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Piano Chords: A Comprehensive Overview for Beginners

piano-chords-a-comprehensive-overview-for-beginners

Are you the kind of person who has always wanted to play piano but could never take formal lessons? Do not despair: even without formal training, you can learn the basics of piano chords and plunk along with your favorite hits. This article will give beginners and piano novices an overview of all the major chords, show the position to play them in, explore the relationship to key signatures, and describe how to start practicing.

What Is a Chord?

A chord is three or more notes played together. Any song you hear can be played by using chords. For example, if you love the song "Firework" by Katy Perry, you do not need the sheet music to learn to play it. Figuring out the chord chart is enough to get you started. Here is the good news: you do not need to be able to read music in order to play a song!

Songs Are Written in Keys

The secret to understanding how chords relate to each other, is to learn the different keys. Every song is written in a key—think of it like a family of notes. Here are the major keys (there are more, but for beginners, this will suffice).

Keys and the Notes That Belong in the Family

Major KeyNotes

C

C D E F G A B C

G

G A B C D E F# G

D

D E F# G A B C# D

A

A B C# D E F# G# A

E

E F# G# A B C# D# E

B

B C# D# E F# G# A# B

F

F G A Bb C D E F

Why Are They Ordered Like That?

I did not put them in alphabetical order, but rather I put them in order of sharps. Take a look at the key of C. There are no sharps or flats. The next key is G (which is five notes up—count C, D, E, F, G). Now you see there is one sharp. To play a sharp, you find the note and play the note immediately to the right (in most cases it is a black key). Continuing on, the next key is D (again five notes up). Now you notice that the F is still sharped, but we added another sharp, C#. The next key is A, and we add another sharp (G#). Notice that the keys are five notes away from each other and the sharps are too! It is called the circle of fifths!

copyright: Julie DeNeen 2012

copyright: Julie DeNeen 2012

piano-chords-a-comprehensive-overview-for-beginners

So What Does This Have to Do With Chords?

When we play a song in a particular key, there are usually four chords that are considered the most popular in a key. We call them the primary chords. If you know your keys, you can easily pick out the chords that you will need to know. Most popular songs you hear consist of these four primary chords in the key.

All of this information will help you when it comes time to actually play the chord, so hang in there with all this conceptual stuff!

Example: Key of C, What are the Primary Chords?

copyright: Julie DeNeen 2012

copyright: Julie DeNeen 2012

Explaining the Photo

So as you can see, if a song is in the key of C, the main chords you will play are:

  • C major chord (the 1 chord)
  • F major chord (the 4 chord)
  • G major chord (the 5 chord)

The chord names are determined by the first note in the chord.

Why is the 6 chord a green arrow?
That is because the 6 chord is a MINOR chord. Without explaining it in depth (I don't want to bog down beginners), a minor chord is when you take the middle note of the chord and play the note immediately to the left. You will see as you read on. So the 6th chord is:

  • A minor chord

So if you were playing a song in the key of G, you would be playing:

  • G major chord
  • C major chord
  • D major chord
  • E minor chord

Are you following along?

The Primary Chords in the Major Keys

KeyPrimary ChordsMinor Chord

C

C F G

Am

G

G C D

Em

D

D G A

Bm

A

A D E

F#m

E

E A B

C#m

B

B E F#

G#m

F

F Bb C

Dm

The key names

The key names

Now It Is Time to Find All Those Chords on the Piano!

So you think you have grasped the families of the notes and the four primary chords in each key. Now you need to learn the exact chords and where they fall on the piano. Here is where you simply have to practice.

Playing a sharp means you play the key immediately to the right (it is almost always a black key) and playing a flat means you play the key immediately to the left.

Primary Chords in the Key of C

Chord NameNotes in the chordThree different ways to play

C

C E G

CEG, EGC, GCE

F

F A C

FAC, ACF, CFA

G

G B D

GBD, BDG, DGB

Am

A C E

ACE, CEA, EAC

You will notice that there is a box that says, "Three ways to play." This is because when you are moving from chord to chord on the piano, it may be easy to play the C chord in a different variation so you don't have to do so much hopping. It also creates a slightly different tone when you have one note at the front of the chord.

