Understanding Piano Chords
Nothing brings pieces of music together quite like chords. They create the connection between notes and make up the structure of most music we know and love.
To understand how chords work and function, it helps to have a grasp of a couple of key concepts. In the sections below, we’ll introduce those ideas and help you explore 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 kind of chords exist?
The best way to learn about piano chords is by playing. If you have a piano, we encourage you to read and explore the instrument at the same time.
Ever wondered how to play a C major chord? Or maybe an F♯ minor? Beyond explaining the theory behind chords, you’ll also find a guide to playing every major and minor chord on the piano. We’ll guide you step-by-step so you can learn to build and play the chords yourself.
As it’s a very good place to start, we’ll start at the very beginning. What’s a chord? Read below 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 you learn about generally have at least three notes. Chords with three notes are called triads. These triads can be broken down into four categories:
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.
Triads are recognized by the third and the fifth notes from the root. For example, if your root is C, the third and fifth from the root would be E and G. The interval of the third and fifth note you play determines the kind of triad you’ll hear.
Minor and major chords each feature the same fifth, but differ with the third that’s played. For example, C major and C minor both have G as the fifth, but C major uses E as the third whereas C minor uses E♭.
Augmented chords feature the same third note as a major chord, but bring the fifth note up a half step. For C augmented, you’d use the following notes: C, E, G♯.
Diminished chords feature the same third note as a minor chord, but bring 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.
Perhaps most importantly, these different kinds of triads create different tonalities and feelings. When multiple chords are put together, each chord plays a different role within the context of a larger piece of music.
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.
In theory, learning piano chords starts with understanding intervals. Intervals represent a difference in pitch between two notes.
For example, if you play the note C on a piano, the black key to the right, C♯, is considered a half step up. The next white key to the right, D, is considered a whole step up from C.
These steps in certain sequences start to make up scales. For example, a major scale starting with C (all of the white keys) would follow this sequence:
- Start at C
- Whole step to D
- Whole step to E
- Half step to F
- Whole step to G
- Whole step to A
- Whole step to B
- Half step to the next C
Every major scale follows this same sequence of whole and half steps. Once you understand the notes in that sequence, you can start to pick out specific notes from the scale to play chords.
How do you build a chord on the piano?
Do you remember the root note that we discussed earlier? Building a chord generally starts with that root note. While chords can have a large number of notes, we’ll focus on building triads with three notes.
As we mentioned above, triads contain a root note, a third, and a fifth. Those third and fifth notes are determined by the number of steps between each interval in a scale.
For example, in a C major chord, the third is E, two whole steps above the C. The fifth in the sequence is G, three and a half steps above the C in a major scale.
Using these intervals from any root note, you can play a major triad. Other chords on the piano simply adjust the intervals between notes, making minor, diminished, augmented chords, and more.
How do you play a chord on the piano?
Playing chords on the piano requires using multiple fingers at the same time. In some instances, a piece of music will require you to play a chord with both 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, 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. In these instances, you won’t find a complete arrangement of a piece of music, but rather only the main elements necessary to perform a rendition. In these instances, you’ll often have a melody written in typical musical notation with the accompanying chords written above the staff.
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:
- C major
- D minor
- E minor
- F major
- G major
- A minor
- B diminished
In this way, the format of the piano 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 is a chord progression?
A chord progression is a sequence of chords that make up a piece of music. In its simplest form, a chord progression could be the change between two chords in the rhythm with the music.
In songs, you’ll often find different chord progressions that make up different parts of the song. When a singer is singing a verse in a pop song, one chord progression might be playing in the background. When the song changes to the chorus, the chord progression might switch.
Of course, some songs are based around one, simple chord progression. And many songs from music around the world use similar chord progressions that listeners can recognize.
What is an arpeggio?
An arpeggio is also referred to as a broken chord. You can think of it as a chord where all the notes are played individually rather than at the same time. The word “arpeggio” comes from the word arpeggiare, which means “to play on a harp” in Italian.
For example, If you were to play a C major chord, you’d use the notes C, E, and G. Rather than pressing all the keys down at once, you would play the C, then the E, and then G. While arpeggios are often played in ascending or descending order, you could also mix up the order of the notes, playing the E, then C, then G, and so on.
In arpeggios, notes are often played in a pattern that follows the rhythm in a piece of music. Often, they’ll be played with the left hand on the piano. Sometimes, they span multiple octaves and you’ll use both hands to play an arpeggio. In some cases they may even make up the melody of the music.
What are major and minor chords?
Major and minor chords are the building blocks of most Western music. 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.