I do live Q&A sessions with students several times per month, and last week one of them asked me a simple question: “What is the difference between major and minor chords?” Simple, but so important!
Chord types are essential to understand. But that doesn’t mean that major vs. minor chords are hard to comprehend or use. In fact, I consider this to be foundational knowledge for anyone who wants to learn to play their favorite songs on piano!
What is a Chord
So what is a chord, anyway? Simply put (and I mean very simply), a chord is just multiple notes played at the same time.
Yes, there’s a little more to it than that (after all, you can’t just press any random set of notes and expect them to all sound good). But at their core, chords are usually just sets of notes, usually three, that are played together.
If you want to dive right into learning chord-based playing, sign up for my 5-day workbook here. Otherwise, onward!
It’s All About Playing Songs
Why do chords matter? Well, they are the building block of almost every kind of modern music. Almost all of your favorite popular tunes and radio hits can be played with chords. They are the foundation of chord-based playing and so much more.
Learning about chords isn’t just a boring theory lesson: it’s really all about playing songs. And no matter what you may believe piano lessons are “supposed” to look like, if you’re learning chord-based techniques you are already well on your way to playing songs you love. (Check out my YouTube channel for all sorts of videos on the topic of chords and chord-based playing.)
How Many Chords Are There?
So how many chords are there? There are about 27 different kinds of chords, and many more chords if you count them individually. Good news: you will never use most of those 27 kinds of chords. Even better news: the kinds you do need to use a lot are very easy to learn!
In fact, there are only 2 main chord types that all beginners must learn:
- Major chords
- Minor chords
Major chords are the most common, and minor chords are the second most common chord type.
What’s the Difference?
What is the difference between major and minor chords? Put simply, major chords are a set of three notes (found by a special formula that I will teach you for free in my 5-day workbook) that have a happy, more upbeat sound when played together.
Meanwhile, minor chords are the ones that have a sadder or more emotional sound, maybe even a foreboding one! They are found by using a different formula, so make sure you sign up for my resources if you want to learn more about the chord formulas I use.
Sweet and Sour Caroline
Are you familiar with the Neil Diamond hit “Sweet Caroline?” If so, you’re probably already humming that tune in your head. 😉 It’s so catchy, and it’s got such an upbeat, joyful sound. That’s because this song is written in a major key and uses mostly major chords.
But what would happen if you played it in a minor key, so that most of the chords were minor? The whole song would take on a moodier, ominous tone.
Keys and Relative Minor Chords
By the way, every major and key and chord has a relative minor key and chord. They’re
related because they share the same 7 notes.
Knowing what key a song is in provides so much information about that song’s characteristics, including what notes will be used in the song. So many major chords and their relative minor chords are used in the same song.
How do you find a relative minor chord for a major chord? Easy! Just move down to the left by three notes from the first note of the major chord. That will give you the relative minor chord for the major.
- Cmaj’s relative minor is Amin
- Fmaj’s relative minor is Dmin
Mixing it Up
Okay, so we’ve learned a bit about the characteristics of major chords versus minor chords. So you may be thinking that all happy songs should all be made of major chords and sad songs should all be made of mino
r chords. Not so fast! There are reasons why having both types in a song makes sense.
Why Have Minor Chords in Happy Songs?
Music is not about only being happy all the time, and it can be used to take us on an emotional adventure. Happiness is just one feature of a happy song: there usually is some tension along the way (just like in life!).
Happier or more upbeat songs usually start on a major chord, which we can call “home.”
Home is comfortable and happy, but the farther away we move on our keys to chords that are farther than home, the more potential for tension there is. Eventually, we have to come back to the home chord to resolve the tension and bring things back to a happier sounding place.
Without bringing in that tension with other chords, including minor chords, many songs would just sound too boring. The nuances that come from having a few minors here and there helps make more interesting music.
What About Major Chords in Moody Songs?
Conversely, some sadder or darker songs start at a minor chord, so “home” is not a comfortable or friendly sounding. Moving away from home gives us a chance to build tension, yes, but also to relieve some of it with some major chords. Playing all minors all the time can be boring, or too depressing, so having some variation is usually a positive thing. The song “The House of the Rising Sun” is a great example of this!
Okay, so now you know that major chords and minor chords are the two most common chord types you need to know. And you understand that they work together, while serving different purposes. Major chords bring a lighter, happier sound into songs, while minor chords add tension or sadness. Variety is the spice of life, and of music sometimes! So understanding these two chord types will give you a huge advantage as you start learning to play piano.
If you want more instruction on how to play these chords, I share the first five days of my chord-based piano course here in this 5-day workbook. And of course, check out my YouTube channel for plenty of free videos on chords and so much more. Most importantly, have fun! 🙂