Piano Chords: A Comprehensive Overview for Beginners

Updated on March 2, 2018

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 Key
Notes
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
Source

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

Key
Primary Chords
Minor 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 | Source

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 Name
Notes in the chord
Three 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 Name
Notes in the Chord
Three 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 Name
Notes in the Chord
Three 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 Name
Notes in the Chord
Three 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 Name
Notes in the Chord
Three 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 Name
Notes in the Chord
Three 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 Name
Notes in the chord
Three 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 | Source

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!

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Ari / ghostswelcome.com 

        6 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Leira 

        2 years ago

        Thank you sooo much!

      • healthwealthmusic profile image

        Ruth R. Martin 

        5 years ago from Everywhere Online ~ Fingerlakes ~ Upstate New York

        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 :)

      • Joseph041167 profile image

        Joseph Mitchell 

        6 years ago from Nashville TN 37206.

        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 profile image

        Your Cousins 

        6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

        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!

      • howlermunkey profile image

        Jeff Boettner 

        6 years ago from Tampa, FL

        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.

      • profile image

        KDuBarry03 

        6 years ago

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

      • Docmo profile image

        Mohan Kumar 

        6 years ago from UK

        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 profile image

        Lovelovemeloveme 

        6 years ago from Cindee's Land

        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.

      • Julie DeNeen profile imageAUTHOR

        Blurter of Indiscretions 

        6 years ago from Clinton CT

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

      • WD Curry 111 profile image

        WD Curry 111 

        6 years ago from Space Coast

        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.

      • MelChi profile image

        Melanie Chisnall 

        6 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

        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! :)

      • livingpah2004 profile image

        Milli 

        6 years ago from USA

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

      • DzyMsLizzy profile image

        Liz Elias 

        6 years ago from Oakley, CA

        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.

      • urmilashukla23 profile image

        Urmila 

        6 years ago from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA

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

        Congratulations on hub of the day!

      • jpcmc profile image

        JP Carlos 

        6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

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

      • leahlefler profile image

        Leah Lefler 

        6 years ago from Western New York

        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!

      • mary615 profile image

        Mary Hyatt 

        6 years ago from Florida

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

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        6 years ago from sunny Florida

        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

      • profile image

        kelleyward 

        6 years ago

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

      • profile image

        summerberrie 

        6 years ago

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

      • John Sarkis profile image

        John Sarkis 

        6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

        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

      • profile image

        carozy 

        6 years ago

        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.

      • Just Ask Susan profile image

        Susan Zutautas 

        6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        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 +++

      • starstream profile image

        Dreamer at heart 

        6 years ago from Northern California

        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.

      • RealHousewife profile image

        Kelly Umphenour 

        6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

        I was right!!! WTG Julie!

      • Wayne Brown profile image

        Wayne Brown 

        6 years ago from Texas

        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 profile image

        chepkoluumugulel 

        6 years ago from Texas

        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.

      • jhamann profile image

        Jamie Lee Hamann 

        6 years ago from Reno NV

        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

      • Hunbbel Meer profile image

        Syed Hunbbel Meer 

        6 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

        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 profile image

        Janine Huldie 

        6 years ago from New York, New York

        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!!

      • Sunshine625 profile image

        Linda Bilyeu 

        6 years ago from Orlando, FL

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

      • Lorne Hemmerling profile image

        Lorne Hemmerling 

        6 years ago from Oshawa

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

      • Julie DeNeen profile imageAUTHOR

        Blurter of Indiscretions 

        6 years ago from Clinton CT

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

      • Julie DeNeen profile imageAUTHOR

        Blurter of Indiscretions 

        6 years ago from Clinton CT

        @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 profile image

        Ron Hawkster 

        6 years ago from United States of America

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

      • JoanCA profile image

        JoanCA 

        6 years ago

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

      • CarlySullens profile image

        Carly Sullens 

        6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

        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 profile image

        morningglory24 

        6 years ago

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

      • tjdavis profile image

        Teresa Davis 

        6 years ago from Moscow, Texas

        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!!!

      • mary615 profile image

        Mary Hyatt 

        6 years ago from Florida

        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

      • Mhatter99 profile image

        Martin Kloess 

        6 years ago from San Francisco

        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.

      • josh3418 profile image

        Joshua Zerbini 

        6 years ago from Pennsylvania

        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!

      • Farmer Rachel profile image

        Rachel Koski 

        6 years ago from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota

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

      • mismazda profile image

        mismazda 

        6 years ago from a southern georgia peach

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

      • Jools99 profile image

        Jools Hogg 

        6 years ago from North-East UK

        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!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        6 years ago from Olympia, WA

        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.

      • Made profile image

        Madeleine Salin 

        6 years ago from Finland

        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!

      • Julie DeNeen profile imageAUTHOR

        Blurter of Indiscretions 

        6 years ago from Clinton CT

        @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

      • RealHousewife profile image

        Kelly Umphenour 

        6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

        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 profile image

        Mark G Weller 

        6 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

        Awesome Julie!

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

      • Lord De Cross profile image

        Joseph De Cross 

        6 years ago from New York

        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.

      • Julie DeNeen profile imageAUTHOR

        Blurter of Indiscretions 

        6 years ago from Clinton CT

        This hub took me DAYS!!!!

      working

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