How to Play Keyboard Chords for Songs

Discover how to play piano chords for beginners by reading this in-depth article.

This online piano lesson intended for the older student who is who has is would like to learn how to add chords to a single-line melody.  

One of the wonderful things about playing the piano is that we can play more than just a single line melody.  We can also provide harmonic accompaniment to the songs we enjoy playing.  After completing this piano lesson, you will be able to accomplish the following.

  • Learn how to play primary chords of C major 
  • Learn how to play a melody in our right hand while playing chords in the left
  • Learn how to play chord inversions
  • Learn to play chords in blocked and broken styles 
  • Learn how to play the primary chords in different major keys
  • Learn how to harmonize a melody
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Primary Chords in C Major

What is a chord?  A chord is three or more notes played together at the same time.  Chords are built on a single note called the root.  The chords we are looking in the lesson are called triads.  They contain only three notes.

The major scale consists of seven different notes: C D E F G A B.

The first chord we will look at is the C chord whose root is C.   The C chord consists of first, third and fifth tones of the C major Scale.  Because we build this chord on the first degree of the scale, it is often referred to as a I chord.

Practice playing a C chord with both your left hand and right hand by using fingers 1, 3 and 5.  Then, find all the C chords on the piano.  If you are playing on a keyboard has 88 keys, you should be able to find and play seven C chords in all.

Now let’s learn to play the C chord in the left hand while playing a melody in the right hand.  Here we have the children’s song, Frère Jacques.  As you will notice, the melody is in the right hand and C chords in the left.    

Play the left hand first while counting in time, remembering to hold the chord for a full four counts.  Then play the melody with your right hand, following the suggested fingering.  Finally play the song hands together, making sure to keep the chord held down the full measure while your right hand continues to play the melody.

The melody should always sing above the accompaniment.  To achieve this, your right hand should be louder and your chords softer.  Imagine the melody in your right hand to be a solo voice singing and your left hand accompanying that voice.

The next chord we will look at is the G Chord.  The G chord is made up of the notes G B and D.  G is the fifth note of the C major scale, so it is often referred to as a V chord.  

Play all the G chords on the piano.  Again if you are playing on a full-length keyboard, you should be able to find seven of them.  Then, practice alternating between the C chord and G chord to get a feel for what is like moving from one chord to the next.

Now let’s take these two chords and apply them to the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts.   

Again, the right hand plays the melody while the left hand plays either a C chord or a G chord.  As in Frère Jacques, one chord is played for each measure and lasts for four counts.

Follow the same three steps to this piece as done before in Frère Jacques.

Finally, we have the F major Chord.  The F major chord is made up of the notes F A and C.  Because F is the fourth tone found in the C major scale, it is called the IV chord.  

You just learned the three primary chords in in the key of C.  You will find that that you can base many songs on these three chords.  Practice playing the three chords on the piano to gain a sense of how to quickly fin them on the keyboard.  Practice alternating between chords, such as playing a C chord, then an F Chord, then a C chord and then a G Chord.  

Let’s apply these three chords to the song, This Land is Your Land.  Work with each hand alone before putting it together. 

Chord Inversions

So far we have played the three primary chords in root position.  That means we have played them so that the lowest sounding note in the chord is the root.  The note, C, is the root of the C chord, F is the root of the F chord, and G is the root of the G chord.  

We have played these three chords with the root or note name of the chord being the lowest sounding.  However, you don’t always need to play chords this way. 

As you see in the above example, the root doesn’t always have to be the lowest sounding note of the chord.  The first chord in the example is in root position, but the second chord is not.  The lowest sounded note is an E, and the root is placed on top.  I simply moved the root of the chord up one octave.  So instead of C E G, the notes spelled from lowest to highest are E G C.  This is a C chord played in first inversion.

In the third chord, the root is the middle sounding voice.  Now from lowest to highest, the notes read G C E.  This is is a c chord played in second inversion.  The final chord in the example is a root position chord like the first one but played an octave higher.  Practice playing the C chord in root position, first inversion and second inversion while following the suggested fingerings.

Now let’s apply the same idea to both the F chord and the G chord.  Each measure begins and ends with the chord played in root position.  Practice playing the F and G chords in the example below in the same manner as done with the C chord.  The first measure contains the inversion for the F chord and the second measure has inversions for the G chord.  

Being able to play chords in these different inversions will make for easier playing in the left hand.  Remember how we played Simple Gifts earlier?  Let’s take what we have learned and apply it to the song.  Notice anything different in the left hand?   

The G chord is no longer played in root position, but in first inversion.  Play the left hand alone.  It should feel much easier because we no longer need to move from one playing position to another.  Notice how much smoother it is to move from one chord to the next.  

Now let’s do the same thing to the hymn, Amazing Grace.  The F chord in the third measure is played in second inversion while the G chord in the third measure of the second line is played in first inversion.  

Play the left hand alone and notice how it feels.  Using chord inversions allows us play these three chords without needing to move to three different playing positions.  

