So, you want to learn piano chords. Like most people these days, you decided to start the process with a good ol’ Google search. And that makes sense, because there is a smorgasbord of piano information and resources out there on the internet. All you have to do is type in “chords” or “piano chords” and start browsing the results.
That’s how you found this post, right?
But there isn’t a clear way to sort out the good info from the bad. Not everything you read is accurate, let alone communicated in a way that’s easy to understand. You’ll find charts for chords, sheet music with confusing piano chord notation, articles, blog posts, and about a million YouTube tutorials. Where should you start?
Since you’re here, stick around for a bit. I’ll walk you through all the basic information and steps you need to learn to play piano chords.
A Bit of Backstory
I was your normal piano student as a child. I went to lessons, sometimes cheerfully but more often not. And like most beginners I sat there, tried to follow the teacher’s instructions, but didn’t make much progress.
In fact, it took 12 years before I could play two songs well. Yes, you read that right. Twelve years for two songs – that I didn’t even like. (I’d rather have been playing pop or rock music.)
How to Enjoy the Power and Freedom of Chords
But then I met a person who – unlike me – could easily play tons of popular songs. He could look at chord progressions and play them without hesitation. And he was having fun doing it.
He clearly knew something I didn’t, and I really wanted to find out what. Because after all, what’s the point of music (1) if you don’t enjoy it?
Here’s what blew me away: When he showed me his method for playing, it wasn’t anything complicated. It wasn’t a magic trick or a result of extraordinary natural talent, either. Simply put, this guy had learned how to enjoy the power and freedom of chords.
That might sound a little confusing, especially since we haven’t gotten into what chords are yet. But what I’m about to share with you will demystify piano chords so you can begin to play with confidence and ease.
The ‘Normal’ Start to Playing Piano
Traditional piano lessons seem like they start out simple. Learn some notes, practice some scales (over and over and over again!). Learn to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and maybe eventually move on to “Ode to Joy” or the national anthem. Pretty basic, right?
Keep It Simple
You might spend years and still end up like me – unable to play even a simple pop song without agonizing practice. So when I say you need to start simple, I’m not talking about the traditional approach.
I’m talking about memorizing 12 notes, and really memorizing them. Internalizing a few simple formulas for piano chords. Working your way up rhythm variations. And doing it 15-20 minutes at a time. A lot of sites claim to teach beginners, but not many keep it this simple.
Part 1 – The Basic Terms
Let’s get some basic terms out of the way:
- Piano: The piano is a musical instrument that… Just kidding! I doubt you’re reading this if you don’t know what a piano is. But if you’re trying to decide between a digital piano (2), acoustic piano, or keyboard, check out this post.
- Keys: This term can have more than one meaning, but for our purposes a key is one of those shiny black or white things on your piano. 😉
- Notes: Simply put, notes are the names for the sound that each piano key produces.
- Sharps and Flats: These are variations that raise or lower the tone of a note by a half step. On a piano, any sharp or flat are always black keys.
Part 2 – More Important Terms
Here are a few more important terms to know.
- Scale: A scale is a set of notes that work together or are complementary. Simply put, they sound good together! There are many scales with many different combinations of notes.
- Chords: Chords are groups of notes that are played at the same time. Usually, they’re comprised of three notes in the same scale.
- Root: A root note is typically the note farthest to the left of the three that are played in a chord.
- Chord Progressions: A chord progression is a sequence of chords in a song.
Now let’s take a closer look at chords.
What Are All the Piano Chords?
All the piano chords are groups of notes that you play at the same time. “Okay,” you might be thinking, “but how do I know which notes to play?”
Here’s what really changed my approach to piano: It turns out that, at least at a beginner level, you don’t need to think too hard about which notes to play. You just need to learn a few formulas that tell you what keys to play. That might not sound like much of a difference, but I promise it matters.
On sheet music, chords appear as linked notes. If you learn to sight-read, you learn how to look at those linked notes, recognize them, and play them at the same time. It’s hard because if you read it wrong, you play the wrong notes and you mess up the chord.
My approach is a lot simpler because I teach chord formulas. You only have to know how to find one note at a time – the root note – and also be able to do a bit of counting. We’ll learn more about this in the “Building the Chords” section, but first …
Do I Need a Basic Piano Chords Chart?
Most beginners are eager to find cheat sheets, how-to’s, or anything to simplify the learning process. So when you first started looking into how to play piano chords, you probably came across a ton of sites online offering free piano chords charts.
I have mixed feelings about these kinds of resources. On the one hand, it is nice to have something simple and visual to refer to. On the other hand, what happens when you start using these charts?
You start to rely on them. Then you second-guess yourself and keep checking back, trying to mimic what you see. Maybe you don’t really build confidence in your piano knowledge, because you become dependent on a visual aid.
So while I’m not saying you can never take a peek at a piano chords chart, I actually don’t recommend that you start with one.
