Learn how to play piano chords with the help of our piano chord charts. This is a great place for beginners to start!
Have you ever seen those letters up above the staff in your sheet music and wondered what they are? Those letters are chord symbols. Although guitar players use chord symbols all the time, for many beginning piano students chords are a mysterious art. But for folk, jazz, pop, and rock musicians, chords are the foundation of how they think about, play, and perform music. In this article, I’ll show you how to make basic and advanced piano chords, how to read chord symbols, and how to use chords to make your piano playing more amazing than ever.
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Part 1 – What are Piano Chords?
Most simply put, if you play more than one note at a time you’ve got a chord. So which notes make which chord? With eighty-eight keys on the piano, that makes an impossible number of combinations for creating chords, right? Actually it’s simpler than that. The piano keyboard has only twelve different tones, which make up the chromatic scale, and they repeat as you go up the keyboard. Each white or black key is included in the scale, and is a half-step away from the keys next to it. As you go up the keyboard, twelve half-steps will bring you right back to where you started in the sequence of tones. When you make a chord, the distance, measured in half-steps, between the tones of a chord determines what kind of chord it is.
Chords in modern-day Western music are mostly either major chords or minor chords. Ninety-nine percent of all popular music, and a great deal of classical music, is built on these two kinds of chords and their variations.
Learning Major Chords: Piano Tips
Major and minor chords are made up of three tones, called the root, the third, and the fifth. Chords are always named for their root. The C major chord, for example, will have a C as its root and lowest note. The third is going to be the third tone of the C major scale, or the note E. The fifth will be the fifth tone of the C major scale, or the note G. All major chords sound similar no matter what note they have for their root. This is because the number of half-steps between each of the notes will always be the same. Between the root and the third you will always have four half-steps, an interval known as a major 3rd. The top two notes of the chord, from the third to the 5th, will be three half-steps apart, or a minor 3rd. This is how you build a major chord on top of ANY of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale.
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How to create major chords
Say you want to make a D major chord. Count up four half-steps from D, and you get F-sharp. Then count up three more half-steps from F-sharp, and you get A. The D major chord is D, F-sharp, A. Now, say you want to start on a black key, such as E-flat. Make the chord the same way. Count up four half-steps to G, then three half-steps to B-flat. Your E-flat major chord is E-flat, G, B-flat. If you have your piano keyboard handy, see if you can play each major chord, one for each of the twelve tones. You can hear how all of the major chords sound similar. This is because their notes have the same relationship to each other. Now, back to those letters above the musical staff. For major piano chords, you’ll simply see the letter name of the root as a capital letter. For an E major chord, you’ll see a capital “E” above the staff. “F#” means play an F-sharp major chord. “A” means play an A major chord. That’s all there is to it.
Creating minor chords
A minor chord is built like an upside-down major chord. It puts the minor 3rd on the bottom, from root to third, and major 3rd on top, from third to fifth. Minor goes on bottom, major goes on top, and the fifth goes in the same place when constructing chords. To make a minor chord, start on any of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. To use C as an example again, the C minor chord will have the same root, the C, but then going up three half-steps (a minor 3rd) takes us to an E-flat. Four more half-steps up (a major 3rd) brings us to G. If you want to make a D minor chord, you’ll use D, F, and A.
You might have noticed that to change from a major to a minor chord, all you have to do is to move the third (the middle tone) down by one half-step. This tiny change makes a big difference in sound. Give these chords a try on your piano. See if you can make every possible minor chord, all twelve of them. In chord symbols, a capital letter and then a lower case “m” indicates a minor chord. For example, the A minor chord is written, “Am.” Sometimes you see “min” instead of just “m,” but that is less common. You might also see a minus sign for minor chords, but that happens even less often.
Other Piano Chords for Beginners
In jazz and some other styles you’ll probably come across the more edgy, dissonant diminished chord, built from two minor thirds. For example, to make a C diminished you use C, E-flat, and G-flat. Or for D diminished you’d need D, F, and A-flat. Try a few diminished chords out on your piano to hear for yourself their unique, unsettled sound.
There are also the rather bizarre, space-age augmented chords, built from two major thirds, like C, E, G#. Yes, diminished and augmented chords are less common than major and minor chords, but when you come across them, you’ll want to be ready to impress your friends by having them in your repertoire. For diminished chords you’ll see the root followed by the letters “dim.” Sometimes you’ll see a small open circle, like a degree sign. For augmented chords you usually see “aug” following the letter name of the root, or a + symbol.
