The chords in a piece of music serve an important function: they give the piece character. Chords are part of the basic building blocks of sheet music. Because of their significance, there are some essential piano chords that you should learn and practice often. It is possible to teach yourself to play piano chords!
Here we will discuss:
- The basics of piano chords
- Playing piano chords
- Practicing piano chords
- Frequently asked questions about piano chords
The Basics of Piano Chords
Before you begin learning about piano chords, you should make sure you know your scales well and can play them with both hands. Because chords consist of notes in a scale, this is very important. Review this post about piano scales for information on where to start.
What is a chord? A chord must have at least three notes (also called a triad). These notes are called the root, the third and the fifth. A chord may have more than three notes, but every cord consists of a minimum of three notes.
- The root of the chord (also referred to as the tonic) is its lowest note and will be the note for which the entire chord is named. The chord is built upon its root. For example, in a C major chord, the root is C, the bottom note of the chord. It is played on the piano with the thumb of the right hand or pinky finger of the left hand.
- The third is the second note in a major chord and is four half-steps above the root note. A hint to finding the third: the reason this note is called the third is that in a scale in the key of that chord, the third will always be the third note you hit in that scale. So, in a C major chord, the third is E, and it is four half steps above the root, C. The third will be played on the piano with the middle finger of either hand.
- The fifth is the top note of a major chord, so named because it is the fifth note in the scale of that key. For example, in a C major chord, the fifth is G. It is seven half-steps above the root. On the piano, the fifth is played with the pinky finger of the right hand and the thumb of the left hand.
When you are learning about chords, it’s important to realize that every chord can be labeled in two ways. The two chord names are called enharmonic equivalents, as they sound exactly alike and consist of the same keys on the piano but are notated differently in sheet music. Think about it – E ♭ and D ♯ are the same note, so an E ♭ major chord sounds, and is played, exactly the same as a D ♯ major chord. Another example of an enharmonic equivalent note is C and B ♯. A more complete list of enharmonic equivalent notes may be found here.
Playing Piano Chords
When you are learning how to play piano chords with both hands, it is extremely important to remember proper fingering and hand position. Your fingers should be curved and you should play each note with the tip of your finger. Remember, play the root note of the chord with the thumb on the right hand or pinky on the left; play the third note of the chord with the middle finger of either hand; and play the fifth note of the chord with the pinky finger of the right hand or the thumb of the left hand. No matter what chord you’re playing, you will always be playing the chord with fingers numbered 1, 3 and 5 on either hand.
Essential Piano Chords
There are some essential piano chords that you should learn when you are a beginning piano student. These chords are found in many pieces of and types of music. The major chords below are the ones most beginning piano students learn first:
- C major – this chord consists of the root (C), the third (E) and the fifth (G)
- D ♭ major– consisting of the root (D ♭), third (F) and fifth (A ♭)
- Remember, the enharmonic equivalent of D ♭ major is C ♯ major, consisting of the root (C ♯), the third (E ♯), and the fifth (G ♯)
- D major – this chord consists of the root (D), third (F ♯) and fifth (A)
- E ♭ major – this chord consists of the root (E ♭), third (G) and fifth (B ♭)
- The enharmonic equivalent of this chord is D ♯ major, consisting of the root (D ♯), third (F ♯ ♯) (we will discuss double sharps in a bit) and fifth (A ♯)
- E major – consisting of the root (E), third (G ♯) and fifth (B)
- F major – consisting of the root (F), third (A) and fifth (C)
- F ♯ major – consisting of the root (F ♯), third (A ♯) and fifth (C ♯)
- The enharmonic equivalent of F ♯ major is G ♭ major, consisting of the root (G ♭), third (B ♭) and fifth (D ♭)
- G major – consisting of the root (G), third (B) and fifth (D)
- A ♭ major – consists of the root (A ♭), third (C) and fifth (E ♭)
- Its enharmonic equivalent is G ♯ major, consisting of the root (G ♯), third (B ♯) and fifth (D ♯)
- A major – consisting of the root (A), third (C ♯) and fifth (E)
- B ♭ major – consists of the root (B ♭), third (D) and fifth (F)
- Its enharmonic equivalent is A ♯ major, consisting of the root (A ♯), third (C ♯ ♯) and fifth (E ♯)
- B major – consisting of the root (B), third (D ♯) and fifth (F ♯)
Musicians say that the four chords most commonly found in popular songs are C major, G major, A minor and F major. We will discuss this later in this article.
Double Sharps/Double Flats
Just as there are sharp notes and flat notes, to make things even more muddled, there are also double sharps and double flats. Although this might sound confusing, the concept really isn’t that hard to grasp. The double sharp raises a note a whole step (instead of a half step like a sharp would do). You won’t see a double sharp in a musical piece’s key signature, but rather, within the sheet music itself (where the note is called an accidental).
A double flat lowers a note by a whole step (instead of a half step like a flat would do). Again, you won’t see a double flat in a key signature, but rather, it will be written within the piece of music. You will see double flats and double sharps in some chords, which is why we’re discussing them here now – just so you recognize them.
