Learning to play the piano: A guide to piano chords

Piano students often spend months in music classes learning the theory behind chord formationand progression. Here’s a crash course on chords for beginning and intermediate pianists.

Learning to play the piano: A guide to piano chords

Play a single note on the piano and you’ll soon discover why piano instructors put so much emphasis on learning chords. A single piano note simply does not provide the listener with much in the way of entertainment. A piano is capable of producing much fuller sounds, but first the pianist must learn the theory behind all those lush chords and left-hand accompaniments. Music theory classes literally spend months teaching musicians about the intricacies of proper chord formation. Here’s a crash course to keep handy between lessons.

First off, any musical instrument uses the same 7 letters to name its notes- A,B,C,D,E,F and G. These 7 letters simply repeat themselves over and over again on the piano keyboard. There is no exception- no Hs, no Xs, no numbers (at this juncture, anyway). Chords of any description are essentially three letter combinations. The most basic chord is called a triad- three notes separated by one letter between them. For example, start with the letter C:


By skipping the next letter, D, we find our second member of the chord- E. So we now have:


Skipping F brings us to the letter G, our third and final member of the basic chord triad:


If someone were to ask you the name of this chord, your shortest answer would be the letter that started it all- C. C E G is a C chord. (Don’t get too far ahead- forget major and minor for now).

Let’s spell another chord, based on this same pattern. Start on D:

D skip E play F skip G play A= D F A

So D F A forms another triad, and we know to call it a D chord because D started it all. We can continue all the way through all 7 starting letters- E G B, F A C (remember it all repeats), G B D, A C E, B D F and finally back to C E G.

Play each one of these letter combinations on the corresponding white keys on your piano. Pay close attention to the sounds they make, because the differences between these triads will help you understand what comes next. Some combinations, like C E G, F A C and G B D should sound very solid and ‘finished’. These strong-sounding triads are called ‘major chords’. Compare those chords to D F A or E G B. These new chords should sound noticeably different- less complete, even mournful. We call these triads ‘minor chords’.

But what is the difference between a major and minor chord? For the quick answer, we need to look at the second notes in our triads.

In the C major chord triad (C E G), the E is precisely two whole notes away from C. The same is true for the A in the F major triad (F A C) and the B in G B D (G major). This is an important thing to understand in music theory. The relationship between the first and second notes in a MAJOR triad must be two whole steps apart. Anything else is not a major chord. Look at D F A (D minor) for comparison. The F is not two whole steps from D- it’s more like 1 and a half. The same is true for the G in E G B (E minor) and the C in A C E (A minor). So to sum up three months of music theory in one sentence- if the distance between the first and second notes in a triad is two WHOLE steps, it is a major chord, but if it is one and a half steps apart it is a minor chord.

Here’s why this distinction is important. Piano keys, especially the black ones, can change a chord from major to minor by simply lowering the second triad note one half step. The reverse is also true- a minor chord can become major by raising the second note of the triad one half-step. On a piano, this is accomplished by playing the key immediately to the left of right of the second triad note. Most of the time it will be a black key, but not always. For example, the minor triad D F A becomes a major chord by playing the black key one half-step above the F, in this case F sharp (noted F#). Playing D F# A gives our new chord a major sound. The F# is two whole steps away from D now. Conversely, let’s take the E in the C major triad and flatten it one half-step. Play the black note to the immediate left of E (called E flat). You’ve now changed the C major chord to C minor. The spelling never changes- it’s still C E G or D F A, but the relationship between the first and second notes of those triad chords are either flattened or sharpened one half-step.

Major and minor chords usually form the bulk of piano exercises for a while, but you’ll soon discover some other chord combinations. Instead of letters, it’s easier to explain these chords with numbers. The chords still have the same spellings, but the relationships between the letters are changed according to the needs of these new chords.

Instead of C E G (C major), we’ll call these same notes 1 3 5. In a C major scale, these are the first, third and fifth notes. The note we left out is 8, which is another C eight notes (one octave) above our Number 1. Some chords are formed by adding other notes not included in the original triad. The most common one you’ll encounter in basic music is called a ‘seventh’. Sevenths are not hard to figure out if you stick with the idea of 1 3 5 or 2 4 6 instead of letters. A seventh is used to create some tension

in music that is released by returning to the 1 3 5 major chord in whatever key you’re playing in.

Assume we’re playing in a C chord, where 1 3 5 is C E G. The chord starting with the fifth note of the C scale is G B D, which we know is G major. These two chords work well together- play a G chord and you’ll naturally want to go to a C chord. This has to do with natural chord progressions, which is an entire subject unto itself. For our purposes, assume you’re playing a song in the key of C major and your present chord is G major (G B D). Musically, it sounds even more natural to resolve this chord by adding a fourth note called a seventh (or leading tone, because it ‘leads’ back to C naturally). Thinking of G B D as its own 1 3 5, the 7 should be an F of some kind. But the rule is to make the seventh note one half-step away from the 8 in its key. On a piano, the note one-half step away from 8 (the next G note from the chord) is F#, not F. So a seventh chord is formed by adding the note which would be 7 in the 1 3 5 sequence and changing it to be one half-step lower than the 8 note.

This may sound confusing on paper, but in practice you should hear the difference much more clearly. Play G B D and F# as one chord. Can you hear the unfinished sound? The F# really wants to go to G in order to sound complete. G is in both the G and C major triad chords. Play the G7th chord again and then spell out G C E G, which is the C major chord inverted somewhat. Does it sound finished now? The G7th chord has finally released all that tension. That is the main purpose of any 7th chord- create tension and anticipation for the 1 3 5 major chord.

The final chords to understand at a glance are called augmented and diminished. You won’t see these chords in most standard sing-along music, but they give more complicated songs their special sound. In the same way that major and minor chords are determined by the second note in a triad (the 3 in 135), diminished and augmented chords are determined by the third note (the 5 in 1 3 5). Basically, if the 5 note (G in C E G, for example) is raised one half-step, it is called an augmented chord. The basic chord is still called C, but now we add the notation “aug” after it. C aug is spelled out as C E G# C. The G becomes G# sharp by playing the black key just to the right of the original G. By using this same logic, G aug would be spelled G B D# G and F aug would be spelled F A C# F.

The reverse is true if you LOWER the 5 note in 1 3 5 one-half step. This is called a diminished chord, with the notation “dim”. C dim would be spelled C E Gflat C, because the G is the 5 note and the half-step diminished key would be Gflat. Again, apply this rule to any diminished chord formation- F A B F being one notable exception. Occasionally the 5 note will be a C or an F, which has no black key flat note. If you need to flatten or sharp a note like E, F, B or C, you may have to play the white note just below or above it instead of a black key. It takes time to become accustomed to reading E# as F or Cflat as B, but you will the hang through practice.

It’s inaccurate to say these notes don’t exist- you ARE playing a C flat or an E#, but the keyboard doesn’t make that distinction.

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