Sevenths, Suspensions, and More Chords for Piano
Add flavor and color to any of these piano chords by adding one or more tones to your basic root, third, and 5th. The added tones are usually indicated with a number written after the chord symbol. The number means to add that tone in the scale, starting with the root as “1.” You might see a 6, 7, 9, 11, or 13. Those numbers are intervals above the root, meaning they correspond to notes measured that far above the root in major or minor scales. Count the root as one, then go by the scale that begins on that root. One of the most common added tones is a 7th. An easier way to think about 7th chords for now will be that the 7th is an extra third on top of the fifth. The C7 chord is just a C major triad with an extra minor third added on top: C, E, G, B-flat.
Sometimes you’ll see a slightly different variation, written C maj 7. That just means to use a major third instead of a minor third on top of the chord, or C, E, G, B.
You can also have a suspension chord, which replaces a tone in the chord with another tone. For example, if you see C sus 4, that number 4 means you’ll play the 4th tone above the root instead of the 3rd, or C, F, G. F sus 4 would be F, B-flat, C. An F sus 2 chord symbol means play the 2nd tone of the scale instead of the third, or F, G, C.
One other common thing you’ll see in chord symbols is two capital letters divided by a slash, such as C/G. This doesn’t mean you choose whether to play a C or a G chord. It means to play a C chord with a single G note below in the bass. For pianists, this means you’ll use your right hand to play the chord (the letter before the slash), and use your left hand to play the note after the slash lower down (just a single note, not a chord).
Part 2 – Playing with Piano Chords
Now that you know what notes make up a chord, what’s next? Chord symbols will help you create your own accompaniment to a song by telling you which notes to play, but you choose when and where to play them.
Get to Know The Roots of Piano Chords
The simplest way to use chord symbols is to play the melody with your right hand, and every time you see a chord symbol above the staff, play one single note, the root of the chord, with your left hand. If you see a letter C above the staff, play a C with your left hand. If you see an A♭, play an A-flat. It’s that easy. If that goes well and you’re feeling ready for a bigger challenge, try playing the root of the chord in a simple rhythm. When you see a chord symbol above the staff, you can assume that chord will continue until the chord changes, no matter how many measures go by before the next chord symbol. So if there’s a G above one measure, keep playing G at the start of each measure until you see the next chord symbol. You can also create an exciting sound pulse by playing the root of a piano chord once per beat, or even once every half of a beat! You can mix the rhythm up however you like. Think of the note you’re playing with your left hand like the drum beat to the song.
Blocked Piano Chords
Now that you know the root of the chord and can play it with your choice of rhythm, try stacking the other notes of the chord on top of it. If you’re new to the piano and have a hard time playing all three notes of a major or minor chord, you can choose to play either just the root and the third, or just the root and the fifth. Once again, you can either play just when you see a chord symbol indicating a chord change, or you can play once a measure, or in any rhythm you like. Try playing one octave below the melody, then two octaves below or more to see how the sound changes. For a fresh, fun sound, you can even play the chords above the melody! Try out different rhythms with blocked chords, just like you did with the root of the chord. Playing the chords with different rhythms can completely change the feel of a song. Experiment to find out what you think sounds best.
Broken Piano Chords and More
Instead of playing all the notes of a chord blocked (at the same time), you can play them one at a time. This is called an arpeggio, or broken chord, and it can add a really nice sound to your accompaniment pattern. You can play the root first and go up, you can play the top note of the chord first and go down, or you can mix it up and make any new pattern you like. An accompaniment pattern that’s common in classical music, known as the Alberti bass, plays: root, 5th, 3rd, 5th, root, 5th, 3rd, 5th over and over. This pattern continues through the whole song, shifting to a new root with each chord change. The Alberti bass creates a nice classical sound in your accompaniment. A good march beat can be made by alternating the root and the fifth. To make a waltz accompaniment pattern, play first the root only on beat 1, then the third and fifth together on beats 2 and 3 to make a kind of “oom-pah-pah” sound. As you play songs using chord symbols, don’t be afraid to try different accompaniment patterns that create a feel you enjoy. Once you’re familiar with the chords, you can play their notes in any order or rhythm that sounds right to you.
Enjoy the Power and Freedom of Piano Chords
Now you’re ready to play using chord symbols! One of my favorite series for children that uses chord symbols is the Wee Sing books, with melody lines and chord symbols for many favorite children’s songs. For older learners, you can find many collections of sheet music written with just a melody line and chord symbols. This is called “lead sheet” style. Large collections of lead sheets are often sold together in what’s called a “Fake” book, so called because once you know the piano chords you can fake the accompaniment. I’d prefer to say “make your own” accompaniment. There’s nothing fake about that! You can also look for music that says “for Vocal/Guitar,” which will always include chord symbols. Explore the world of piano chords and have fun making music in a whole new way.