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 chord symbols are a staple for guitar players, for many piano students chords are a mysterious art. Some piano teachers never cover them at all (none of my teachers I had while I was growing up ever did). 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 tell you how to make chords, how to read chord symbols, and lots of ways to use chords once you know what they are.
Part 1 – What Is a Chord?
Most simply put, a chord is more than one note played at the same time. So which notes do you play to make what chord? There are eighty-eight keys on the piano, so that makes an impossible number of combinations, right? Actually it’s simpler than that. The piano keyboard is made up of only twelve tones that repeat as you go up the keyboard. These twelve tones are called the chromatic scale. Each white or black key is included in the scale, and is a half step away from the keys right next to it on either side. Twelve half steps 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 will determine what kind of chord it is.
Most chords you encounter in modern-day Western music will be one of two kinds, either a major chord or a minor chord. I’d say 99% of all popular music, and almost that much of the classical music you hear, is built on these two kinds of chords and their variations. 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, so 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 an E. The fifth will be the fifth tone of the C major scale, or the G.
A major chord sounds like a major chord no matter what note it has for its root 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 starting from ANY of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale.
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, 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 built on each of the twelve tones. You can hear how each major chord has a similar sound because their notes have the same relationship to each other.
Now, back to those letters above the musical staff. For a major chord, 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.
Major Chord Symbol: C
A minor chord is built opposite a major chord. It puts the minor 3rd on the bottom, from root to third, and major 3rd on top from the third to the fifth. Minor is on bottom, major is on top, and the fifth is in the same place. 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 (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 swaps a major chord for a minor chord. So, if you know the major chord it is easy to create the minor chord simply by lowering the third a half step. Give it a try on your piano. Try to make every possible minor chord, all twelve of them.
In chord symbols, you will see a capital letter and then a lower case “m” to indicate 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, but that is even less common.
Minor Chord Symbols: Cm, C min, C-
In jazz and some other styles you’ll probably come across the more edgy, dissonant-sounding diminished chord, which is built on two minor thirds. For example, a C diminished chord would be built with 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 on two major thirds, like C, E, G#. Yes, diminished and augmented chords are much less common than major and minor chords, but for that moment that you come across them, you’ll want to be ready to impress your friends by having them in your repertoire.
For a diminished chord you’ll see the root followed by the letters “dim,” or you can also see a small open circle, like a degree sign. For augmented you usually see “aug” following the letter name of the root, or a + symbol.
Diminished Chord Symbols: C dim, Cº
Augmented Chord Symbols: C aug, C+
Sevenths, Suspensions, and More
You can add flavor and color to any of these 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 always correspond to a note measured that far from the root in the regular major or minor (not chromatic) scale. Count the root as one, then go by the scale that begins on the root.
One of the most common added tones is a 7th. An easier way to think about 7th for now will be that the 7th will be an extra minor third on top of the fifth. The C7 chord is spelled 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 see in chord symbols is two capital letters divided by a slash, such as C/G. This doesn’t mean you get to choose whether to play a C or a G chord, but instead 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 down low on your piano (just a single note, not a chord).
Part 2 – Playing with Chords
Now that you know what notes make up a chord, what next? There are lots of ways to use chord symbols as you play the piano. Chord symbols are basically a guide for you to make up your own accompaniment to a song.
Get to Know Your Roots
The simplest way to use chord symbols is to play the melody with your right hand, and then 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 Ab, 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 pulse of sound by playing the root of the chord once per beat, or even once per 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.
Now that you’ve got the root of the chord down, 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 play only every time you see a chord symbol indicating that the chord changes, or you can play once a measure, or play 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, so experiment to find out what you think sounds best.
Broken Chords and More
Instead of playing all the notes of a chord at the same time, you can play them one at a time. If you’ve played arpeggios on the piano, this is exactly what’s going on. You’re playing a chord one note at a time. This 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.
One famous accompaniment pattern common in classical music, known as the Alberti bass, plays: root, 5th, 3rd, 5th, root, 5th, 3rd, 5th, and continues on, shifting to a new root with each chord change. This 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 things and find accompaniment patterns to create a feel that you like. Once you know the notes in the chord, you can play any of those notes in any rhythm that sounds right to you.
Enjoy the Power and Freedom of 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 wanting to practice playing the piano with chord symbols, you can find many collections of sheet music written with just a melody line and chord symbols. This is called “lead sheet” style, and large collections of lead sheets are often sold together in what’s called a “Fake” book, because once you know the chords you can fake the accompaniment, though 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 chords and have fun making music in a whole new way.