Understanding Piano Chords

Chords are foundational to music. They make up the harmony and structure of the songs we know and love.

To understand how chords work, it helps to know a couple of key concepts. In the sections below, we’ll introduce those concepts and guide you in exploring chords on the piano. You’ll find the answers to the following questions:

  • What is a chord?
  • How do you build and play chords on piano?
  • How do chords function in music?
  • What are chord progressions?
  • What kinds of chords exist?

The best way to learn about piano chords is by playing them. If you have a piano, we encourage you to explore the instrument while you read this guide. 

In addition to answering the questions above, we've created a chord library that shows you how to play every possible major and minor chord on the piano. Ever wondered how to play a C major chord? Or maybe an F♯ minor? We've got you covered. And we'll show you how to build the chords yourself, too. To check out these chord-specific pages, just scroll to the bottom of this page.

But first things first: What is a chord? Read on and let’s start putting the notes together.

What is a chord?

Chords are notes played together at the same time. They create harmony between the pitches of the played notes.

In their simplest form, two notes can make a chord. For most cases on the piano, however, chords will have at least three notes. Chords with three notes are called triads. Triads can be broken down into four categories:

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Augmented
  • Diminished

These categories create different tonalities and feelings. We'll dive into that a bit later. First, let's break down the notes in each category of chord. 

Each chord features a root note, which you’ll recognize by the note featured in its name. The root of C major is C. The root of A minor is A. The root of F major? You guessed it: F.

Which category a triad falls into is determined by its third and fifth notes. For example, major and minor triads have the same root and fifth notes, but different third notes: C major and C minor both have C as the root and G as the fifth, but C major's third note is E, whereas C minor's third note is E♭.

An augmented triad has the same third note as a major triad, but moves the fifth note up a half step. For C augmented, you’d use the following notes: C, E, G♯.

A diminished triad has the same third note as a minor triad, but moves the fifth note down a half step. For C diminished, you’d use the following notes: C, E♭, G♭.

You can find more information about major, minor, augmented and diminished chords below.

How do you learn piano chords?

Learning to play piano chords begins with exploring the instrument. Press multiple keys down at the same time and listen to how they sound when played together. In some instances the sound will be pleasant. Other times, the sound may be dissonant. What you’re doing in this moment is creating different harmonies.

You can start playing chords right away just by viewing the individual chord pages here in our chords library. You can also learn to play chords on piano through the courses in our app.

How do you build a chord on the piano?

Learning to build piano chords starts with understanding intervals, or the distance between two notes. We measure intervals in a unit called steps.

The smallest interval is a half step. It's the distance from one key on the piano to the very next key, black or white. For example, the distance between E and F is a half step

A whole step is equivalent to two half steps. On the piano, it's the distance between two notes that have one key between them, black or white. For example, the distance between C and D is a whole step because there is one black key between them.

Chords are built from these steps in certain sequences. Here are the steps that make up C major:

  1. Start at C
  2. Two whole steps to E
  3. Three and a half steps to G

Every major triad follows the same pattern. Understanding this pattern will help you build major triads from any root note. Let's build a major triad from another scale to see this rule in action: A major.

  1. Start at A
  2. Two whole steps to C♯
  3. Three and a half steps to E

Other types of chords on the piano simply adjust the intervals between notes, making minor, diminished, augmented chords, and more. Once you know the patterns, building chords is easy!

How do you play a chord on the piano?

Playing chords on the piano means using multiple fingers at the same time. In some instances, a piece of music will require you to play a chord with two hands, but most of the chords you’ll encounter can be played with one.

For playing major and minor triads in their root positions, you’ll use your thumb (first finger), middle finger (third finger) and pinky (fifth finger). Keeping that in mind, a C major chord played on the right hand, for example, would be played using the following fingers:

G - Fifth finger (5)
E - Third finger (3)
C - First finger (1)

How do you read chords in music?

Chords appear in music in a variety of ways, but are most often written as notes stacked on top of each other on a staff. When you read these stacked notes, you know that you need to play them all at the same time. 

In other instances, you might see chords noted in a lead sheet or fake sheet. With these, you won’t find a complete arrangement of a piece of music, but rather only the main elements necessary to perform a rendition, usually with the accompanying chords written in letter format above the staff (e.g., C, G, A, E).

What are the most common chords used in music?

Every chord has its place in music composition. Some chords, however, are used more than others. Due to the nature of the instrument, piano chords that feature only white keys are often more popular than chords with black keys.

The following chords feature no black keys on the piano:

In this way, the piano's layout often dictates the chords and music that we hear. Both beginners and professional songwriters will often gravitate toward these chords. Of course, on different instruments, different chords may be more popular. 

What are major and minor chords?

Major and minor chords are the building blocks of most Western music — by which we mean music in the Western European tradition. You’ll find them in almost every song or piece of music you know and love. Read our guide to learn more about how these specific chords work, how to play them, and how they function within music.

Read more

What is a sixth chord?

Sixth chords contain both minor and major aspects, making them somewhat ambiguous harmonically. For this reason, a sixth chord can open the door to multiple, different chord progressions. Sixth chords can also act like bridges between sections of songs — something you'll often see in pop music, for example.

Read more

What is a seventh chord?

Seventh chords consist of four notes and are often used to enrich, or amplify, whatever mood is being expressed. You'll find them in music across genres and eras — classical, jazz, pop, hip-hop and everything in between. In this article you'll learn about the seventh note and how it's used to build the most common seventh chords.

Read more 

What is a ninth chord?

Ninth chords are similar to seventh chords in that they're rich in harmony and introduce a tension that begs to be resolved. Their general vibe is magical, or dreamy. In this article you'll learn about the ninth note and how it can create various ninth chords. You’ll also learn how the most common ninth chords sound and how to play them on piano.

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What are augmented and diminished chords?

Augmented and diminished chords are often used to create tension within chord progressions. In this article, you’ll learn how to build augmented and diminished chords, and how they function within music. You'll also find some examples of how they’re used in popular music.

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What is a chord progression?

A chord progression is simply when two or more chords are played in succession. They're foundational to popular music in Western cultures, creating the mood and feeling of a song. You'll often find different chord progressions marking different sections of songs. For example, one series of chords may make up the verse in a pop song, while another series of chords makes up the chorus.

Of course, some songs are based around one simple chord progression. And many types of music around the world use similar chord progressions that listeners can recognize. This article will guide you through the basics of chord progressions and introduce you to five chord progressions that every pianist should know. 

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What is a chord inversion?

Chord inversions allow songwriters and composers to make a chord progression flow naturally and feel unique. Essentially, an inversion rearranges the order of the notes played in a chord. In this article, you’ll discover how inversions work and learn more about root notes and root positions of chords.

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What is an arpeggio?

An arpeggio is a type of broken chord where the notes are played one after another, rather than together at once. This creates a harmonically rich effect that adds texture and depth to whatever piece of music it appears in. You'll find arpeggios in all genres and eras of music.

What are pop chords?

Some chords appear more often in pop music than others. These are often referred to as “pop chords” and use specific progressions that are easily recognizable. In this article, you’ll learn about the specific chords and progressions, and you'll discover some popular songs that use them.

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Major Chords

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