Piano chords 101: complete beginner’s guide

06.02.2022 Ben Maloney Piano

It’s another beginner’s guide. A companion piece to the previous post on piano notes for beginners, the key difference being, as the title suggests, that here the focus is shifting from piano notes to piano chords.

We’ll come back to focus on the relationship between those two subject areas further down. For now, it’s best to consider piano chords - which are in effect simply groups of notes - to be a kind of subcategory of piano notes. Everything else that we touched on in that other piece - theory, practice, memorisation and so on - still applies. 

We’re simply going to concentrate on that wonderful, adaptable building block that plays a key role in so much of the music that you love: chords (specifically those of the piano variety). 

Caution: if there’s any musical jargon that confuses you below, it might be worth dipping into piano notes for beginners, how to read piano sheet music, or the music theory cheat sheet. These go into a bit more detail on the theory as well as the complex terminology it can involve. 

What is a piano chord?
 

A chord is a group of two or more different tones sounded at the same time. A piano chord is simply a chord played on, or written for, a piano keyboard.

There are all sorts of chordal groupings. Chords can be anything from a power chord (two tones played a perfect fifth apart, such as A and E) to complex clusters of many notes. But given that you’re likely to be playing music that’s appropriate for beginners, most of the chords you’re likely to come across are much simpler. 

How many piano chords are there?
 

There are countless possible chords. Well, that’s not strictly true - there are technically about 4,000 possible combinations of the twelve tones within the octave. But with what we just said in mind, you don’t need to worry about, well, almost 4,000 of them. 

That’s because the vast majority of pop, rock, R&B, country, blues, and folk songs, as well as easy classical pieces for piano, use the common and (helpfully) more straightforward chords below. 

The most common piano chords

These are probably the ten most-used chords in Western music. You can see the names of each chord alongside the notes that it comprises. Before we explore them all in a little more detail, take note of the image of the keyboard octave below, which will remind you where you can find each note.

Triads
 

You might have noticed that the chords above all consist of three notes, and that’s what gives these chords their name: triads. Triads are far and away the most prevalent chords in music, and that largely comes down to three factors:

  • They’re simple
  • They sound great
  • They clearly communicate harmony

The three notes in a triad are known as the root, the third and the fifth. This is because they match the first, third and fifth scale degrees of the scale that begins on the root note of the triad. 

Each note in a triad is separated from the one next to it by a gap - or an interval - of a third. In this context, the interval can be labelled as a major third or a minor third, distances of four and three semitones respectively. A semitone is the interval that separates any two neighbouring keys (revisit the graphic above if you want to try counting out the semitones between various notes).

And because they’re are four different ways to combine neighbouring major and minor thirds, there are four different types - or qualities - of triad: major, minor, augmented and diminished.

We’ll put diminished and augmented chords to one side for now, as it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter them all that often in music for beginners - especially if you like to play pop, rock or other popular-music genres. Let’s take a deeper look at major and minor chords.

What are major chords?
 

In a major chord, a major third separates the root and third, while a minor third separates the third and the fifth. You’ll see that those intervals define the relationship between the notes in every major triad listed here. If you don’t know how to read the staff notation below, have a read of the piano notes for beginners article.

Major chords are usually played and thought of as triad. However, you can technically add more notes to a chord and, as long as those intervals remain in place, it’s still considered a major chord. The major third between root and third gives major triads a typically happy and uplifting feel.

Most common major chords

What are minor chords?
 

Conversely, a minor third separates the root and third in a minor chord, with a major third separating the third and the fifth. Once again, in most but not all cases, the term ‘minor chord’ refers to a minor triad, comprising just these three notes. 

Unlike major chords, minor chords have a more sombre and melancholy feel to them, which is generated by the minor-third interval between the root and the third of the triad.

Most common minor chords

More complex chords
 

The chords we’ve looked at comprise the major and minor triads that you, as a beginner pianist, are most likely to come across in the music you play. But as you already know, there’s a wide world of chords out there, and it’ll prove helpful down the line if you familiarise yourself with a few others now.

Other triads
 

At some point, you’ll encounter the few other triads that can be formed using the twelve pitches within the octave - they’re shown below. As they’re broadly found in music that’s written in rarer keys, they’re not quite as common as those we’ve looked at.

There are some alternative ways to spell chords as well. For instance, D minor above can also be spelled as E♭ minor, which includes the notes E♭-G♭-B♭. The correct way to spell a chord like this is determined by the harmonic context of the piece.

The big circular graphic below, which you might have seen in other articles, is called the circle of fifths. It depicts the various key signatures, the arrangement of which helps to explain the relationship between these chords and spellings, and why some tonalities are rarer than others. It will also help you to more easily commit all these seemingly complex chords to memory.

