Playing the piano by chords is a skill that all piano players should restrain, whether playing for themselves or with others who sing or play an instrument. Chords can be played on several instruments, including piano, keyboards and guitars, but not on an instrument that plays only one note at a time, like a trumpet. The structure of the chords and the way they work are quite similar to most instruments, with the difference being how to play the chords on the specific instrument. Playing the piano by chords is not as difficult as you might think, but of course, there are some techniques to be learned. I want to help you understand how chords are built up and how to play the chords on the piano. Following my schedule, you will learn the basics of chords and be able to improve your skills on your own.
- How to make chords
- How to play chords (on the piano)
How To Make Chords
What is a chord?
When you look up the definition of a chord in a dictionary, you will most probably find:
“A chord is the layering of several tones played simultaneously – usually built on superposed thirds. Chords are defined by their root note and their quality (major, minor, 7, etc.) – and eventually by their inversion”.
To understand what chords are, one must first look at what is called an interval in music. Intervals can be explained as the distance between the tones on a scale or the distance from tone to tone in a melody line, and are quite important in learning how to make chords. When the 12 tones of music are combined with certain distances between each other, called intervals, chords can be created.
Note that an interval is the distance from one tone to another where all tones between counts, meaning that when an interval is called fifth, it represents a distance of five tones from first to fifth tone as the name implies. Example: The distance from C to G is five tones because C is counted as the first and G as the fifth. Look at the examples below to understand how intervals work.
Another important term to know is triad, meaning a chord made of three notes. It consists of a root plus the third and fifth tone above it. The most common triads are the major chord and the minor chord shown below:
Major chord – has a major third and a perfect fifth:
Minor chord – has a minor third and a perfect fifth:
The next type of chord is the seventh chord. Seventh chords are triads with a supplementary diatonic third superposed. The most common seventh chords are as follows:
Dominant 7 – is a major triad with a minor 7th added:
Minor 7 – is a minor triad with a minor 7th added:
Before learning to play the piano by chords, I think it is necessary to first learn how chords can be played in different ways, so-called inversions. I’ll try to explain how this works, and it’s not very complicated once you’ve understood the system.
The regular position of a C major chord with its root note at the bottom (e.g. C in a C major triad) is called the root position:
C – E – G
When the third of the C major chord (e.g. E in a C major triad) is at the bottom, the chord is said to be in first inversion:
E – G – C
When the fifth of the C major chord (G in a C major triad) is at the bottom, the chord is said to be in second inversion:
G – C – E
On the keyboard
On the keyboard, it will look like this:
A way to remember the inversions of the chords is to imagine putting the lowest tone in the chord at the top of the next inversion. Thus, in C major, C is set at the top when it is switched from root position to 1st inversion, and E becomes the top tone when switched to 2nd inversion. Easy, right?
Similarly, inversions of chords are for all keys, and to make sure you understand what I mean, I give you some additional examples in different keys. Study the keyboards below and think about the way to remember!
G major root position:
G major 1st inversion:
G major 2nd inversion:
D major root position:
D major 1st inversion:
D major 2nd inversion:
F major root position:
F major 1st inversion:
F major 2nd inversion:
These few examples include only major chords, but the same inversion rules apply to both minor and seventh chords, and for advanced chords such as diminished seventh and many more that are not included in this short article.
How To Play Chords On The Piano
In this section, you will learn how to start playing the piano by chords using the chords you learned in the first part for practice examples.
When playing piano by chords, both hands play the chord tones. Usually, the left hand plays what we call bass tones, and the right hand plays two, three or four of the tones of the chord played. In addition, the right hand often play some of the melody notes while playing the chords, but this requires a lot of practice and experience. Initially, it’s easiest to let the left hand play the base tone, that is, the letter that names the chord, such as C in C major, C minor, C seventh and more, and similar to the G, D and F chords and other chord names. Sometimes it may sound better to play the chord’s 3rd note in the left hand, which then becomes E in C major, but you can try this later when you know better how to play the different chords.
Right Hand Playing The Chords
Let’s start with how to play the piano by chords in the right hand. When playing chords in the right hand, mostly three or four fingers used, with the thumb and the pinky usually involved. In inversions, one finger often exchanged with another, but in most cases, the fingering is almost similar. Which fingers used depends on the order of the chords, meaning which chord you are playing after another, and not least, which inversion of the chord you choose.
The chords below show how the right hand plays chords either in root position or in 1st and 2nd inversion. The chords C, F and G played sequentially in this order, called a chord progression or cadence, perfectly matching each other. A chord progression is being played in all keys, using the chords belonging to the key you play in. The fingering is my suggestion and I think the most recommended. Note the F chord in root position, while C and G are inversions.
Both Hands Playing The Chords
When both hands play chords, chord notes must be split between the hands. This can easily be done by letting the left hand play the key note, also called root note or tonic note, while the right hand plays the rest of the chord notes. Let me show you this by expanding the examples from when the right hand plays alone, where the only difference is that the left hand plays the key notes of the chords.
To be good at playing and changing chords, and not least, finding inversions that are close to each other, it is important to practice. I’ve made a little exercise with the major chords of C, F and G that you can use to practice what you’ve learned. As you can see, all the chord names are over the treble staff. Since the time signature is 4/4, which means you should count 4 beats between each bar line, the chords must be played and the keys are held down while counting 1-2-3-4.
Not so good at reading music notes? Click the link to read my post on the topic: https://keyboardplay.com/how-to-read-music-notes-improve-your-musical-skills
A variation of this exercise is to play the chords more times per bar, maybe 2 or 4 times, which will also improve you in switching faster from chord to chord. When you manage to hit the chords faster, it will be more fun and you will not need to concentrate so much while playing.
It’s time to conclude this short introduction of playing the piano by chords, and I do hope you have benefited from reading my post. My goal has been to get you started playing chords, make you understand the basics and enable you to improve your skills on your own. I recommend you get more in-depth training in playing piano by chords, and if you prefer to learn at your own speed, Pianoforall is one of the most popular and respected piano and keyboard courses on the web.
If you have any questions about anything related to this post, please leave them below and I’ll be more than happy to help you out. Finally, I wish you good luck playing piano by chords, and I really hope you enjoyed my tutorial.
Till next time…