This article comes from Julian, a knowledgeable pianist who will take you through his guide on how to play chords on the piano!


One of the biggest shortcuts for beginner pianists is learning how to play chords. Much of the contemporary pop-style music that you hear on the radio is easily accessible as chord charts online. So, soon after learning chords you’ll be ready to play along to some of your favorite songs. 

In this article we will learn what a chord is and how to form the most common types. Then we’ll give several simple ways to play them so they actually sound good.

What is a Chord?

A chord is a set of notes that are played together on the piano. The simplest chords are triads, or chords made of three notes. The 4 main types of triads are major, minor, diminished, and augmented. 

That said, chords can be much more complicated. You can have 4 note chords (called 7th chords), 5+ note chords, add chords, sus chords, and more. But these are unnecessary to learn at the beginning.

Instead, just focus on major and minor chords and you’ll be able to play hundreds of songs.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Forming a Major Chord

The most common chord type is the major chord. Major chords sound “pleasant” or “happy.” If you see a stand-alone capital letter in a chord chart, that indicates a major chord. For example, if you see an “E,” play an E major chord. 

The major chord formula:

Just remember two numbers 4-3. Count 4 half steps from the first note of the chord to the second note, and 3 half steps from the second to the third. These notes form a major chord.

For example, consider a C major chord (below); it’s notes are C E and G. There are 4 half steps from C to E – C♯, D, D♯, and E. Then there are 3 half steps from E to G – F, F♯, and G. 

A C major chord has 4 half steps from C to E and 3 half steps from E to G. Screenshot taken from Musicca’s virtual piano

Hopefully you see the power of this little formula. All you need to remember are two numbers “4” and “3” and you have access to all 12 major chords!

To save you time, here is a list of all the major chords:

  1. C – C E G
  2. D♭ – D♭ F A♭
  3. D – D F♯ A
  4. E♭ – E♭ G B♭
  5. E – E G♯ B
  6. F – F A C
  7. G♭ – G♭ B♭ D♭
  8. G – G B D
  9. A♭ – A♭ C E♭
  10. A – A C♯ E
  11. B♭ – B♭ D F
  12. B – B D♯ F♯

Forming Minor Chords

Minor chords have a murkier, sadder sound than major chords. In chord notation, a minor chord is a capital letter followed by a lowercase m. For example, C minor is notated as Cm.

The minor chord formula:

First, create a major chord, then lower the second note of the chord by a half step. 

So, the C major chord is spelled C, E, G. To create a C minor chord, lower the 2nd note, E in this case, down to an E♭. So C minor is C E♭ G.

The minor chords:

  1. Cm – C E♭ G
  2. C♯m – C♯ E G♯
  3. Dm – D F A
  4. E♭m – E♭ G♭ B♭
  5. Em – E G B
  6. Fm – F A♭ C
  7. F♯m – F♯ A C♯
  8. Gm – G B♭ D
  9. G#m – G♯ B D♯
  10. Am – A C E
  11. B♭m – B♭ D♭ F
  12. Bm – B D F♯

How To Arrange Piano Chords (So They Sound Good!)

Now that you can form major and minor chords, what’s next? If you just play the three notes of the chord, that will sound empty and clunky! We need some strategies for arranging the chords so that they sound interesting. 

We’ll use the following chord progression (sequence of chords) in the examples below:

D Bm A D

Option 1: Use Root Position Chords

This arrangement style will add energy into your playing. 

Start by forming a root position chord in your right hand. What is a root position chord? Well, the root of the chord is the same note as the name of the chord, so C is the root of the C major chord.

So a root position chord is a chord where the root is the lowest note. All the chords in this guide so far have been root position chords. The alternative to a root position chord is an inverted chord where the lowest note is not the root of the chord (more on that later).

Arrangement instructions:

  • Play root position chords in your RH. 
  • In your LH play only the root of the chord (if you can reach, play the root as an octave).
  • Play whole notes in your left hand and quarter notes for the chords in your RH (example below). The quarter notes in the RH give the chords drive and energy.
A simple root-position arrangement pattern

Option 2: Use Broken Chords

This arrangement style will add movement to your playing.

In a broken chord (also called an arpeggio), each note is played one at a time instead of all at the same time. 

For example, one way to play a D major broken chord is to play D followed by F♯ followed by A followed by F♯. 

In this exercise, continue playing octave root notes in the LH. In your RH, play each note of the chord for the duration of a quarter note (shown below).

A simple broken chord arrangement pattern

Option 3: Use Chord Inversions

This arrangement style will make your playing sound smooth and elegant.

All the chords we have worked on so far have been root position chords. The downside of only practicing root position chords is that they limit your playing and can sound clunky. The way around this is to start practicing your chord inversions

A chord inversion rotates the order of a chord. For example, a root position D chord is D F♯ A. If you rotate the order of the notes and put the D at the top of the chord you end up with F♯ A D. This is a first inversion chord.

You can invert the chord again and put an F♯ on the top to end with A D F♯. This is a second inversion chord.

D major chord inversions

The right hand uses inverted chords below. Now the RH doesn’t have to make uncomfortable leaps up and down the keyboard. The overall sound is smoother.

Other Ways to Arrange Chords

There are so many creative possibilities when using chords. I gave 3 simple ways to arrange chords, but if you want to learn 8 more, check out this video by Devon from HDpiano. He offers excellent examples using familiar pop tunes.

YouTube video

Once you’ve mastered these arrangement patterns, you’ll be well on your way to reading through chord charts and lead sheets of your favorite tunes. 

Conclusion

By learning how to play just the 24 major and minor chords, you can learn to play along with hundreds of familiar pop tunes.  

Begin playing chords by using simple blocked chords, then venture out into using broken chords to add movement and inversions to add smoothness to the progression. It will be challenging, and will take a lot of practice, but will be well worth the effort!


Julian Harnish is the creator of findyourmelody.com, a piano blog with a particular emphasis on the psychology of effective and enjoyable practice. He studied Math and Piano Performance in college, and has a particular appreciation for the choral music of Eric Whittacre and Ola Gjeilo. 

Currently he offers a course that teaches students their favorite song in 6 weeks or less. 


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