You’ve read about them. You’ve seen them and heard them being played. How is it done? Some players play chords like magic. Do I just play every other note on the white keys? Or is it a combination of black and white keys?
Once I learn one chord, how can I use it in a chord progression or song? We have the answers for you and we are ready to pull back the curtain on a beginning piano student’s biggest mystery. There’s no illusions here or sleight of hand tricks, just good old fashioned music theory. So, how do we get there? We’ve broken it down into five categories.
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- Piano Theory
- Defining Chords
- Building Chords
- Chord Progressions
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Before we move any further, let’s take a look at some basic piano theory. Music is built off specific pitches or tones. These pitches are arranged in order (based on whole or half steps) from the lowest tone to the highest and form what is known as a scale. Scales are the basic building blocks of music and knowing them will help you build and understand chords.
Ok, but what is a key? The key is the major or minor scale around which a piece of music revolves. That means the fundamental notes that make up the song’s melody, chords, and bassline are all derived from that group of notes. The words scales and keys are somewhat interchangeable in the sense that if you are playing in the key of C, you know that you are using a C scale.
Also, the reader will assume that when we talk about the key of C, we mean C major. If we are referring to minor keys, we will always use the word “minor” after each key. The key of C consists of the notes CDEFGABC. We can play in the key of C by playing only the white keys. If we play them in order, we are playing the C major scale.
Go ahead and play the scale from middle C to treble C and come back down to middle C. Treble C is the next C to your right. You can use any finger to get started. Most method books have beginners use their 3rd finger (middle) to play single note scales. Now you can play the scale starting on middle C with the right hand as follows: 1,2,3,1,2,3,4,5 (ascending) and 5,4,3,2,1,3,2,1 (descending).
Remember to tuck your thumb under your third finger when you are moving from E to F. When you are playing the scale descending, your third finger will go over your thumb when moving from F to E. Play slowly. Take your time. This is a common fingering for many of the one octave major scales. The keys of G, D, E, A, also use this fingering. You can play the scale in the left hand starting on bass C (1st C to the left of middle C). Wait, aren’t we learning about chords? Yes, you are! Remember that scales are the building blocks and without knowing how they fit into the grand scheme of things, it would be like building a skyscraper without the ground floor. Now that’s some trick!
Let’s start off by defining a chord. A chord is two or more harmonic pitches that are sounded simultaneously. One can argue that they don’t have to be harmonious. However, because of this definition you could literally play one note and then play any other note anywhere on the keyboard at the same time. The end result is by definition a chord.
Before we start, you will need to: be able to locate middle C and understand basic piano fingering in each hand: 1 (thumb), 2 (index), 3 (middle), 4 (ring), 5 (pinky). You can start out with a basic chord by playing middle C with right hand first finger (thumb) and E with your third finger (middle finger). Yes, you will be skipping one white key. That note is D. This will form a basic C chord.
As you progress, you will later learn that playing this two note chord is technically called playing 3rds. Go ahead and play it in different rhythms. Play it with a steady beat. This form (like many others) is movable. You can use this form and play different combinations of chords up and down the keyboard in the key of C. Playing in the key of C means to play the white keys only.
This is best demonstrated here in the video: Two Note Chords in C. Once you feel that you have mastered this, try skipping around with your two note form on the keyboard.
You’ll be amazed what kind of sounds you can get. You may even recognize some familiar songs. This basic chord form is used for beginners of all ages. Adults will benefit from this because it creates an immediate recognizable sound that is motivating and sparks an even greater interest to play. Children benefit from two note chords because they are easy to read on the staff and younger students don’t quite yet have the dexterity and strength to play three note chords.
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Two note chords are great but won’t satisfy you forever. So, how are three note chords built? Let’s examine its make up first. Each chord has three parts to its structure: the root, the 3rd, and the 5th. The root is the lowest note of the chord and is also the name of the chord. The 3rd is the middle tone and the 5th is highest note in the chord.
