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Learning Chords on the Piano

Last Updated: December 26, 2010 / by Michael Kinney


There are typically two types of piano students. One type is able to read music and can play songs and compositions so long as they are written note for note on a page in front of them. The other type of student is able to play music based off of the chords they know and typically from what is known as a fake book. Ideally you should be able to do both things (read music and know your chords) but I think it is especially important to understand chords on the piano. Knowing the basic structure of piano chords will help you to improvise, learn songs more quickly, and remember songs more easily

What are Chords?

Chords are simply a collection of notes played simultaniously that help to make up the harmony of a song. Based on what chords are used, you can figure out what key a song is in, whether the tonality is major or minor, and what the overall sound of the song is. If you understand chords you can do all this without even hearing a single note of the song!

What are Chord Progressions?

A chord progression is simply a pattern of chords that make up a phrase or even an entire song. For example, a blues progression in its simplest form is a progression using three chords over the span of 12 measures. The more you become familiar with chords and typical chord progressions, the easier it will be for you to apply that knowledge to multiple songs. As you progress, you'll notice that many songs follow the same pattern of chords. Once you've mastered that pattern and chord structure, you'll be able to instantly add more songs to your piano repitiore.

How do I Start Learning Chords?

The easiest chords to start with are triads. A triad is a three note chord that contains the root of the chord, the third of the chord and the fifth of the chord. A quick shortcut to learning how to play ALL major and minor triads has to do with knowing the spacing between each of the three notes. For more information on learning this, watch our video: LEARN MAJOR TRIADS. Once you get a grasp on the basics of forming major and minor chords, you can move onto adding extensions to the chords.

What are Chord Extensions?

Chord extensions help to add additional harmony to a song. Common extensions are major seventh chords, dominant seventh chords, suspended chords, ninth chords, minor seventh chords and major minor seventh chords.

Tips for Expanding your Chord Knowledge

The first thing you should do when trying to learn chords is to purchase a fake book of some sort. A fake book provides the melody and chords only to popular songs. You should start by picking a song that does not have any chord extensions and only uses major and minor triads. You can play each triad in your left had while you play the melody in your right hand. Once you get comfortable with this, try inverting the chords. By this I mean try putting the root at the top of the chord instead of the bottom. Then put the third at the top and the fifth at the bottom. Doing this will give you limitless ways that you can compliment the melody with your left hand.


About the Author: Michael Kinney

I have played piano since I was 5 years old. I started in classical and then quickly moved to blues and jazz. I studied at the collegiate level and have played professionally since I was 16. My favorite piano players (if I had to pick 3) include Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock). I own several keyboards but always prefer to play on a Steinway if one is available! I live to perform as much as I like to teach.


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