A painter can select and mix various hues to create an inspiring masterpiece, and a pianist can manipulate chords–the foundational units of almost any song–to create a sonorous piece of art that stirs up the soul, evokes nostalgia and even heals pain.
For pianists especially, understanding and using chords is essential. However, finding the right chord combination is not quite as simple as mixing red and blue to make purple.
How to Play Piano Chords and More
1. What are piano chords?
Piano chords are sets of pitches that, according to traditional Western tonal theory, are related by intervals of a third. For example, a C major triad contains the pitches C, E and G. If the piano keys for these pitches were highlighted in this order, you would see that they are each spaced apart by three keys or notes.
However, these pitches do not need to be ordered in any particular way. Rather, you can exercise your creativity by experimenting with inversions. This term refers to which pitch in the chord is placed in the bass (lowest note).
For example, the C major triad described above is in root position. This means that the pitches are arranged so that each is separated by a third. Most importantly, C–the note that names the key–is on the bottom. Triads have two options: 1st inversion and 2nd inversion.
The pitch order of 1st inversion for our C major triad is E-G-C. Can you guess what 2nd inversion would be? Right: G-C-E.
Essentially, to create an inversion, all you need to do is move the bottom pitch to the top. You can do this infinitely. Even though you are cycling through the same set of pitches, you can create vastly different sounds and moods.
Chords have been vital components of music for centuries, from the chorales of Bach to the songs on your Spotify playlist. Chords are the building blocks of harmony.
While the notes of a chord are traditionally played simultaneously (notated by vertical stacks of notes that look like snowmen), they are often arpeggiated (notated diagonally and thus played in succession like falling dominos) and sometimes incorporated into the melody.
2. How many piano chords are there?
There is an infinite variety of chords. To say otherwise would be to restrain music to the Western tradition, which is by no means the standard.
As stated above, traditional tonal theory defines chords as sets of pitches related by thirds. This principle still governs most popular music today, but there is no dearth of experimentation.
Composers as far back as Beethoven have been breaking the rules–and, in the process, opening new avenues of musical creativity and expression.
However, before we can break the rules, we must first understand what the rules are. As Pablo Picasso famously instructed, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
In traditional tonal theory, there are two broad types of chords: triads and sevenths. Learning these chords will give you a solid foundation for both reading music and improvising. Triads, as their name implies, consist of three pitches. Sevenths are built from four pitches, which in root position span the interval of a 7th.
Triads have three possible positions: root position, 1st inversion and 2nd inversion (see above). Sevenths, as you might guess, have four possible positions: root position, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion and 3rd inversion. Once again, each inversion has a different bass note.
3. How to play major chords on piano
The quality of a chord refers to whether it is major, minor, augmented or diminished. The most common qualities are major and minor. An easy way to memorize these is to remember that major is happy and minor is sad.
There are two methods for determining the quality of a chord: the key signature (KS) method and the half-step (HS) method. Since every musician has a different background and preferred learning style, it is important to choose the method that comes most naturally to you.
Key Signature Method (KS)
In this method, you use key signatures to determine the correct pitches in a chord and, most importantly, the necessary accidentals (sharps or flats) that are required to make a certain quality.
For example, let’s determine the quality of a chord built from the notes E, B and G. The first step is to look at the root note of the chord: E. This is found by arranging the notes into root position (see above) and locating the bottom or far-left note. The root position of this chord is E-G-B. Next, we need to find the key signature of E major. In this key, the following notes are sharpened: F, C, G and D.
Next, we must ask the following question: Are there any notes in the chord that are sharpened in the key signature?
As you may soon recognize, the G in our chord needs a sharp. Now, we ask this question:
What accidental, if any, is beside this note?
In this case, there is an implied natural (♮) next to the G. Thus, it is a half step below the major form. This makes it minor. To make it major, we simply add the necessary sharp. Thus, our E major triad is E-G#-B.
Half-Step Method (HS)
To use this method, count the half steps between each of the three notes. To make a chord major, use the following formula:
Major triad = 4 + 3 half steps
For example, let’s analyze the following chord: F-A-C
First, we need to count the half steps between F and A. To do this, look at a keyboard and play a chromatic scale (every white and black key) from F to A. It’s important to count the transitions between the keys rather than the keys themselves.
For example, think F to F# = 1; F# to G = 2; G to G# = 3; G# to A = 4.
Thus, we end up with four half steps for the first third. For the second third, we count A to A# (1), A# to B (2) and B to C (3).
