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What are piano chords?
Playing chords on the piano is not as difficult as it may sound. In fact, if you are playing three or more notes on the piano at the same time, you are already playing a chord. Most piano chords are made up of 3 notes, which is also known as a “triad”.
But does every chord actually sound nice on the piano? Well, that’s a matter of taste but there are certain rules around piano chords that will help you to play the songs you love on the piano.
To make your piano chords sound musical, you can learn the structure of chords and apply them in many different ways on the piano.
In general, chords are divided into major and minor chords.
What is a major chord?
A major chord (also known as major triad because it contains three different notes) has a major third interval on the bottom and a minor third on the top. You can count a major third as 4 semitones on the piano and a minor third as 3 semitones. Thirds are also known as “skips” because you skip one finger and also one note on the piano when you play a third.
You will find all major (and minor) chords on our piano chord chart which you can download for free.
What is a minor chord?
A minor chord has a minor third interval on the bottom and a major third on the top. When you compare the structure of minor and major chords, you can see that they are both made up of two thirds stuck on top of each other. The only difference is that a minor chord has a minor third at the bottom whereas a major chord has a major third.
How to recognise major and minor piano chords from their sound?
A major chord sounds brighter and more joyful, and brings a lighter atmosphere. A minor chord can be described to be melancholic or sad.
Here are two examples for you: one song is played using major chords, the other song is made up of minor chords. Can you hear the difference?
Major tonality example: What a Wonderful World - Louis Armstrong
Minor tonality example:
What is the structure of a piano chord?
Learning to play music might feel like learning a new language at first. Musical terminology is quite unique with a wide range of terms that you might never have come across before. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered!
Here is the basic Piano Chord Vocabulary you should know when starting to play chords on the piano:
What is an interval in music?
An interval describes the distance in pitch or relationship between two notes. You have already come across two different intervals in the text above: major and minor thirds (or 3rds).
What is a root note?
The root note is the first note of a chord. E.g. ‘C’ for ‘C Major’, ‘G’ for ‘G Major’, and so on.
What is a major third?
A major third is the first and second note in a major chord. E.g. 'C’ and ‘E' in ‘C Major’, ‘F’ and ‘A’ in ‘F Major’, etc. You can count a major third as 4 semitones on the piano.
What is a minor third?
A minor third is the first and second note in a minor chord. E.g. ‘A’ and ‘C’ in ‘A minor’, ‘E’ and ‘G’ in ‘E minor’, etc. You can count a minor third as 3 semitones on the piano.
What is a perfect 5th?
A perfect 5th (or fifth) is the first and third note in a major or minor chord. E.g. ‘C’ and ‘G’ in ‘C Major’, ‘A’ and ‘E’ in ‘A minor’, etc. To identify a perfect 5th on the piano, just count 7 semitones up from the root note.
What is a chord progression?
The term chord progression is used a lot in piano books and tutorials. But what does it actually mean? A chord progression, also known as harmonic progression, is a term used in musical composition and describes a succession of chords. So chord progression simply means to play different chords in a particular sequence.
What is a chord inversion?
Another term that you have most likely come across when learning to play the piano is “chord inversions”. A chord inversion occurs when you play any note other than the root of a basic chord as the lowest note (bass). For example, when you play a basic C major chord, it includes the notes C, E and G. C, the root note of the chord, is placed at the bottom of the chord. The chord inversion occurs when G or E are found at the bottom of the C major chord (e.g. G, C, E or E, G, C).
What are augmented chords?
An augmented chord is made up of two major thirds (an augmented fifth). An augmented chord symbol is notated by "aug". For example, the augmented chord (triad) built on C, written as Caug, is made up of the notes C, E and G♯ (G-sharp).
Here is an example of a sheet music title containing augmented chords: Life on Mars - David Bowie
What are diminished chords?
A diminished chord (also known as the minor flatted fifth) is a triad consisting of two minor thirds above the root. It is a minor triad with a lowered (also known as flattened) fifth. For example, the diminished triad built on C, written as Cdim, contains the notes C, E♭(E-flat) and G♭(G-flat).
Here is an example of a sheet music title containing diminished chords: Michelle - The Beatles
What are seventh chords?
