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Piano Chords Explained

Piano Chords Explained

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Looking at the piano and its notes, the first thing even the most amateur musician will notice is an array of keys – some black and some white – that make different sounds or notes when struck.

A combination of those notes, known as the chord on a piano, is a minimum of 3 notes played together, sometimes more in some cases.

Diving a bit deeper into what the chord actually is, it consists of a triad of a root note (the bass or chord’s “name”), a third interval note, and then a fifth interval note. So that is a basic 3-note major chord.

Songs are written in keys and what is known as the Key Signature so that you can identify your root note to start. For instance, C Major chord is root note C (the chord’s root), 3rd interval note E, and 5th interval note G.


When you actually start to learn music theory and read music to play on the piano, you’ll notice that chords are mainly played with the left hand while the right hand plays the melody. When you’re just starting, it’s a good idea to start with only the piano chords until you get a feel for how to play them by sight. Memorization is a key factor in learning chords.

Here’s a chart available that displays all of the possible piano chords:

Musical Piano Chords

This may look overwhelming, but when you break it down, you can see that color-coding the chords gives you the root note and whether it is a major, minor, augmented, or diminished chord that you are playing.

You can recognize the chords on sheet music by playing the odd numbers on your hands – 1,3,5 to make up the 3 notes to form a chord. You can “alternate” these chords by going up or down a full or half step. A half step is going to the next note on the piano, whereas a full step would be two notes.

As an example, let’s say you are playing the C note. The half-step up would be a C# – the very next note, which is the black key. A full-step would be to the next white key (two notes up), which is the D.

However, half steps are not always black keys, and whole steps are not always the next white key. So, for example, if you happen to start with playing the E note, then the next half-step up would be an F, which is a white key (also called an E#), and then the full-step would be to the F#, which is a black key.


Major chords are just like the basic root, 3rd and fifth interval chords mentioned above with the Major C chord. However, major chords have a sound that is “complete” and is always named for the root note. So an E Major chord would be an E for the root note, G Major would be a G, and so on.

The major chords are the easiest chords to learn first. This is because the number of half steps will always be the same in-between notes, so the sound will always be the same. For example, a D major chord is played D, F sharp, and A.

A minor chord is built like a major chord but upside down. So your root note will stay the same, but the 3rd and fifth change – minor goes on the bottom, major goes on the top, and the fifth goes in the same place.

For example, if we use the C chord again, the C minor chord will have the same root of a C note that you play, but you go up 3 half steps to make the minor 3rd, bringing you to E flat. Then, four more half steps (a major 3rd) bring us to G. To make the D minor chord, you’ll use the notes D, F, and A, and to make an E minor chord, you would use the notes E, G, and B.


Once you have mastered learning major and minor chords, you can move on to more advanced and complicated chord progressions, like diminished or augmented. For diminished chords, you’ll see the root followed by the letters “dim.” So, for instance, when playing a Cdim, you would use the notes C, E flat, and G flat.

Sometimes you’ll see a small open circle for the chord symbol, like a degree sign, for a diminished chord. For an augmented, you usually see “aug” following the letter name of the root or a “+” sign for the chord symbol. You are much less likely to see diminished or augmented chords in typical sheets of music, but you can come across them in jazz songs from time to time.

Lastly, Seventh (or 7th) chords add more to your chord sound by adding another note, meaning you play four notes instead of the normal 3. 7th chords give the music more tone and color, so the sound is fuller. Keeping with C chords, a C seventh (or C7) chord requires playing the notes C, E, G, and B-flat. Sometimes you might see a slightly different variation in the way it is displayed – instead of C7, you may see it written as C maj 7. This indicates that you should use a major third instead of a minor third on top of the chord to use the notes C, E, G, and B (instead of B-flat).

Now, go ahead and try out some major and minor chords on the piano and see how easy it is to alternate between the two. It may take some time and skilled fingering to get some of these chords down. Learning all of the piano chords and variations can be tricky, and a lot of practice goes into learning the basic 12-keys and the chords that can be created from them.

If you take local piano lessons or even online lessons, you will learn some basic chords and progressions. Soon enough, you’ll be able to commit these chords to memory and play them by heart when you sit down at a piano. At that point, you can advance to more difficult chords and melodies!

22 Responses

  1. Thank you. I am just learning about chords and have been very confused. Your instructions are very helpful. I am seventy two and I wish my short term memory was better . Thank you!

  2. Thank you very much. I am new to music although, at 77, I am not new. I never understood chords and how sounds were constructed on an instrument. I have just started showing a little cognitive decline so interested in learning a new skill and wonder if music might be worth a try. I have always loved the sound of the piano, however have arthritic hands so perhaps this is not the best instrument for me. Can you suggest an instrument with chords that would be appropriate, e.g., a lyre? Again, thank you for your very educational video! Kaye

  3. A quick question: i think i remember seeing somewhere that in construction a cord there is a formula to follow… Something like: tone, tone, semi-tone etc.. But i don’t exavtly rememver that. Can you help?

  4. Really depends on what kind of Chord you are trying to form. A simple triad is built on Root, Third and Fifth. But there are inversions, extensions and variations possible as well.

  5. WOW… The way that you explain how to play the piano chords is so clear and objective, that now I understand how they are constructed, organized, and played. I am a retired engineer, seventy five years old, trying to learn music. Thank you so much.
    George Frank (California, USA).

  6. Hi,
    Thanks for all the information. Quick question, I’m learning piano chords and noticed that there are two chord constructions for each key except for D and G. Why does the D and G chords only have one construction?

  7. Thanks for this – just started learning. I’ve looked at half a dozen sites like this but nobody has yet cleared up a query I have. Invariably we are started with the chord C-Major, and this always seems to be demonstrated with the Middle C key as the root. But there are 7 other C note keys on the keyboard! Does the same pattern of notes starting at any C note all mean C-Major? If so, doesn’t it seem a little odd that entirely different sounds can be called the same chord?


  8. Yes it does. The C are all just in different registers. Same pitch but some will sound higher or lower depending placement on the keyboard.

  9. I am 66 years old and trying to learn chords from my children’s piano lesson notes.
    But it was not so easy. God’s grace only, l came across your site. The way you explained and showed on the keyboard give me confidence that l could learn the chords and play songs using chords .
    God bless you.

  10. The most informative explanation of a piano chord I’ve ever read. Thank you so much by dispensing with unnecessary waffle. I’m in my mid 60’s and dabble with the piano in my mid 20’s struggling to maintain the drive. I’ve always wanted to restart the piano. Now I know I do. Thank you so much Vincent.

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