Thus, we have 4 + 3 half steps, which makes a major triad.
4. How do you play minor chords on the piano?
Playing a minor triad is as simple as lowering the middle note in the major form by a half step.
For example, let’s take the chord G-B-D. First, we need to determine its quality. Using the KS method, we would first determine that the key of G major has one sharp: F#. None of the notes in the chord need to be sharpened, so it is major. Using the HS method, we count G to G# (1), G# to A (2), A to A# (3), and A# to B (4) for the bottom third. For the top third, we count B to C (1), C to C# (2) and C# to D (3). Thus, we have 4 + 3 half steps, making major.
To make this chord minor, we need to lower the third note, B, by a half step. So, we will add a flat (♭) to the B, making the G minor triad G-B♭-D.
Let’s do one more example: F#-A#-C#. Using either the KS or HS method, we can determine that it is major. To make it minor, we must lower the A# by a half step. In this case, we must add a natural (♮), forming the triad F#-A♮-C#.
5. What are augmented and diminished chords?
Augmented (+) and diminished (°) are the two remaining musical qualities. As the terms suggest, augmented means expanded, and diminished means compressed. These qualities are used infrequently, and their purpose is typically to increase intensity or suspense.
An augmented triad is a major triad expanded by a half step. Thus, in the HS method, the formula changes from 4 + 3 to 4 + 4. A diminished triad is a minor triad compressed by a half step, changing the formula from 3 + 4 to 3 + 3.
Let’s analyze this chord: E-G#-B. Using either the KS or HS method, we can determine that it is a major triad. To make this augmented, we must simply raise the B by a half step. To do this, we need to add a sharp, making the chord E-G#-B#. Keep in mind that B# is the enharmonic equivalent of C.
6. What piano chords go together?
When improvising, it is important to have a general idea of what chords sound good together. Dissonance is only valuable when used and resolved intentionally. To avoid stumbling through a cacophony of chords, a basic understanding of scales is important.
A scale is the material of a key. For example, in the key of A major, we have the notes A, B, C#, D, E, F# and G#. The chords built on each of these scale degrees must follow a quality code. There are two quality codes: one for major keys and one for minor keys.
Major Quality Code:
I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii°/VII
Minor Quality Code:
i, ii°/II, III/III+, iv, v, VI, VII/vii°
In the key of A major, we can use the following chords:
vii° G#-B-D or VII G♮-B-D
In the relative minor of A major, F# minor, which can be found three half half steps below A, we can use the following chords:
ii° G#-B-D or II G♮-B-D
III A-C#-E or III+ A-C#-E#(F)
VII E-G#-B or vii° E#(F)-G#-B
You can use these quality code formulas to find the chords that sound good within the context of any key. However, these are not rules but rather guidelines for your creative journey.
7. What are some popular chord progressions?
Finally, we must address the most important element of chords: How do we use them to create a song? How do we progress from one chord to the next? These questions deserve their own article, but for the purpose of this post, here is a brief rundown of three popular chord progressions:
1. The Classic Trio
This versatile progression is used in a plethora of pop songs, including Richie Valen’s “La Bamba” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
This progression is I-IV-V.
For example, in the key of A major, we would use the triads A-C#-E, D-F#-A and E-G#-B.
2. The Cadence
This progression is more traditional since it is common in hymns, classical repertoire and gospel music. However, it can also be extended into a jazzy version. Here are both types:
In the key of A major, we have the chords B-D-F#, E-G#-B and A-C#-E for the first type. For the jazz progression, we have the chords A-C#-E, F#-A-C#, B-D-F#, E-G#-B and A-C#-E.
3. The 12-Bar Blues
This progression is simple because it uses only three chords (I, IV and V–the same ones from the Classic Trio), but it is incredibly popular. You can find it in Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone.”
As the name implies, these three chords are spread across 12 bars:
Hopefully this article has given you a clear sense of how to start using piano chords and experimenting with different qualities and progressions. If you feel overwhelmed, remember that this is a vast topic that cannot be fully explained in one post. The best way to become more fluent using piano chords is to practice and play around without fearing how it will sound. After all, some of the best inventions are the results of mistakes.
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Mckenzie Alons is a piano expert with over 15 years of experience and extensive experience in accompaniment, from solo to ensemble repertoire. Mckenzie graduated as a double major with both a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Southeastern University and was part of the School of Honors; Sigma Tau Delta. She was a Music tutor in the Academic Center for Enrichment for courses in Music and Aural Theory I-IV at Southeastern University and is currently a Piano Instructor.