Building Chords on the Piano
Okay, so far we’ve learned some important terminology and begun to grasp what piano chords are. But this probably feels pretty abstract, because you haven’t played the chords for yourself yet. So here’s where we get into the nuts and bolts of building chords on the piano. (3)
One thing first, though. I’m assuming that if you want to play chords, you already know your notes on the keyboard. If you don’t know your notes, bookmark this article and go memorize them! It’s the single most important thing you can do on piano.
Building Chords: Majors
The most common kind of chords you will encounter are the major chords. They sound bright, even happy, thanks to the combinations of notes that make up the typical major chord.
But not to worry: Right now we are not going to worry about too many notes at one time. Like I said before, for each chord we will only be focused on a root note and counting from there.
The formula for a major chord is 4:3. You start by placing one finger (preferably your thumb) on the root note of a chord – the note the chord is named for. So if you are playing a C chord, aka a C major chord, you place your thumb on the C key.
Okay, now count four notes to the right. That includes the black keys, so don’t skip them! Put your second finger on the 4th note from the C.
One more finger to go! Count three more notes to the right of your second finger, and put your third finger there. You have your thumb on C, your second finger four notes away, and your third finger three more notes away.
Press the keys, and there you have it. You just played a C major chord. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Building Chords: Minors
Minor chords tend to have a more tentative or sad sound, so while there may be some included in upbeat music, they feature more heavily in songs with serious themes. Now that you know how to play major chords, minor chords will be a cinch.
The formula you need to form minor chords is simply 3:4. Just like major chords, start by finding the root note. But this time, count to the right by three, and place your second finger on that key. (Remember, include the black keys as you count!).
Next, count four more keys to the right and place your third finger there. Once all three fingers are in place, press down. Voila! You’ve played a minor chord.
What About Playing Complex Piano Chords?
If you’ve ever looked at chord notation before, you’ve probably seen some simple songs and ones that look quite a bit more complicated. Maybe you saw some letters with a bunch of numbers and strange abbreviations attached. Chords like:
- (God forbid) Am7#5sus
Okay, I’m kind of joking with that last one! But here’s what I think of when people start worrying about complex piano chords…
Wise Words from the Beatles
Life is very short, and there’s no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend. – The Beatles
The Beatles had it right. Life is too short to get bogged down in too much fuss. Especially when one of the biggest turnoffs for people about piano is feeling like it’s too complicated!
Suspended chords, diminished chords, 5ths, 7ths, 9ths … these can all be played with only a few tweaks to your basic major and minor chords. So if you’re learning piano with my resources, rest assured that I’m going to keep things as simple and streamlined as possible.
How Many Piano Chords Are There?
You might be wondering: “But just how many piano chords are there?”
There are thousands of piano chords that could be played on an 88-key keyboard. That’s not a typo – thousands. But as I’ve already explained, you don’t need to know or even be familiar with most of them. In fact, the vast majority of chords only exist because of the way that chords are defined, not because anyone actually uses them!
Instead of worrying about how many chords there are, I recommend focusing on the piano chords that have utility for the kind of music you want to play. As with many other aspects of life, there’s no need to overcomplicate things.
Song Example: Piano Chords for Someone Like You
In this section, I want to give a video example of what playing with my approach can sound like. Please be kind: this is an old video! 😉
Why am I including this example in this post? Well, first I want to show you that playing without sheet music can still sound good. You don’t need to sight-read in order to play songs you love, and you don’t have to spend a huge amount of time on any one song once you get the hand of chord-based playing.
To prepare for this video, all I had to do was Google search for “Someone Like You” (4) chord notation, and run through the chord progressions a few times. Once I was confident transitioning between these specific chords, I started to add in some spice through improvisation. From there, all I had to do was play!
Learning to play piano chords with chord notation really simplifies the whole piano-playing experience. That means less practice time, more enjoyable time to play! Sounds like a win-win to me. 😉 And that’s why I’m such a big fan of chord-based playing.
How Does This Relate to Sheet Music?
Some people consider sight reading (5) to be the only proper way to play piano. Maybe some people arrive at this conclusion after a lot of research and thought, but I think most people just assume this. After all, almost everything we see and hear about piano portrays traditional lessons. So how does everything I’ve explained here relate to sheet music?
Honestly, unless you want to play classical music or very arrangement-heavy pieces, there isn’t much use for sheet music. Most modern music is chord-friendly, and literally hundreds of thousands of songs have chord notation available online for free.
But if your heart is set on learning to read sheet music, here’s what I have to say: Half of sight reading is being able to play what you see.
So even if you plan to move on to more advanced lessons later, I strongly recommend you focus on building basic, practical knowledge of your instrument.
Memorize the 12 notes that repeat across the keyboard. Practice finding your way around without a lot of hemming and hawing. Learn how to play piano chords so that you can work your way up to more complex music later. You’ll never regret building practical knowledge and confidence, no matter where your piano journey takes you
- Norman M. Weinberger, Music and the Brain
- Wikipedia, Digital piano
- Wikipedia, Piano
- Harriet Gibsone and Tshepo Mokoena, Someone like you: how Adele’s broken-hearted ballads become blockbusters
- Wikipedia, Sight-reading