a first inversion chord would have the Eb as the lowest note, with the G and C above it. It is most common for the G to come next, followed by the C, just because it’s a lot easier to play, but it doesn’t have to be like that. As long as the Eb is the bottom note, it’s a C minor first inversion chord. You might notice that the first inversion of a minor chord does not sound quite as strong as root position. This is because the distance between the third and fifth has been altered and is now a wider interval. This makes it slightly more difficult to play, so you will need to alter your fingering. You will certainly notice the wider stretch between the G and the C.

c minor chord

Cm/G – Second inversion

The second inversion is when the 5th of the chord is placed on the bottom. In C minor this means that the G is now the bottom note, with the C and Eb appearing above it. This is often considered the strongest of the inversions because having the fifth below the root creates a full, rich sound that can make the music sound very powerful and strong. When using the second inversion of a minor chord, be sure that the top note is the flat third; it can be very tempting to revert to playing the major chord and forget that the note has been altered.

Cm/G – Second inversion

Chords from the scale of C minor

Many of the chords that are in the scale of C minor can also be found in the scale of E flat major. This is because C minor is the relative minor of E flat major. The music theory around this subject is a little complicated as it depends on which type of minor scale you are using to form your chords (you can have a natural minor, a harmonic minor, and a melodic minor). If we take the natural form of the C minor scale, the chords will be as follows:

  • C minor (includes the notes C – Eb – G)
  •  D Diminished (includes the notes D – F – Ab)
  • Eb major (includes the notes Eb – G – Bb)
  • F minor (includes the notes F – Ab – C)
  • G minor (includes the notes G – Bb – D)
  • Ab major (includes the notes Ab – C – Eb)
  • Bb major (includes the notes Bb – D – F)

C minor chord piano progressions

Chord progressions in a minor key are quite different from chord progressions in a major key. This is because a lot of the rules on harmony are different in minor keys, so you may find that a lot of the common chord progression formulas will suddenly not work or will sound very different to what you were expecting. Chord progressions are often notated using Roman numerals. You can find out more about this here. Some of the most common C minor chord progressions on the piano are:

  • I – VI – III – VII = Cm – Ab – Eb – Bb
  • I – iv – i – VI – V7 – i = Cm – Fm – Cm – Ab – G7 – Cm
  • I – iv – v = Cm – Fm – G7
  • I – VI – III – iv = Cm – Ab – Eb – Fm

The C minor triad: what is the difference between a triad and a chord?

Did you know that all triads are chords, but not all chords are triads? A triad is basically a chord that has only three notes, and these notes must be built in thirds. In this instance, therefore, a C minor triad is exactly the same as a C minor chord. If we start adding other notes to the C minor triad – for instance if we added an extra C at the top – this would no longer be a triad as we now have four notes. Or if we added a B flat to the C minor triad, it would be called a C minor seventh chord and again would no longer be classed as a triad. Chords like the C minor 7th are very commonly used as jazz chords on the piano. 

The C minor triad

Play popular songs with the C minor chord

There are a lot fewer songs that use a C minor chord but you can look out for songs in the key of E flat or in the key of C minor. Check out the below examples to master playing the chord on piano.There are a lot fewer songs that use a C minor chord but you can look out for songs in the key of E flat or in the key of C minor. Check out the below examples to master playing the chord on piano.

Game of Thrones – Theme

Few TV shows have such an incredible theme song as Game of Thrones. The theme is so impactful because it starts with a huge root position C minor chord that is arpeggiated and slowly transitions into the epic theme that we know and love. You should aim to play it confidently and quickly; try to pay attention to how splitting the chord between two hands increases the impact of the music to the listener (and performer).

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Adele – Rollin’ in the Deep

Adele’s ‘Rollin’ in the Deep’ is one of the most famous songs written in the key of C minor. This song makes heavy use of what we call power chords. You can find out all about them and the role of the C minor chord in this song here on Skoove!

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Debussy – Clair de Lune

There are not many C minor piano chords in this song, but when they do appear they sound extra special. Look out for the moment when you pay the G natural because (Clair de Lune is actually in the key of D flat major).When you find the natural sign on the G listen to how impactful the C minor chord is. Have a go at learning this incredible song here on Skoove!

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Chopin – Nocturne in Eb major

As we have seen, Eb major and C minor are relative keys. This means they share the same key signature. As such, a lot of C minor chords appear in Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne in Eb major. You can learn how to play it here on Skoove. Listen out to the ways in which the home key of Eb major and the relative key of C minor complement each other.

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C minor conclusions 

The C minor chord is one of the most impactful chords there is. Learning how to play it and understanding how to place it in one of its inversions is an essential skill for any pianist. And once you’ve understood how C minor works and the theory behind it, you’ll be able to apply all this knowledge to countless other keys and chord progressions. With your Skoove free trial you’ll be able to play lots of songs that use C minor chords and interesting minor chord progressions. 

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Author of this blog post:

 Alvin Shipp

Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.
Published by Lydia Hovan from the Skoove team

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