A seventh chord is made up of 4 notes: a 3-note chord (triad) plus a note forming an interval of a seventh above the chord's root note. Seventh chords are particularly popular in jazz music. However, seventh chords are important for any style of music as they enrich the relations between different harmonies and tonalities.
Here is an example of a sheet music title containing seventh chords:
Wayne Shorter - Speak no evil
So now that you have some of the basic chord vocabularies under your belt, let’s continue to expand your piano chord skills and knowledge!
Why are piano chords useful?
Most of your favourite songs and pieces on the piano are made up of chords and chord variations. Whether you want to play rock, pop, jazz or classical pieces on the piano, chords are the musical foundation.
So let’s jump straight into learning some basic piano chords! In the following paragraphs, we will share some of our best tips and tricks to get you playing your favourite songs on the piano in no time!
If you say “YES” to at least one of the following statements, you should keep reading!
- “I want to play my favourite tunes on the piano by playing both the melody and the corresponding piano chords.”
- “I want to play chords to accompany a singer (or myself singing) on the piano.”
- “I want to improvise a solo melody on the piano whilst playing the corresponding chords.”
Let’s learn some simple piano chords!
There are some easy piano chords you can learn straight away. These chords are very useful if you'd like to play any rock, pop, or jazz tunes.
The MangoldProject created a very useful beginner tutorial on piano chords which you can watch here:
You can start off practicing the chords with your right hand and the root note (note which the chord is named after) with your left hand.
You can also use the sustain pedal on your piano whilst repeating the same chord to make your chords sound richer and more musical.
Some of the most popular songs have been written using just four chords. “Imagine” by John Lennon is a great song to get started and it only has 4 chords.
Tomplay score example: John Lennon - Imagine
The 4 most common piano chords (with popular songs you can learn)
Let’s start with a fun introduction into the topic of 4 Chord Songs. In their hilarious video, the comedy rock band “Axis of Awesome” shows us that many pop songs only use the same four chords :
You can learn the same four popular piano chords and play hundreds of songs straight away:
Here are those four “magic” chords:
C Major (I), G Major (V), A minor (vi), F Major (IV).
C Major (I) – C, E, G
G Major (V) – G, B, D
A minor (vi) – A, C, E
F Major (IV) – F, A, C.
These four chords are also part of our free piano chord chart.
Would you like to play songs that use these four chords? We’ve got you covered with a selection of 4 Chord Songs from our Tomplay sheet music catalogue:
Elton John - Don’t let the sun go down on me:
Continue your musical journey by learning different ways to play piano chords
Once you have learned your first piano chords, you will probably find that playing chords the same way over and over again can sound a bit boring.
So let us show you 4 easy tricks to make your piano chords sound richer and more varied:
- Double the bass: Play the chord with your right hand and use your left hand to play the root note of the chord doubled as an octave. E.g. C major (C-E-G) plus the two lower C’s.
- Think like a guitar player when you play the piano: Play chords with a certain strumming rhythm: e.g. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Emphasise the first beat of each group of 3 notes (which is also known as a triplet). Practice each chord slowly to get the rhythm right before moving onto the next chord.
- Use arpeggios: Play each note of the chord separately (also known as a broken chord). E.g. 1353 1353 1353 1353
- Play alternating notes: Play the root note of the chord separately from the other two notes (which are played together).
Watch the following video by MangoldProject to see these four tricks in action:
3 popular ways to play piano chords
Well done, you have successfully learned the basics for playing piano chords and your favourite music!
To help you in your journey of learning piano chords, make sure you grab our free piano chord chart.
To recap, there are different ways you can use piano chords in your playing.
Here are the 3 most popular ways you can try for yourself:
- Sing and play piano - This is a very popular way of playing the piano and it is suitable for musicians of all levels (including beginners).
- Play the melody with your right hand and the chords with your left hand. This is a great way to play popular songs if you are not a fan of singing.
- Play chords with your left hand and improvise a solo melody with your right hand. This is a great way to play for more advanced pianists or if you are just trying out improvisation on the piano.
Interactive sheet music to get you playing chords on the piano
To get you playing straight away, discover our piano sheet music catalogue which gives you access to thousands of songs and pieces to play on the piano.