Adult Learners

Learning Jazz Chords: Piano Tips & Jazz Chord Progressions for Beginners

By Hoffman Academy Team

Are you interested in jazz chords? Piano playing tips for jazz chords, progressions, and more can be found below!

Are you interested in learning how to play jazz chords? Piano players can have fun learning the basics, and doing so can open the door to new possibilities of songs/pieces that you want to learn to play. In this article, you’ll find some great piano playing tips for jazz chords, progressions, and more! 

Can beginners learn jazz piano? 

Beginners can learn how to play jazz piano through consistent study and practice. When you begin learning jazz, it’s also important to invest in a Real Book so that you can practice what you have learned. A Real Book is a compilation of jazz lead sheets. A jazz lead sheet is a music sheet which provides the melody (normally written in the treble clef) and chord symbols, which appear above the melody. It’s also important to learn the different chord symbols that you will encounter when playing jazz. Ready to get started with jazz chords? Let’s go!

What makes a chord a jazz chord?

Jazz chords are chords that are voiced according to the rules of jazz theory. 7th chords are one of the most important and common chords in jazz. One important step in learning jazz is to learn all of the dominant, major, and minor 7ths within the 24 different keys and practice playing them.

How do you play common jazz chords on piano?

To begin practicing jazz chords, piano players should understand the different chord symbols that you will see in the music. Jazz music is usually written out on lead sheets, which provide the melody (normally written in the treble clef) and chord symbols, which appear above the melody. These chord symbols tell you which major, minor, diminished, or augmented chord you need to play and if there are additional notes included in the chord (like the 6th, 7th, or 9th).  

A common chord symbol may be something like G7, D7, etc… These jazz chords on piano are called dominant sevenths. Dominant sevenths are built off of the dominant (5th) degree of the scale – for example: G is the fifth note of C major and D is the fifth note of G major. Try this out on your own piano. To find the fifth note of C major, point at C and say “one”, then count to “five” using the white keys to your right. Did you end on G? There’s your fifth scale degree! Do the same thing with G major. Did you end on D? That’s the fifth scale degree of G major.

Now, to build the entire dominant seventh chord, you must make a major triad first. For example: G-B-D, makes a G major chord. Now add a minor third interval on top so that you have G-B-D-F. This makes a G7 chord! 

Another common chord symbol that is important to identify is the major seventh chord. These look like Gmaj7, Dmaj7, etc. These are not the same as the dominant seventh chords, even though they look or sound somewhat similar. The dominant seventh chord consists of a major triad with a minor third interval on top. The major seventh chord is built with a major triad and a major third interval on top. For example, a Gmaj7 chord would consist of G-B-D-F#.

One more very important chord symbol that you may run into is the minor seventh chord. These may be written as Gm7, Gmin7, or G-7. To build the entire minor seventh chord, you must make a minor triad first. For example: G-Bb-D, makes a G minor chord. Now add a minor third interval on top so that you have G-Bb-D-F. And there you have a Gm7 chord! 

Jazz chords: Progressions to try

One of the most common chord progressions in jazz is the ii7-V7-Imaj7 progression. You can practice playing this jazz chord progression at home! To do this, first pick a key. Let’s use C major as an example. 

To build our first chord (ii7), we need to know what the Roman numeral figure ii means. This is how we write the 2nd scale degree minor chord. To figure out the 2nd scale degree of C major, we step one note to the right and get D. Now we need to build a Dmin7 chord. We will need the notes D-F-A-C. If you have forgotten how we ended up with these notes, please refer to the paragraph above. 

Our next chord is V7, which would be G7. We know we will need the notes G-B-D-F, but to make playing it easier, we can rearrange the notes so that we don’t need to move our hand. Instead, we can play D-F-G-B. We still are using the same notes, they have just changed places and have created something called a 2nd inversion. 

Our final chord is Imaj7, which would be Cmaj7. To play this, we need the notes C-E-G-B.

What we have just learned is how to play the ii7-V7-Imaj7 jazz chord progression with caterpillar (or open-closed-open) voicing, a common way of playing chords within the jazz tradition. First, we start with a root Dmin7 chord, which means that the name of the chord (D) is the bottom note and the other notes are stacked in thirds above it: D-F-A-C. This can also be referred to as an open chord. The next chord, V7, is not played as a root chord, but as a 2nd inversion, meaning that the name of the chord (G) is not the bottom chord, but D is! It is also referred to as a closed chord, because the other notes are not all stacked as thirds above it: D-F-G-B. The final chord (Cmaj7) is open and in root position again: C-E-G-B. Did you notice that some notes are shared between each chord? DF-A-C (Dmin7) to DFGB (G7) to C-E-GB (Cmaj7)? 

The chords and our hand seems to be moving like a caterpillar, stretching out and then folding back in, which is how this style of playing got its name! To practice this, try the same steps in different keys. Practice doing this in all 12 major keys and you’ll be ready to play any time you see this chord progression.

Now that you’ve learned some basics of jazz chords and jazz progressions, feel free to practice what you have learned and study more in depth. Find a teacher to help you build on what you have already learned. If you felt like this was too challenging, please ask your teacher for assistance. If you’d like to take a step back and learn about creating simple chords and develop your understanding of the basics of piano, try Hoffman Academy Premium today!

 

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