Primary Chords in the Key of G

Chord NameNotes in the ChordThree different ways to play

G

G B D

GBD, BDG, DGB

C

C E G

CEG, EGC, GCE

D

D F# A

DF#A, F#AD, ADF#

Em

E A C

EAC, ACE, CEA

Primary Chords in the Key of D

Chord NameNotes in the ChordThree different ways to play

D

D F# A

DF#A, F#AD, ADF#

G

G B D

GBD, BDG, DGB

A

A C# E

AC#E, EC#A, C#AE

Bm

B D F#

BDF#, DF#B, F#BD

Primary Chords in the Key of A

Chord NameNotes in the ChordThree different ways to play

A

A C# E

AC#E, C#EA, EAC#

D

D F# A

DF#A, F#AD, ADF#

E

E G# B

EG#B, G#BE, BEG#

F#m

F# A C#

F#AC#, AC#F#, C#F#A

Primary Chords in the Key of E

Chord NameNotes in the ChordThree different ways to play

E

E G# B

EG#B, GB#E, B#EG

A

A C# E

AC#E, C#EA, EAC#

B

B D# F#

BD#F#, D#F#B, F#BD#

C#m

C# E G#

C#EG#, EG#C#, G#C#E

Primary Chords in the Key of B

Chord NameNotes in the ChordThree different ways to play

B

B D# F#

BD#F#, D#F#B, F#BD#

E

E G# B

EG#B, G#BE, BEG#

F#

F# A# C#

F#A#C#, A#C#F#, C#F#A#

G#m

G# B D#

G#BD#, BD#G#, D#G#B

Primary Chords in the Key of F

Chord NameNotes in the chordThree different ways to play

F

F A C

FAC, ACF, CFA

Bb

Bb D F

BbDF, DFBb, FBbD

C

C E G

CEG, EGC, GCE

Dm

D F A

DFA, FAD, ADF

Which Hand Does What?

When you are playing a song, use your right hand to play the chord. For the left hand, just play the first note in the chord. For example, if you are playing a C chord in the right hand, play a C in the left hand. If you want to add more depth, play two C's at once (this is called an octave).

So let's find a song on the internet that you would like to play. We can look at the chord chart and determine what chords to play at what point. There will be other markings you do not yet know, but we'll save that for another day. For now, let's work out the chord placement. Let's look at "Firework" by Katy Perry as an example.

Katy Perry's "Firework" Chorus

The chorus to Firework

The chorus to Firework

Pick the Right Inversion of the Chord

If you play each chord in this song in the original position, your hand will jump all over the place. Rather, find the position of each chord that allows your hand to move as little as possible.

Once you have done that, practice transitioning to each chord. Eventually, you can play the chord more than once (to give it a bit of rhythm).

Get to That Piano!

This tutorial is mainly for beginners, so there are music theory facts I have left out. Work on these concepts first, and soon you will be able to build on your foundation. In a following article, I will explain how to add style to chords by adding extra notes in the right and left hand. If you want to learn how to read music notes, check out my article on note reading for beginners!

  • How to Read Music Notes
    A beginner's guide to reading the notes on the grand staff. Great for kids, adults, and anyone interested in learning how to read music!

Comments

Thien on February 06, 2020:

I love your comprehensive chords article. Do you have “ how to add style to chords by adding extra notes in the right and left hand.” I want to learn chords progression but have not been able to find thorough articles as your online. I am a student but adult learning. Currently I attend a local college but wis to learn moving from chords to chords left and right hand. Your reply is much appreciated. Thank you so much

Ari / ghostswelcome.com on April 07, 2018:

Thanks for the useful post. I'm really experienced guitarist but I've never really had enough patience to learn even the basics from piano. But after reading this I feel just lazy, it's not that hard at all but it requires some time to get it going.

Leira on October 18, 2016:

Thank you sooo much!

Ruth R. Martin from Everywhere Online ~ Fingerlakes ~ Upstate New York on February 01, 2013:

Good job! There is no question about you knowing what you are talking about! I like how you laid out everything, and your pictures are amazing! I even learned a few new things :)

Joseph Mitchell from Nashville TN 37206. on August 05, 2012:

hey there, I just read it, like it, voted up and useful. do not worry, it takes me several months to do an article, I have some that I am still working on, I guarantee it takes me 6 months sometimes to finish an article. I envy these people, it is best if you can put out an article per day, I mean, yeah. I can't.

Your Cousins from Atlanta, GA on August 05, 2012:

I enjoyed this hub and respect the time you put into your presentation. While I did take piano lessons, I realized early on that I am a better audience than I am a pianist. I will be forwarding this to the musicians in my family. Bravo!

Jeff Boettner from Tampa, FL on August 05, 2012:

Congrats on another beautiful hub Julie! And congrats on HOTD! I'm dragging my keyboard out of the closet :). PS Your videos helped me a lot.

KDuBarry03 on August 04, 2012:

Well done, Julie! All of your information is SPOT ON! way to go getting the HOTD!

Mohan Kumar from UK on August 04, 2012:

Its great to see such an informative and easy to follow hub win the HOTD. so much well deserved. I've been wanting to learn the piano and have tried various online portals. I even learnt to read musical notes. This is the first time I really understood the concept of the chords and how to play them in such a well designed,well explained hub. Way to go Julie!

Lovelovemeloveme from Cindee's Land on August 04, 2012:

Nice hub!

how long did it take you to put all this together? very informative!

