The Beginner’s Guide to Piano Chords
There are many reasons to learn to play the piano. Not only is it fun, but many studies throughout the years have shown that learning the piano has a positive effect on memory and other cognitive skills. In addition, knowing how to play a musical instrument can boost self-esteem, creativity, discipline, and confidence.
It can be intimidating to start learning any instrument, but with the proper instruction and a little patience, the piano is one that anyone can learn. It all starts with understanding basic piano chords.
Chords define the harmonic progressions in a song are the foundation of every tune. There are countless piano chords out there, but knowing the most basic will provide you with enough musical flexibility to play almost anything.
This post will introduce you to the basics of piano chords and how to play them. Learning these essential components will take you a long way in your piano playing journey.
What is a Piano Chord?
Chords are essential in creating music – they provide harmonic progressions that guide the melody and create a larger-than-the-sum sound.
A chord is a combination of two, three, or more notes that are played at the same time. On the piano, that means pressing more than one key at the same time. Every chord is named for the lowest note that is played – the root note.
The most common piano chords are triad or three-note chords. They are formed by playing three different notes simultaneously, with one note as the root and the other two forming the interval above it (we will detail intervals in the next section).
For instance, a C chord contains the notes C, E, and G. The root note is C – the note that plays the role of the bass. The other notes, E and G, play a supporting role in the melody. Without the two additional notes, the C chord wouldn’t be complete.
What Are Piano Intervals?
All harmonies or melodies are built on a combination of intervals.
Intervals are the distance between any two notes and are the building blocks of chords and scales. The space between any two notes on the piano determines the interval, which can be measured by the number of half-steps and whole-steps between the notes.
A half step is a distance between any two notes on the piano when there is only one key separating them. On the other hand, a whole step is the distance between any two notes on the piano when there are two keys separating them.
When you look at sheet music, you will see the intervals represented as a number. This number represents the half steps or whole steps that it takes to get from one note to another.
For instance, if you see three whole steps in the interval between two notes, you know that you will have to play the note one key higher than the first and then another key.
Standard Piano Notes
Every melody, harmony, and chord consist of a combination of piano notes. In a way, they serve as the building blocks of music.
Each piano note has a corresponding key that is either black or white. Each white key is assigned a letter from A-G, while the black keys are identified by either a sharp symbol (#) or a flat symbol (♭).
The notes on each piano key are assigned a position from low to high, going from left to right. For example, the first note is the C key, which is closest to your left hand if you are sitting down at a piano. The last note would be the far rightmost or thumb key (C).
Sharp and Flat Piano Notes
As discussed in the previous section, the black keys on the piano can be called either sharp or flat. These two terms refer to notes that are either one-half step or one whole step away from their “neighbors” on the keyboard.
Thus, if you see a symbol # next to a note on the sheet music, it means that it is sharp and will be played as a black key located on the left side of the white key. Conversely, a symbol ♭ means that the note is flat and will be played as a black key located on the right side of the white key.
What Type of Piano Chords Are Essential to Learn?
Now that you have a basic understanding of the notes on the keyboard, you can begin playing chords. There are five types of chords that you will need to learn how to play on the piano – major, minor, dominant seventh, augmented, and 5th chords.
If you play a major chord, you will play three different piano notes with your left hand located on the black keys. This means that two or more half steps will separate your fingers.
For example, if you are playing an A minor chord on the sheet music, you would play A on the top left black key and E on the bottom right. Because your fingers are so far apart, these chords require a bit of stretch in your hand when playing them.
When playing a minor chord, you will play the same notes as a major chord, but your left-hand fingers will be positioned on adjacent white keys. So, for instance, an A minor chord would have your left-hand fingers on the black keys for A and C, with D being played by both hands.
Minor chords only require a slight movement of the fingers, making them easier to play than major chords.
Dominant Seventh Chords
Dominant seventh chords are another type of chord you may want to learn to play. These chords are typically played with your first finger on the bottom left black key and your third or fourth fingers on the top right black key. When playing this chord, be sure that you are not pressing down two keys at once to avoid muting one of them.
For example, if you were playing a C7 chord on sheet music, you would play C on the left black key and G on the right black key. The seventh note of your dominant seventh chord is B♭, which is not included in this type of piano chord.
If you play an augmented chord, you will play three or four white keys with your left hand. This type of piano chord is rarely seen in pop songs and is only used when playing a melody solo on a piano.
To play this type of chord, find the next note up from the bottom note of the chord on your sheet music.
For example, if you are playing a C major chord, you would find the next note up from that on your sheet music. The A♭ key is next in line after the bottom note of your C major chord. Thus, you would play this key with your left hand while using one finger on the bottom note.
Finally, 5th chords (also known as power chords on a guitar) are great for beginner pianists. They allow them to play a song’s basic chords.
A 5th chord is made up of the 1st & 5th note of a chord, so no 3rd. So, instead of C E G, it’s simply C & G. This means the pianist can ignore major & minor chords and simply play along with ANY song – even those without a piano or keyboard in them.
5th chords may also allow beginning pianists to play in a band in our real rock band program. As long as you can play 5th chords and nail down your timing, you can play in a band!
Once you have these five types of chords mastered, you can start learning basic chord progressions. Transitioning from one chord to the next is an essential skill to master but takes time to develop. Therefore, practice and patience will serve you well when learning chord progressions.
What is a Chord Chart?
If you are new to playing piano, it can be challenging to know what the notes on the sheet music represent. This is where chart symbols come into play. For example, when reading a chord chart, you will see several symbols that tell you which keys to play on the piano.
For instance, if your sheet music said “D-C-G,” you would play the D key with your left hand and then play both C and G keys with your right hand. They even show you when the foot pedal should be used in a song.
Chord charts are great for beginners because they make sheet music readable. However, if you take piano lessons, you will eventually learn to read sheet music and stop relying on chord charts – eventually enabling you to play more complex songs.
Once you have mastered the basic chords, it becomes much easier to master playing the piano. Of course, it takes practice to play chords correctly and hone your skills in chord progression – but the effort will be well worth it.
Be Natural Music, in Santa Cruz and Cupertino, offers in-person and online classes for students of various experience levels if you’re interested in taking piano lessons. We’ll teach you everything from the basics of reading music notation to finding your inner creativity.