Chord inversions
 

The root note doesn’t have to be the lowest note of a triad. When it is, the triad is in root position. You can shift the root up an octave, though, and it’ll still be the root, even though it then becomes the highest note in the chord. This creates what’s known as a first-inversion triad. 

Similarly, by shifting a triad’s root as well as its third up an octave, you’ll end up with a triad in second inversion. Inverted chords can help to make a sequence of chords - a chord progression - more interesting.

On a related note, all the triads we’ve looked at so far have been notated in closed position, i.e. within an octave. Bear in mind that you can move the pitches into different octaves to create an open voicing, but this doesn’t affect the name of the triad. 

Diminished and augmented chords
 

We mentioned diminished and augmented triads before. These are also triads, made up of a root, third and fifth, but the intervals between the notes are different. Although these chords are nowhere near as common as major and minor chords, they’re still worth knowing.

Diminished and augmented triads are built using the intervals shown below. Examples in C are given in brackets, but these chords can be constructed on any root pitch.

Seventh chords
 

We used the term ‘quality’ before with regard to differentiating types of triad, but the term also extends beyond triads, encompassing all types of chord. Specifically, it refers to the nature of the relationship between the notes of a chord. Although D minor and G minor triads are different chords, for example, they’re of the same quality.

Let’s introduce a new category of chord qualities: seventh chords. These can be thought of as triads with an added note, either a major seventh or a minor seventh above the root. The ‘equations’ below break down some of the different types of seventh chord. 

Instead of referring to the interval between each note and the next (as we did with the diminished and augmented chords above), the intervals below describe the distance between each note and the root of the chord. If you find the intervals confusing, then the music theory cheat sheet that we mentioned before should clear things up.

As we’ve alluded to, this is just the beginning. There are many chord qualities beyond the ones explored above. You can even add ninths, elevenths and thirteenths to chords, to form what are collectively known as extended chords

But, after all, this is a guide for beginners, so it would be too much to take these on here. You already have plenty to learn and practise.
 

Piano chord chart
 

Speaking of, a good place to start with your chordal practice is the piano chord chart below. We’ve already looked at the names of chords and of the notes that they consist of - the chart depicts visually how the most common major and minor triads are played on the piano keyboard.

Chord symbols
 

In sheet-music practice as well as in theory, chords are usually written out in shorthand, using chord symbols. Below you’ll find the kinds of symbols that refer to the chords we’ve looked at here, though there are alternatives. For the sake of simplicity, we’re using C, but these symbols can apply to any note.

  • Major: C
  • Minor: Cm
  • Diminished: Cdim or Co
  • Augmented: Caug or C+
  • Dominant 7th: C7
  • Major 7th: Cmaj7 or C∆
  • Minor 7th: Cm7
  • Minor-Major 7th: CmM7

Which piano chords go together?
 

Some chord progressions do seem to just hit the ear better than others. Play a B-minor chord after a D-major chord and the music will seem to flow better than if you follow a D-major chord with an E♭-minor chord.

This is because there’s a degree of consonance between the notes, meaning that the physical pitch frequencies - the sound waves - are more complementary. 

Consonance exists in opposition to dissonance, which describes incompatibility between frequencies, which our brains tend to interpret as sounding harsh or piercing. The tritone, an interval that comprises six semitones, is a notoriously dissonant interval, commonly thought to have been banned in the mediaeval era by those who thought it evil.

Consonant chord pairings, then, are those that comprise chords that have either notes in common, or harmonic centres that are closer to one another. C major and A minor go well together because they have nearly identical notes. While C and G don’t have any notes in common, they still go well as the notes of both triads feature in the major scales of each root note.

If there’s an awkward interval between one note in one chord and another in the next - as there is between the C in C major and the Fin D major - then there can be a slight jarring. But often this creates the crucial dash of colour that makes music interesting and exciting. A song featuring nothing but C major and A minor chords would be pretty dull.

Scale degrees
 

When trying to understand which chords go well together, it’s best to think in terms of keys and scale degrees, because they better describe the relationship between chords. By learning these relationships you can figure out which chords will suit one another in every key.  

If you’re playing a piece in the key of C major, there’ll be a range of chords that use the notes of the key, with each one built on a different degree of the C-major scale. The positions and names of the different scale degrees are shown below.

The chords below outline diatonic chords. These are triads that can be built on each scale degree, using only the notes of the tonic key. Because every note in every chord can be found in the tonic key - which in our example is C major - chord progressions that use these chords will sound harmonious. 

Note that capital Roman numerals denote major chords and lower-case letters refer to minor chords. The value of the numeral matches the degree of the scale on which the triad is constructed. The o symbol, meanwhile, denotes a diminished chord. We’ll come back to chord symbols below.

If you’re not playing in C major, but in D major, then just build the chords on each degree of the D-major scale instead. C major’s second chord, D minor, becomes E minor in the new D-major key. C major’s E minor becomes D major’s F♯ minor, and so on.

