If you’ve spent any time researching how to play the piano, you’ve probably seen a certain topic come up again and again: chords. Piano chords make up a lot of modern songs, and they are an important component of playing the piano so it actually sounds good.
Maybe you’ve seen lists of basic piano chords, maybe charts meant to help you memorize them. Maybe you’ve already tried your hand at playing some chords and found that it was hard to know where to start.
If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place. I am all about chord-based playing: That’s actually what my entire 21-day piano course is focused on. The approach I’ve learned on this topic completely changed how to learn piano for me – for the better.
What is a Chord?
A lot of piano lessons for beginners leave them feeling a bit hazy on what a piano chord actually is. Never fear, I promise it’s not too complicated. It’s really one of those simple piano basics everyone can learn.
A chord is just a group of three notes from the same scale that create a certain effect when played together. And that’s just a fancy way of saying they sound good together. That’s right: Chords are just groups of 3 complementary notes.
I could give you a whole bunch of reasons why certain notes sound better together than others. But let’s keep this simple and stick to what you really need to know.
You can always learn the more complex theory behind chords piano later. This knowledge can even help you learn to play by ear.
But What About Triads?
You might be wondering:
“But Jacques, what about triads? I’ve seen those mentioned alongside chords. What’s the difference?”
There is no difference at all. Chords are triads and triads are chords. It’s that simple.
Where Do Chords get Their Names?
Now that you know what chords are, let’s learn about more about where chords get their names.
If you’ve only ever seen chords listed on sheet music, you might be puzzled. They look like clusters of notes. How can you identify them? And if you’ve seen chord notation, you might still be wondering what the difference is between a C, Cminor, Csus, C7, and so on.
We’ll get into the different kinds of chords in the next section, but for now we’ll look at letter notation for chords. All those different chords I mentioned just now take their name from a very specific note: a root note.
What’s a root note? Simply put, it’s the first note of the chord and the note that gives it its name. This means that anytime you see any chord beginning with “C”, you can be sure that the first note of that chord is – you guessed it – C.
This is a super-easy to remember and super-helpful. You can automatically identify ⅓ of the chord’s notes just from its name alone.
What are the Basic Piano Chords?
I promised I’d explain the basic piano chords and how to tell them apart. This is probably one of the most common questions people ask me about online.
Let’s dive into what you need to know.
We’ll start with the simplest and most common type of chords: major chords. These are the of chords that sound bright, upbeat and strong. They usually make up the bulk of most songs except really emotional or sad ones.
There are 12 major chords you can play on piano. Then there are also several variations that you can play for each.
That might seem a bit overwhelming. We’re only into the first category of piano chord, and there are already dozens of combinations to keep track of? Don’t worry. There’s no need to memorize them individually.
Take a deep breath and let that sink in. You don’t have to memorize the chords.
“Okay,” you might be thinking, “if that’s true, how can you play them?”
The Secret to Playing Chords
Here’s the secret to playing chords that I honestly can’t believe isn’t more widely known: There are formulas you can learn that let you learn piano fast. It’s the best way to play all sorts of chords without memorization.
Formulas? Did we accidentally switch topics from music to math?
No. There really are formulas you can use to learn to play chords. And the kicker is that they are simple and easy to learn.
Let’s look at our first category again: major chords. How you can play major chords without memorizing them? All you need to know is this simple formula: 4-3.
Remember, each chord is named after it’s root note. That tells you the first note of the chord, which you’ll play with your thumb. Then you’ll need to know the other two notes, and the 4-3 formula can easily show you where they are, every time.
Let’s look at a Dmajor chord (typically just written as “D”) for example. Put your thumb on D. Count 4 to the right and put your index finger on that key. Count 3 more to the right and put your middle finger there.
And there you have it! A Dmajor chord. The 4-3 formula works like this for literally every single one of the 12 notes that repeat across your keyboard.
Do you feel better about all of these different chords, now that you know you don’t have to memorize any of them? That’s the freedom of knowing piano chord formulas. (To get more practice with this concept, check out my free 5-day workbook!)
Our next category: minor chords. These are those emotive, “dark” sounding chords that are often used as accents or in sad or moody songs. Just like major chords, there are 12 minor chords, plus multiple variations for each.
Again, there’s no need to memorize minor chords individually. You can use a different formula to easily play any minor chord. What is that formula? 3-4.
Use the same approach as we just learned for major chords, but with this new formula. Find the root note, then count to the right first by 3 keys, then by 4. That’s all you need to do. With the 3-4 formula, you can play any minor chord by just finding the root note of the chord and counting accordingly.
What About Other Kinds of Chords?
There are a variety of other kinds of chords: suspended chords, diminished, 5ths, 7ths, and more. While it’s too much to cover here, I dig into more of these options in my full 21-day course. For now, suffice it to say that all other types of chords are still based on majors or minors.
What are Piano Chord Progressions?
Okay, now you know what chords are and how to play the most common ones. You are already light years ahead of where you were at the beginning of this post. But we still need to learn a bit more.
You’ve probably heard of chord progressions. What are they? They are the combinations of chords that make up most songs. They are the framework that holds songs together. All you really need to understand about them for now is that they tell you what chords to play, in what order.
There’s any number of possible chord progression combinations, but some work better than others. If you’re a songwriter, you’ll need to learn a bit more about how to group complementary and contrasting chords together. But for the purposes of what I teach at Piano In 21 Days, things will be simple.
Common Chord Progressions
You’ll be playing chord progressions that already exist, so you won’t need to figure out what chords to play in what order. In fact, a bunch of songs that we all know and love share the same chord progressions. (Warning: the video below contains a few swear words.)
My free 5-day workbook explains more about this 4-chord song concept, so make sure you check that out if you haven’t already. Going back to the topic of chord progressions in general, just remember that they are simply what chords to play, in what order.
What About the Left Hand?
If you play the traditional way, the left hand is going to play chords much of the time, while your right hand plays melody. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of chords in the left hand. Because the left side of your instrument has much lower notes, chord combinations can sound a lot more muddled and chaotic there.
My chord-based approach keeps things a lot simpler and brighter sounding. That’s because I keep chords mostly in my right hand. Then I use my left hand to play octaves as bass notes, plus add in a variety of improvisation techniques.
(If you need some insight into how to define octave, you can learn more here.)
I recommend that you play octaves in your left hand with the root note of the chord you play in your right. So if you are playing an F chord with your right hand, you’ll play 2 lower F notes in your left. It’s simple, and (importantly) it sounds good!
In my opinion, this is the easiest way to add more depth to your sound while still avoiding a “muddy” effect. It also leaves plenty of room for added flourishes and improv later. Speaking of which …
Chords Are Just the Beginning
Everything you’ve learned here today is the basis of chord-based playing. With this knowledge alone you can begin playing many modern songs of your choice. And with some practice, it will probably sound pretty good. I love how much progress my students can make with just this basic info alone.
But chords are just the beginning. They are a foundational part of music. If you’re interested in adding nuance, interest and variety to that foundation, you have lots of options. Here are some of those options:
- Octave switching
- Extra notes
- Chord pattern variations
- Melody lines
- The list goes on…
In other words, there’s more to learn and incorporate into your playing if you want to really build out and customize your sound.
But don’t get overwhelmed by the meaning of improvise. None of the techniques I just mentioned are overly challenging. None of them should take years to learn. In fact, a month or two of dedicated study can be all it takes.
That’s why I’m so excited about my resources on how to learn piano online. They’re all designed to help you learn what I’ve described here today – as quickly and simply as possible.
If that sounds good to you, what are you waiting for? Here’s the free 5-day workbook you need to get started.