Blocked and Broken Chords

Up to this point, we have been playing blocked chords.  That is, we play all three notes together simultaneously in one solid “block” of sound.  However, you don’t always have to play chords in this fashion.  Let’s explore some different broken chord patterns.

Below is the children’s tune called Good Morning Song.  You can see that the left hand plays broken chords.  

Play the left hand first to get a feel for playing this style of chord playing, and once you feel confident, play through the full song hands together.  

Another style of chord playing is called Alberti bass, named for composer Domenico Alberti (1710-1740).  Alberti bass is a kind left-hand accompaniment, where the notes of the chord are presented one at a time in the following order: lowest, highest, middle, highest.  The Alberti bass was very popular in piano music during the Classical Era.  Play the example below with your left hand.

Now let’s apply the Alberti bass pattern to the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  

To learn more about these chord patterns and their applications in popular music read “3 Common Broken Chord Patterns to Inspire Beginner Pianists” from Soundfly.

Playing Primary Chords in Different Keys

How do we take what we just learned and apply it to different keys?   Well, suppose we would like to play the primary chords in the key of G.  We would simply imagine our G major scale and build chords on the first, fourth and fifth scale degrees as shown in the example below.  

Remember that in G major, the F is played as an F♯ so when you play the V chord, you would play the notes D F♯ and A.  Also Notice that the I chord is presented in two different octaves.  Generally, when playing the piano, it sounds better when the G root position chord is played the way it’s written on the last beat of the second measure.  If you play triads too low on the piano, they start to sound muddy or dull.

Below is Camptown Races G major:

Notice that this arrangement combines both broken and block chords and uses chord inversion.  The C chord found in the second measure of the third line is in second inversion, and the D chord, which makes its first appearance in the third measure of the song, is first inversion.  

Please note that this listen discusses the primary chords in major keys only.  The principles are similar but to apply what we discussed to minor keys, some basic knowledge of minor scales and chord qualities (major or minor) would be beneficial and would help gain a better understanding of these chords and playing in minor keys. 

However, if you are curious, I would encourage you to explore and visit “Primary Chords” from Music Theory Academy, which presents the primary chords in all 12 major and minor keys.  

How Do We Harmonize a Melody?

How do we harmonize a melody?  How do we know which chords to use?  Below is the melody of Mary Had a Little Lamb:

The first thing to do is to determine what the key is.  In this example, we are in the key of G major.  We know this because we have a key signature of one sharp.  

the next thing we need to do is to note the primary chords in the key of G major, which we already know to be G, C and D major.

Now lest start looking at the melody.  Let’s determine what parts are similar and what are different.  This piece is eight measure in length.  If you look at measures one through three, you will see that they are identical to measures five through seven.  This is a good thing to keep in mind as it will make things much easier as you will see later.

The first measure contains four quarter notes: B A G A.  When it comes to harmonizing melodies, it is always a good idea to look at the notes that fall on the strong beats.  Regardless of what the time signature is, the first beat is always considered a strong beat.  Furthmore, In 4/4 time, the third beat is also considered a strong beat.  So the notes that fall on the strong beats in the first measure are a B and a G.  Which of the three chords contain G and a B?  It’s G chord.

The second measure contains three B’s.  Repeating notes are always helpful to hinting at which chord to use.  Which chord contains a B in it?  The only chord that fits this description is the G chord.  So far, the first two measures would be harmonized with a G chord.

Now let’s move to measure three, which like the previous measure contains repeating notes.  However, here we have three A’s.  Which of the three chords contains an A in it?  It is not the G chord because that is spelled G B D, but the D chord is spelled D F♯ A.  That’s the chord we want to use.  

The next measure contains the three notes, B D D.  Is there any chord that contains the notes B and D?  Well, we know that the D chord contains a D in it, but it doesn’t contain a B.  The C chord contains a G (it’s spelled C E G), but it doesn’t contain a D.  How about the G chord?  It’s spelled G B D, so yes, it contains both chord tones.  We will use that chord.

So for the first four measures, we have the following:

Now, remember how we mentioned that measures 1 through 3 are the same as measure 5 through 7?  Well, that makes our job a bit easier.  We can apply the same chords in the first three measure to the next three measure.

We are now left with the last measure: a whole note G.  Because we are at the end of the song, the best choice is to use a G chord.  Not only does it work well, but the song almost always ends on a I chord, which in this case is G.

Below is the full tune with the the melody in the right hand and the blocked chords in the left hand.  

Once you have decided on what which chords fit each measure of the melody, you can experiment with using broken chords.  For this piece in particular, you can play the bass note of the chord followed by the remaining notes of chord as we played in Camptown Races or you can try to accompany the melody by using an Alberti bass pattern as done in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Regardless of what type of broken chord pattern to use, it would help to play the D chord in first inversion to make for easier and more comfortable chord playing.

To learn more about harmonizing melodies and knowing what chords to use, check out “Which Chords with Which Notes? Harmonizing a Melody” from the Essential Secrets of Songwriting. 

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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