Types of Chords
There are six common types of chords. The ones most often used in sheet music for piano are major and minor chords. There are others, however, which we will just touch on lightly here so that you know what they are:
- Major- This is the most common chord, consisting of the root, major third, and fifth (example- C major chord: C-E-G)
- Minor- This type of chord sounds sadder than a major chord, and consists of a root, minor third, and fifth (for example, C minor chord is C- E ♭ – G)
- Diminished- This is a tenser sounding chord, consisting of a root, minor third, and diminished fifth. An example of a C diminished chord is C – E ♭- G ♭)
- Major Seventh- These are often seen in popular music and jazz. They consist of a root, major third, fifth, and major seventh. What is a major seventh note? it is up 11 semitones from the root. For example, a C major seventh chord would be C-E-G-B (B is up 11 semitones from C)
- Minor Seventh- This is more of a moody sounding chord. It consists of a root, minor third, fifth, and minor seventh. The minor seventh note is up ten semitones from the root note. So a C minor seventh chord would be C-E ♭- G-B ♭ (as B ♭ is up 10 semitones from C)
- Dominant Seventh- This is a strong chord, used often in jazz. It consists of a root, major third, fifth, and minor seventh. A C dominant seventh chord would be C-E-G- B ♭)
Other types of chords, such as suspended chords, augmented chords and extended chords also exist. However, when you’re just starting out learning to play chords on the piano, knowing the six chords above is sufficient.
Practicing Piano Chords
Playing Three Notes at Once
Once you feel comfortable playing each individual chord, try going up the keyboard to the next chord (C major, D ♭ major, D major, etc.). Practice playing all three notes in each chord simultaneously. You should start this exercise with your right hand alone (or left, if you’re left handed) and then practice solo with the other hand before trying to put the two hands together. Make sure you’re not hitting any false notes, which are notes that don’t belong in the chord. You should be able to tell by sound if you make a mistake.
Playing Chords in Different Inversions
While you don’t really need to know about chord inversions in order to play sheet music, it’s good to learn as much as you can about chords to understand them thoroughly. There are many different possibilities in major chord inversions.
- A root position chord is the normal grouping of the chord; for C major, for example, it would be C-E-G
- The first inversion of a chord is one in which the root is not its lowest note. For C major, for example, its first inversion would be E-G-C. Here, the root is shifted to the original third in the root position of the chord.
- The second inversion of a chord is one in which the root is the original fifth of the root position of the chord. For C major, for example, the second inversion is G-C-E.
Practicing playing the major chords in their different inversions can help you to feel more comfortable playing chords, understanding the notes and placing your fingers correctly on the piano.
Songs with Easy Piano Chords
The next step in learning how to play piano chords is to find songs with easy piano chords. Yes, these songs do exist. If you learn to play some easy, and maybe even popular, songs containing easy piano chords, you’ll feel like a more confident piano player.
One of the most popular songs with easy piano chords is “Hey Jude” by the Beatles. The first chord is an F major chord, consisting of F-A-C; followed by a C major seventh chord (C, E, G, B) and then a B ♭ major chord (B ♭, D, F).
As discussed earlier in this article, the four chords most commonly seen in popular piano songs are C major, G major, A minor and F major. Many popular songs are based on this four-chord progression. If you learn this four-chord progression, you’ll be able to play countless popular and recognizable songs. Songs that incorporate these chords include Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” and “Forever Young” by Alphaville.
Now that you have learned the basics of piano chords, it’s time to practice, practice, practice! Hal Leonard has published many sheet music books with easy chords, all of which are available at Amazon. Two of the most popular are the Christmas Songs with 3 Chords and Three Chord Songs Super Easy Songbook. If you’re interested in a more comprehensive program, try Alfred’s Teach Yourself Chords & Progressions at the Keyboard, which comes with a book and CD for easier instruction.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the 12 minor chords? They are:
C minor – (C-E ♭-G)
- C ♯ minor- (C ♯, E, G ♯)
D minor – (D, F, A)
E ♭ minor- (E ♭, G ♭, B ♭)
E minor – (E, G, B)
F minor – (F, A ♭, C)
F ♯ minor- (F ♯, A, C ♯)
G minor – (G, B ♭, D)
- A ♭ minor – (A ♭, C ♭, E ♭)
A minor – (A, C, E,)
B ♭ minor- (B ♭, D♭, F)
B minor – (B, D, F♯)
How many chords total exist on a piano? 8400
(Explanation: there are 12 roots available from C to B. 12 multiplied by 100 possible chords per octave equals 1200 chords. These 1200 chords can be played in 7 different octaves on the piano. 1200 multiplied by 7 = 8400)
What are the most common chords found in popular music? After 1300 songs were analyzed, it was discovered that the following chords in order from most to least common are found most often in popular music:
- What is the most common chord progression found in popular music? In the same analysis of 1300 songs, it was discovered that the most common four chord progression in popular songs is C major– G major- A minor-F major. Songs using this chord progression include “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey and “Let it Be” by The Beatles.
- Tell me more about those “other” types of chords you lightly touched on above. Ok, you asked for it!
- Suspended chords- There are two types of suspended chords: Sus2 and Sus4.
- In a suspended chord, the major or minor third of a chord is omitted, replaced with a major second or perfect fourth.
- A Sus4 chord would be 1-4-5 instead of the major 1-3-5. So a C major chord that is C-E-G would be as a Csus4 chord C-F-G. The middle note is raised by a half step.
- A Sus2 chord would be 1-2-5 instead of the major 1-3-5. So the C major triad of C-E-G would become C-D-G. You simply lower the middle note one whole step.
Augmented chords- In an augmented triad chord, the third note (the fifth) is raised a half step. It is indicated by the + symbol. The C triad that is C-E-G would be in an augmented C triad C-E-G♯
Extended chords- Extended chords are chords with notes added beyond the seventh. For example, the C major seventh chord (written Cmaj7) is C-E-G-B, or 1-3-5-7. Any other note that is added to that chord makes it an extended chord.
- Suspended chords- There are two types of suspended chords: Sus2 and Sus4.