Music Theory

How to Choose The Correct Piano Chord

By Hoffman Academy Team
How to choose the correct piano chord for your songs.

Playing a melody on the piano is fun, but it can be even more fun when you add chords! One of the unique things about the piano as an instrument is that you can play many different notes at the same time. Often a pianist plays a melody with one hand and an accompaniment with the other. Adding chords or an accompaniment to a melody is also called “harmonizing” a melody. Most piano music will have an accompaniment based on chords. Chords not only make music richer with additional tones, they can add rhythm and structure to a song. They’re made up of two or more notes played either simultaneously, called a blocked chord, or one after another, called a broken chord or arpeggio.

What Notes Make a Piano Chord?

Key of C

The I Piano Chord in the key of C. The IV Piano Chord in the Key of C. The V Piano Chord in the Key of C.

There are many ways to combine notes into chords, but in the music of Western culture we have three chords that are used the most. You hear these three chords every day on the radio, in pop music, rock, and jazz. They’re also what you hear most commonly in Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. They’re called the one, four, and five chord, written as Roman numerals I, IV and V. The I chord is made up of the tones DO, MI, SO (C, E, G in the key of C). The IV chord is made up of the tones FA, LA, DO (F, A, C in the key of C). The V chord is made up of the tones SO, TI, RE (G, B, D in the key of C). Often, these chord tones are flipped around (for example, in the diagram on the left, see how the IV chord has the C on the bottom) to allow for a more smooth shift from chord to chord. This re-sequencing of chord tones is called inversion, and it happens all the time in music.

When to Play Chords

Not every note of the melody needs its own piano chord attached. Chords follow their own rhythm, which can be very different from the melody. You can play chords every quarter note, every half note, only once a measure, or with a special rhythm all their own. Mix it up however you like. You can play all the notes of the piano chord at once in a blocked chord, or play them one at a time in a broken chord. Try different ways of playing chords and see how the feeling of the song changes.

How to Decide What Piano Chord to Play

Adding chords to a song is not like solving a math problem. Chords are a matter of taste, and different styles of music will use chords in different ways. Here are some suggestions to get started: First of all, figure out what note is “DO” in the melody. Usually this will be the final note of the melody, especially in the music of Western culture. Your I chord is built on that note. Once you know where your I chord is, find your IV and V chords. Now play the melody, and while you play, try out different chords to see what sounds right. In general, the note you’re playing in the melody will sound best with a chord that contains that note. For example, if the melody has a FA in it, you may want to try a IV chord. If there’s a SO, try either I or V. There are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes the melody will have tones that aren’t in the piano chord, but your ears will still like it. Experiment! Ultimately, if it sounds good, it’s good. A good first song to try adding chords to is Five Woodpeckers. In the first measure, as you play DO, the I chord will probably sound best. Once you go up to RE, the V chord might sound better. When you reach MI, which piano chord sounds best? How about FA?

Other Chords to Try

Key of C

The V7 Piano Chord in the Key of C. The VI Piano Chord in the Key of C.

There is another very important chord called the V7 chord that is often played TI, FA, SO. In fact, there are many songs that can be accompanied with only the I chord and the V7 chord, so it’s a great chord for experimenting with as you first learn to harmonize songs. For early beginners, the I chord can be played as simply DO and SO, and the V7 chord as FA and SO. Another common piano chord is the vi chord, which has a somber minor sound. It’s typically written in small letters, and can be played DO, MI, LA. It’s similar to the IV chord, but the middle note has moved down. Adding a minor sound to a song can be really fun, so once you have the three basic chords mastered, try adding the iv chord.

Adding Chords to Other Songs

More Hoffman Academy Songs that are fun to add chords to are “Ode to Joy,” “Spinning Song,” “Who’s That,” “Love Somebody,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “I Have A Dog.” Some of these video lessons show you how to add chords, but you could try adding different chords and see what you like best. You can also try playing any melody you know by ear, and then once you can play it well, try adding chords with your other hand.

Have fun playing with these piano chord options!

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