Piano chord basics are very important for all musicians. I spent many years teaching this stuff in schools and colleges.
Getting Started: Music Theory and the Piano
Do you think you're unable to understand music and/or the piano? In this article, I hope to help you quickly understand how music works, without any notation. We are not looking at endless hours of practice before breakfast, and everything is shown in visual context. You could work through this material with just a virtual keyboard from the internet, or any piano, electric keyboard, organ, harpsichord, spinet, scrap of paper, etc.
Musical notes are described in two ways—as letters ( A B C D E F G plus sharps and flats) and as numbers, when the interval or space between notes is described.
You can also ask questions through the comments box!
Simple chords only need three notes, and with three notes you can play any major or minor chord. Any 6th, 7th or maj7 or min7 chord will only use four notes.
General Tip: Memorise everything as you go. Play the chord notes together, but also separate them as an arpeggio.
Chords and Harmony
Most music works like this:
- There are 8 notes in a major scale, but only 7 different notes as notes 1 and 8 (the octave) are the same.
- In the key of C, these 8 notes are C D E F G A B C (all white notes).
- Each note can have a chord (three notes) built on top.
- A C chord contains the notes C E G (play one, miss one).
- This C chord is shown in the first photo.
- With your left hand, play a C note that sounds lower in pitch at the same time.
- So, the left hand plays a C note and the right hand plays a C chord.
- Next, move the chord shape one step to the right, a Dm chord (D minor).
- As the chord moves to the right, move the bass note in parallel, up one note.
- Up another step, Em (E minor).
- Up another step, F.
- Now review all four chords, and have a tea break.
- NB: Don't copy the fingering in the photos, it's not the best way of playing the chords. It is just to show the notes more clearly. Generally, your thumb will play the lowest note in the chord.
Piano Chords in Key of C
Chords in C
Now we have the first four chords down in the key of C:
- C, Dm, Em, F
- Continue moving the chord shape to the right, one step at a time.
- This will give you the remaining chords—G, Am, B dim, C (not shown in the photos).
- If you now swap the chord shape to your left hand, you can play all the notes of the C scale C D E F G A B C over the chords. All the notes will fit, though some will sound better than others!
- Now go back to using your right hand for the chord, left hand for the appropriate bass note and play C, F, G—the basis for hundreds of songs.
- Chords can be played with either the right or left hand. If you are playing melody lines, use left hand for the chords. For backing vocals, bass notes in the left hand, chords in the right. Think of Carole King, Joni Mitchell approach.
This would be a good point to stop and review everything so far. You could now play some simple chord patterns and sing some easy songs that use just three or four of these chords. When the Saints Go Marching In, Stand By Me are good examples. Get a songbook from Amazon or your local library and just read the chord symbols.
Another useful tip: sing the notes in the chords, it should really help with many different aspects of learning music.
A Week Later . . .
Now, we're looking to build on our chord and harmony knowledge by making small adjustments to the chord shape we have already learned. Major chords are all very well, but they do sound a bit vanilla and not all that interesting! These chords have a more jazz/soul sound to them.
- With your left hand playing a low C, try to play the C maj7 shape.
- The notes were C, E, G—for C.
- Now they are C, B, E, G from left to right—the lowest note in the C chord has come down to B, but everything else is just the same.
- Now, by continuing to move down the lowest note only, one note at a time, we get C7 and C6.
- What do the numbers mean? They are just the intervals from the starting note, so C to A is 6, etc. But fully decoded, the chord symbol means . . .
- Play a C Chord, then add a 6th from where you started.
- This chord progression was used by The Beatles, amongst many others—such as "Something" by George Harrison or "Simple Twist of Fate" by Bob Dylan.
Maj 7, 7th, 6th Chords
Added 7th Chords
Now take the C maj7, and move it one step to the right, just as we did with the first set of 8 chords.
You will now have a nice sequence of chords as you continue moving the shape one step to the right:
- C maj7
- F maj7
- C maj7
Don't forget the bass note in your left hand, and channel your inner Carole King!
Minor Chord Progression
Now, we are doing a very similar logical movement, but starting with an Am chord. This sequence will sound like many of the best songs from the 1940s to the present day:
- "My Funny Valentine"
- "Stairway to Heaven"
- "Cry Me a River"
Keep a low A bass note going throughout the sequence with your left hand.
NB: Ignore the fingering shown, it's only there to show the chord notes clearly.
Am6 is the first chord of "Summertime". It's good to remember chords in this sort of context.
Am Chord Progression
C sus4 and C add9
Finally, here are two more chord forms that are widely used in popular music of all styles:
- C sus 4 is spelt C, F, G.
- It badly wants to resolve to C major, C, E, G. Please let it have its way.
- C add 9 is often used instead of C. It has a nice texture.
- This chord could also be called C add2.
- Note 2 and note 9 are the same (D).
- You could use the same chord shape to play G add9, just by moving it up the keyboard.
C sus4, C add9 chords
Chords in C, Please Memorize!
CDEFGABC = major scale
Am Pentatonic Scale
The Am pentatonic scale will also fit with all the chords in the key of C. The same notes again, but missing out on the F and the B. In practice, this makes improvising much easier. In a global context, the pentatonic scale is the most widely scale of all, found in most world music and folk traditions, as well as blues.
I use this scale all the time, and just add extra notes as needed to the basic template.
Here is a glossary of some musical terms used in this article.
- m minor
- Maj 7 = major seventh, an interval.
- Interval: The space between two notes.
- Chord = Three or more notes sounded together.
- Experimentation is good. Try altering bass notes underneath these chords. For instance, a C chord with an A bass will be an Am7 chord.
- Although you only need three notes to form a chord, a four-note chord will always sound better, and should have a bass note added too. If the music calls for a C chord, try using C Maj7, Cmaj9, C6 instead and it will usually sound better.
- A great way to improve your chord knowledge is to work through a Beatles songbook, although some are better than others.
- Finally, if you are interested in jazz styles it's really worth buying the iReal Pro app, for hundreds of backing tracks with chord charts. About £20 in the UK last time I looked...
Naufan on January 22, 2015:
Great Vid! And thanks for the name drop! I have never aclaulty had anyone mention my name in a video before. The reason I didn't do the blues scales of on black note is because the keys, like you said, C, F, G and A are used more in blues playing. Thanks for the video response. Ben
Oyinade on January 19, 2015:
There's a formula you can use. First you need to pick a key. Lets say you want to write a song in C Major. C Major has no shpars or flats, so it will be easier. A basic progression would involve the I, IV, and V chords of the C scale, which are all Major chords. Therefore, that would be C, F, and G, and then resolve back at C. If you want to add some minor chords in there, you may want to use the ii, or the vi chords. That would be dm, and am. A good progression with those chords would be C, F, dm, G, am, C. Play around with them and see what sounds good. You can use this formula in any key. For example, if you wanted to write a song in the key of D Major, you would still use the I, IV, ii, V, vi, I progression. Therefore, that would mean D, G, em, A, bm, D.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on February 27, 2014:
Hi Kate - thanks a lot - music theory is a lot more interesting than people think it is, although I've done enough transposition for one week!
Preston and Kate from the Midwest on February 27, 2014:
I've never seen anything like this on the internet before. This is great. I studied theory in college and love chord composition. Call me geeky but music theory is fascinating to me. Thanks for your hub! -Kate