It's sooo hard starting out learning to play. It's like my hands can't synchronize with my mind. I want it to do one thing, simultaneously with another finger, and it does another. I have no coordination. But this was a really cool, detailed hub. I'd give u a piano academy award right now for creating this which probably took awhile.

Blurter of Indiscretions (author) from Clinton CT on August 04, 2012:

@wd- that is incredible! I am so glad they liked it!!

WD Curry 111 from Space Coast on August 04, 2012:

Wow. This is the comprehensive guide. I play woodwinds, and can't get my hands to work separately. We have two teenagers who are multiple instrument whiz kids. I showed them the hub. It got them talking about the circle of fifths. They are over there playing a new song right now. You have been an inspiration, literally.

Melanie Chisnall from Cape Town, South Africa on August 04, 2012:

I can see clearly how passionate you are about playing the piano! What a beautiful piece of writing, and you've broken it up into such interesting blocks that make it easy to understand and keep the reader hooked. Congrats on the HOTD - well deserved! :)

Milli from USA on August 03, 2012:

My daughter is learning Piano. This article will help her. Thanks for sharing it. Voted up. Congrats on HOTD!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on August 03, 2012:

Congratulations on Hub of the Day! Very well done, indeed! I took piano lessons for 4 years as a kid--you'd never know it today. I learned to play well enough only for my own amusement, and I'm not all that amused.

;-)

I had kind of a sucky piano teacher, but that's another story. I may have discussed it in my own hub on reading music for beginners.

Ah, yes, chords and their 1st and 2nd inversions...as well as minor and suspended chords--all stuff I learned much later in life, not from my original piano teacher. And I still don't play worth hang. LOL

Voted up, interesting and useful.

Urmila from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA on August 03, 2012:

Wow! you have the whole class here. Great job. Voted up.

Congratulations on hub of the day!

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on August 03, 2012:

This is definitely useful. I never liked our music class before but you made it simpler in just one hub. Congratulations!

Leah Lefler from Western New York on August 03, 2012:

Wow - this is a fantastic guide! My son plays piano but is at a beginner level (he's only six), but he is starting to add chords to his music. I absolutely love hearing the piano!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on August 03, 2012:

Just wanted to come back with congrats!!!!! This Hub deserved HOTD.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on August 03, 2012:

Wow. I wish I had known this a thousand years ago when I was learning to play the piano. It would have made so much sense and I probably would not have had my knuckles hit by the piano teacher lady so often. So glad you shared thisl

kelleyward on August 03, 2012:

Wow I can tell the amount of work you put into this fantastic hub. Congrats on the HOTD!!!! Kelley

summerberrie on August 03, 2012:

Wow, nice hub...would love to give this a try. Thanks for the detailed information and congrats on HOTD!

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on August 03, 2012:

Great hub Julie. Additionally, I believe it'd have taken you days to finish it, because, it's so thorough and precise---awesome---congrats!!!

Take care

John

carozy on August 03, 2012:

Wow, you've explained how my grandmother could play songs by ear. I think.. I need to study this; I've played the piano since I was 5 but could not explain this to anyone! Congrats on Hub of the Day, well deserved.

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on August 03, 2012:

WOW what an in depth hub. Congrats on HOTD, well deserved. I don't play piano but if I ever decide I'd like to try, I know who to contact.

Voted up and +++

Dreamer at heart from Northern California on August 03, 2012:

Great article. I will share it. Many years ago I thought I wanted to play piano. Now I am content with being an appreciative listener. I greatly admire your talent. Thanks.

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on August 03, 2012:

I was right!!! WTG Julie!

Wayne Brown from Texas on August 03, 2012:

A very interesting piece and very well done. I have played guitar for years by ear though I have looked for many aids and was familiar with the Circle of Fifths. I purchases keyboard last year in the hope that I could it up like I did the guitar but my left hand is being timid in doing its share at the present. Luckily, I learned from all the years of guitar struggled the value of determination, knowledge, and practice so I know that I will get there. Then...it's on to the fiddle! Thanks for sharing this, I am going to bookmark it for later reference. Rated way up!! WB

chepkoluumugulel from Texas on August 03, 2012:

Excellent hub Julie. I am a pianist as well who plays by ear. I have many friends who have expressed their desire to learn but the available books learning how to play a piano becomes complicated after the first few pages. I find this hub very informative, educative and easy to follow. Definitely I will direct my friends to your article. Thanks again for sharing this with us. Voted useful, awesome, beautiful and interesting.

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on August 03, 2012:

This is by far one of the best hubs I have read. I play piano and have found only a few theory books that I feel are simple enough to explain something that at times can seem very complicated. You did a specatular job. Jamie

Syed Hunbbel Meer from Karachi, Pakistan. on August 03, 2012:

Excellent hub. Though I am a guitarist, who never played piano (but desires so), I learned a lot from your hub. The explanation about the different KEYS was superb! Thumbs up :)

Janine Huldie from New York, New York on August 03, 2012:

Julie, just saw this and want to congratulate you on HOTD. I have no clue how to read music and was never very good even when I had to take music in school, but this Hub is amazing, so through and detailed. You did an excellent job and deserve the HOTD on this one!!! Shared and voted up too!!

