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. 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 root of the chord), 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 out, 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:
This may look overwhelming, but when you break it down, you can see that color-coding the chords gives you the root note as well as 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 very 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. 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 as mentioned above with the Major C chord. 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. The number of half steps will always be the same in-between notes, so the sound will always be the same. 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 then you go up 3 half steps to make the minor 3rd, bringing you to E flat. Four more half steps (a major 3rd) brings 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, then 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.” 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 simply add more to your chord sound by adding in 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, so you would 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 a tricky task, 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 begin by learning 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!