In basic piano, we refer to these chords as block chords. The form does not vary and it built off of the basic melody that is being played. Place your right hand thumb on middle C. Make sure each finger gets a key. 1 on C, 2 on D, 3 on E etc. This is your 5 finger position. Now you can play a C chord in the right hand by playing 1 on middle C, 3 on E, and 5 on G. That’s right, you are playing every other note in the 5 finger position.
This is your standard three note chord. In major keys, this is referred to as the I (1) chord. Play all three notes at once. If you play them one at a time or individually, that’s something different. That’s called an arpeggio or broken chord. We can discuss that at a later time.
What about the left hand? You can build left hand piano chords the same way. In fact, the three note block chord can be played with both hands. Put your left hand 5th finger on bass C (first C left of middle C) and make sure each finger is on a key. Your thumb or 1st finger should end up on the first G below middle C. This is your 5 finger position for the left hand. Piano teachers and students alike refer to this as C Position. The pinky in the left hand is on bass C and the thumb in the right hand is on middle C. The left hand will now finger 5,3,1 or the notes C,E,G. You can play both a C chord in the left hand and the right hand at the same time. The result is a rich, full sound.
Now try this. Just using your 1,3,5 in your right hand you can move the chord all around the keyboard. Using your right hand only play the 1,3,5 chord starting on C and move up the scale all the way up to treble C. You’ll get to hear the chord as part of the scale. Do you hear the different sounds and tonalities? That’s because C,F,G are all major chords and D,E,A are minor. B is different. B is neither major nor minor, it is called a diminished chord.
If moving up and down the scale in chords sounds a little like Bill Wither’s, “Lean on Me”, you’re right. Start at treble C and move the chord down the scale back to middle C. Now repeat the same steps with your left hand. Make sure your left hand pinky is on bass C. Move the chord up stepwise (one note to another, not skipping any notes) to middle C and back down to bass C.
See how easy this is? Still no magic involved. It’s time to move on to inversions. Inversions stretch the color of sound out and force you to listen to the chord in a different way. Musicians refer to inversions as chord voicings. So far, you’ve learned how to voice a C chord as C,E,G. What if we decided to move the lowest note to the top of the chord? The middle note E is now at the bottom of the chord.
Now the chord is spelled E,G,C. It will also now have a different fingering. Your lowest note is no longer middle C. It is the first E above middle C. This is called a first inversion. The fingering is 1,2,5. The notes will be E,G, and treble C. If we move the lowest note again, the notes will now be G,C,E. The lowest note is now the first G above middle C. The middle note is treble C and the highest note is the first E above treble C.
The new fingering is 1,3,5. This is called 2nd inversion. Inversions provide the composer and performer with a wide variety of sounds and possibilities. Many times students will find the chords to a particular song and play it with the wrong voicings. This can make the song seem off and not quite right. Using the correct voicing or inversions can make or break a song.
A series of chords is called a progression. Chord progressions are the foundation for any song or piece of music. Many people can identify a song just by its progression. Classic Rock songs such as “Let it Be”, “Louie Louie”, and “Piano Man” are just a few that come to mind.
Now think back to the video on building chords. Chords are built on specific scale degrees. Roman numerals are used to denote the chords and each degree. (I,ii,iii,IV,V,vi,vii*,I) If we were to mix and match these scale degrees you would create a chord progression. Some common progressions are I-V-I, I-IV-I-V-I, I-IV-V-I, I-vi-ii,V,I. The I-IV-V progression is C, F,G. All of the chords are major chords. The I-vi-ii-V progression is C,am,dm,G. Many progressions are used over and over in literally hundreds of different songs. With the right chord progression, the possibilities are endless.
Unlocking the Mystery
This is only the beginning of your adventure into the world of chords. Hopefully, we were able unlock and reveal some of the best kept secrets. As you venture into the unknown, remember to: explore different keys, work on progressions that have inversions, play melodies in one hand and chords in the other, and use new voicings for old songs. Now take that magic and put it into your playing!
If you’re still interested in learning how to play piano or keyboard, get your copy of Piano for All today, which features 10 eBooks, 200 video piano lessons and 500 audio piano lessons!
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