If you’re playing in a minor key, all the same principles apply. Just make use of the chord relationships shown below instead. They’re given here in the key of A minor, which is the relative minor of C major because it’s key is made up of the same notes.

Note that two dominant chords are shown below. Both will sound good in this minor-key context, but they have very distinct sounds and functions. We’ll come back to this below when we visit cadences

Cadences
 

Cadences are harmonic progressions in a piece of music that are employed at significant structural moments. They have either a conclusive feel that seems to bring music to a close, or a propulsive one, pushing it onwards.

For this reason they work really well at the ends of phrases, sections or entire pieces of music. You’ll very often find a perfect cadence at the end of a work, for example, because it brings a firm sense of resolution.

The four main types of cadence are shown below. Numerals are used once more to refer to the chords of the corresponding scale degrees in major and minor contexts.

You might have noticed that perfect cadences in minor keys utilise the dominant major instead of the dominant minor. This is because the sharpened seventh degree of the scale - the leading note - pushes toward the tonic, compounding the sense of resolution in a cadence. 

By sharpening that note of the scale, the chord uses the seventh degree of the harmonic minor scale as opposed to the natural minor scale. It’s called the ‘harmonic minor’ because harmonies in minor-key pieces tend to make use of the sharpened seventh that features in this scale.

For a similar reason, it’s common to find dominant seventh chords in cadences. Because they contain that dissonant tritone (between the third and the seventh), the chord yearns to move on and resolve that dissonance. For that reason, they’re often heard before a piece’s final chord, the arrival of which is therefore satisfying and conclusive - play a dominant seventh on G (G-B-D-F) followed by a C-major chord (C-E-G) and you’ll see just how well they go together.

Is it better to learn chords or notes?
 

This is a question that’s often asked. The simple answer is, ideally both. But, it is hard to dive into both at once, so it can be helpful to prioritise one over the other. Which you should focus on largely depends on what kind of pianist you aspire to be, and what kind of music you’re looking to play.

If you want to learn to read sheet music, the format that almost all classical piano music out there exists in, then it’s best to concentrate on notes. In order to unlock that world of music, you have to be able to read it, and it’s written in notes. 

On the other hand, if you want to play pop songs, rock, jazz or country, it’s best to get really familiar with chords, as those styles are largely built around harmonic progressions. And music-making in these genres is often more of a spontaneous, communicative process - notes don’t always play as a key a role as they do in classical practice.

What’s more, when notation is used in popular music and jazz, chords tend to be utilised as opposed to - or alongside - staff notation. So you don’t necessarily need to learn notes in order to play your favourite songs.

All that said, a knowledge of chords can help you to better understand and interact with sheet music and classical compositions, while an understanding of notes can help you to more quickly establish a bigger vocabulary of chords - especially when it comes to the more complex ones.

Learning to play piano chords
 

In order to learn all these piano chords, focus first on trying to memorise the various chord qualities. Once you’ve learned those patterns, you’ll find it far easier to remember the notes of each individual chord.

Combine this with practice sessions at the keyboard playing through all the chords - not just the common ones. Not only will that assist the development of your muscle memory and playing ability, but it’ll also speed up the process of committing chords to memory.

Simple triads in root position help to explain the theory, but they’re a bit stale in practice. So try spreading the chords out across both hands, doubling the root and fifth of the triad in particular (doubling the third doesn’t always sound as good). A really great articulation involves playing the triad in the right hand, alongside two root notes an octave apart with your left hand in the bass, but see what works for you.

Also try to get used to using inversions to avoid parallel movement between chords. The smoother sound this creates is the result of what’s known as good voice leading

Thinking about technique, it’s important not to become too reliant on the thumb, index finger and ring finger. Try playing chords using various combinations, getting your middle finger and pinky involved - on both hands. 

Of course, we’ve been so busy thinking vertically in harmony, we haven’t thought about playing horizontally in time. In other words, rhythm. Work out some rhythmic patterns for your chords that you like the sound of, and play through some progressions, altering the rhythms slightly between one chord and the next.

Use the materials we’ve provided here but try creating your own too to suit your preferred learning methods. Don’t forget to refer to the cheat sheet regularly to help you memorise and understand various concepts. You might also find the article on sheet music practice useful if you’re unsure how to work up a practice schedule. 

Where to find piano chords
 

Once you’re feeling confident that you’ve understood the basics and committed the most common chords to memory, it’ll be time to start confronting your favourite songs. 

Pop, rock, jazz or classical - whatever you want to try, nkoda has a world of sheet music for you. Play through Stevie Wonder’s chord progressions or deconstruct Mozart’s expert use of harmony. 

Or perhaps you came here to learn chords so that you could flex your creativity. If so, pay a visit to the article on how to write piano sheet music and start working on your very own masterpieces.

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