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on August 03, 2012:

WTG Julie! All your hard work has paid off. Well done! Congrats on your HOTD! :)

Lorne Hemmerling from Oshawa on August 03, 2012:

WOW.... a lot of work went into this. Great job!!!

Blurter of Indiscretions (author) from Clinton CT on July 29, 2012:

@joan- glad it could be of use to you...

Blurter of Indiscretions (author) from Clinton CT on July 29, 2012:

@Ron- Why yes you do! You win--- hmm...an award for great friendly hubber man who reads hubs that are way too long!!! :)

Ron Hawkster from United States of America on July 29, 2012:

You deserve a medal for this. I finished reading it and I think I even understood it. Do I win anything?

JoanCA on July 27, 2012:

Excellent hub. My daughter takes piano, so I'm always trying to get a better understanding of music theory. Voted up!

Carly Sullens from St. Louis, Missouri on July 27, 2012:

JULIE, this hub is epic. You put so much time and energy in it, even when I kept calling you and interrupting you. Wow. Most of it is Greek to me, but it looks pretty and I like all your charts and YouTube guides. Voted up and Sharing!

morningglory24 on July 27, 2012:

This is an amazing hub! My goal is to take piano lessons next year!

Teresa Davis from Moscow, Texas on July 27, 2012:

Julie this is a great hub. I am a self taught pianist. I have been playing for so many years I can't remember lol. I taught my daughter to play. I tried taking formal lessons, but because I play by "ear," I would play the piece a couple of times, then realize I wasn't actually playing what was on the sheet, but from what I was hearing so I quit. I voted you up and will be sharing this hub. Thanks!!!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 26, 2012:

As a pianist myself, I can appreciate the time and effort you put into this Hub. Funny...you don't find many Hubs on the subject of the piano, do you?

I voted this UP, and will share. Mary

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on July 26, 2012:

Good work on this! may I add if one learns the C, G and F chords (I, V and IV) one has at least 30% of all songs in their pocket.

Joshua Zerbini from Pennsylvania on July 26, 2012:

Julie,

Firs of all, I would like to say that I love how lord de cross said that Jon and I would find this useful! LOL And I do, I took piano for a year and of course love to sing. This was right on and very informative! And, I can only imagine how long this took you! Excellent job Julie!

Rachel Koski Nielsen from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota on July 26, 2012:

Great hub! Nice visuals and videos. You obviously put a lot of work into this one. Voted up, useful, awesome :)

mismazda from a southern georgia peach on July 26, 2012:

This is a very indepth article...I always wanted to learn to play a piano....voted up and useful...

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Julie, brilliant hub and I've bookmarked it because I am currently teaching myself how to play the piano. I have already learnt a bit about the circle of fifths but I definitely need more help. It's great that you used a contemporary song - it makes us believe we can all do it!

Voted up. Well Done!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 26, 2012:

Been there done that....I used to play piano and the organ for weddings, funerals, and recitals.....hated practicing....loved playing for myself. Great hub Julie; very detailed and informative for beginners.

Madeleine Salin from Finland on July 26, 2012:

I always wanted to learn how to play the piano. This hub is very helpful. I can see you have put a lot of time and effort on writing it. It's amazing!

Blurter of Indiscretions (author) from Clinton CT on July 26, 2012:

@lord- I have no idea! LOL

@curiad- Thank you!

@realhousewife- I would love HOTD after the ridiculous amount of hours I put into it. And to think I might earn like .004 cents an hour! LOL

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on July 26, 2012:

Wow! Julie - this is beautiful!!

I am a die hard music fan...played clarinet in band :) lol. Now my girls are taking lessons and I think it's awesome for kids to learn to read music and play an instrument. I know it isn't everyone's thing...but I think it helps kids with many other skills later!

Great job! This is HOTD material:)

Curiad on July 26, 2012:

Awesome Julie!

This is well done and should be of use to anyone that want's to learn Piano.

Joseph De Cross from New York on July 26, 2012:

I see it took you days Julie. Was wondering why those monks back in 1189, started using DO RE MI FA SOL LA SI... I guess they were more into latin and those big pipes. Great hub for beginners. Honestly I took three months of Keyboard lessons back in 91, with the famous "joy to the world," and "Kumbaya my Lord" But I'd rather listen to them. Katy Perry's song is my favorite. Hey! great effort! Some people will find it useful, like Josh and Jon...I guess.

Blurter of Indiscretions (author) from Clinton CT on July 26, 2012:

This hub took me DAYS!!!!