What Is Retrograde Inversion in Music? (Explained)

Unleash musical magic with retrograde inversion. Master melodies, amp up harmonies, and elevate your music production skills.

Ever wonder how to flip a melody on its head and play it backward? That’s where the intriguing concept of retrograde inversion comes in, expanding your musical toolkit with a sound as rad as it sounds. Just saying it out loud sounds like some wicked guitar technique, but it’s all about melodies and pitch and flipping things upside down. So, what is this insane concept of retrograde inversion all about? Let’s find out.

What is retrograde inversion? It’s a technique where the composer flips the melody and plays it backward, stoked by the tonality of the original pitch. Retrograde inversion is like tossing your musical motive “backward and upside down,” giving birth to a beastly new melody that still keeps its roots nestled in the original key signature.

What is retrograde inversion?

When we talk retrograde Inversion, we’re pretty much discussing a composition technique where the composer flips the melody and writes it backward. Crazy, right? Not just that, they’re giving the flipped version a mirror image treatment. So that note progression you worked hard to craft? It’s gone through a time machine and a hall of mirrors, all in one. The result is a melody that feels oddly familiar yet entirely fresh.

Image of a pianist playing a piano piece. Source: unsplash
Image of a pianist playing a piano piece. Source: unsplash
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is retrograde inversion in music? (explained) | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

How does retrograde inversion work?

Igor Stravinsky, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, made significant contributions to a variety of musical techniques and methods, including the use of retrograde and inversion in his compositions. Here’s a quick rundown of what he did:

  • He would create a series (P) of tones.
  • Then, he’d reverse the order of the series (R).
  • Next, he’d flip the intervals upside down (I).
  • Then he pulls an insane trick and flips this inverted series in reverse (RI).
  • Finally, he takes an inverted series and reverses it beforehand (IR). Yeah, it’s a head-scratcher.

So, you can imagine it like this. Let’s say you’ve got ABCD. Flip it to get DCBA (R). Invert it to get something like DACB (I). Now pull the big guns and invert the reversed version, getting BCAD (RI). And for the grand finale, invert before you reverse, producing BADC (IR). It’s like a wild remix of your melody, creating an array of variations to play with.

What does retrograde inversion sound like?

Explaining what retrograde inversion sounds like is like trying to describe the color blue to someone who’s been colorblind. It’s challenging. Here’s the thing though, retrograde inversion isn’t about creating something that sounds entirely new – it’s about flipping and reversing an existing series of tones. So, the result should sound vaguely familiar, but with a fresh twist. Just imagine if Picasso decided to paint The Starry Night – it’d still be a night sky, but done in an entirely different style.

Variations for orchestra op 31 tone row mirror forms showing retrograde inversion. Source: wiki commons
Variations for orchestra op 31 tone row mirror forms showing retrograde inversion. Source: wiki commons

How can retrograde inversion help with your music creation process?

Even if you’re not a classical composer, retrograde inversion can be an insanely fun and creative tool to mess with in your compositions. You might be a college student working on your first mixtape or an accomplished music producer looking for fresh inspiration. You’ll, no doubt, find retrograde inversion a breath of fresh air.

  • Twist your Melodies: Got a melody that’s just not hitting right? Flip it. Reverse it. Invert it. There are so many possibilities that’ll get your creative juices flowing.
  • Expand your Horizons: Composing within a strict framework like retrograde inversion forces you to think differently. It’ll open doors to ideas you’d never considered before.
  • Fresh Inversions: It keeps your music palette exciting. Who knows? That inverted retrograde might just be the secret sauce you were looking for.

Who else is using retrograde inversion?

A quick search into the annals of music history reveals some heavy hitters who’ve dabbled with this technique. Tadeusz Baird and Karel Goeyvaerts are two composers braving the reverse inversion frontier. Specifically, Karel’s masterpiece, Nummer 2, is a stellar example of how retrograde inversion can be nuts when implemented effectively.

If you want even more tips and insights, watch the video below.

Advantages and disadvantages of using retrograde inversion

Before diving into the waves of Retrograde Inversion, it’s crucial to understand both its advantages and disadvantages. Much like surfing, it’s all about balance.

Pros of using retrograde inversion

  • Expands Your Creative Toolbox: Retrograde Inversion is like adding a new tool to your music production garage. It could lead to fresh and unexpected twists in your compositions.
  • Boosts Originality: Using Retrograde Inversion creates a unique sound experience, setting your music apart from the mainstream.
  • Enhances Musical Understanding: Applying such advanced concepts boosts your understanding of music theory, which can be beneficial in various aspects of your music production journey.

Cons of using retrograde inversion

  • Can Be Overwhelming: Given its roots in advanced music theory, it could be overwhelming for beginners.
  • Time-Consuming: Understanding the concept of Retrograde Inversion, let alone applying it in a composition, can be time-consuming.
  • May Not Always Sound Great: This is subjective, of course. But there’s a chance that the Inverted Retrograde of a series may not always be pleasing to the ears, depending on the original series.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Got more questions swirling around your brain about retrograde inversion? No worries, I’ve got you covered. Here are a few more questions that might help clear the fog.

Is retrograde inversion only applicable to melodies?

Not at all! Retrograde Inversion can be applied to chords and even harmonies as well. This technique is versatile and can give any component of a piece a fresh and interesting turn.

Are there any popular songs that use retrograde inversion?

Absolutely! A notable example is the song “Crab Canon” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Although it’s not a pop number, it’s a perfect example of Retrograde Inversion employed ingeniously.

Can retrograde inversion be applied to any genre of music?

Of course! Retrograde Inversion is a technique, not a genre. It can be applied to jazz, rock, pop, electronic music, or any other genre you’re working on in your home recording studio.


So, we’ve dived into the deep end of Retrograde Inversion. It might sound like doing a handstand in zero gravity, but I promise it’s not as scary as it seems. As long as music creation is your jam, you’ll find Retrograde Inversion as rad as a kangaroo playing a guitar solo. And remember, as they say in the music world, “Don’t fret, just play.”

Did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments section below. I read and reply to every comment. If you found this article helpful, share it with a friend, and check out my full blog for more smashing tips and tricks. Thanks for reading, and keep on rocking in the free world!

Key takeaways

This article covered the rollicking waves of Retrograde Inversion. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Retrograde Inversion is a composition technique where a melody is flipped and played backward.
  • This technique can breathe new life into familiar melodies, offering a unique spin.
  • Composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Karel Goeyvaerts have employed Retrograde Inversion in their works.
  • Experimenting with Retrograde Inversion could lead to exciting results in your composition.
  • It’s a dive into the deep end of music theory, but it’s an adventure worth taking when it comes to music production.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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Edited by Nick Eggert, Staff Editor

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