The C major key is perhaps one of, if not the most commonly used key in music. This is due to the fact that in many instruments, including the piano, this key is easier to memorize and more comfortable to play than most other keys. Particularly in the piano, C major consists of exclusively white keys, which allows us to have our fingers to be at the same level, making it very suitable for piano beginners.
What is a C major chord?
Due to the ubiquity of the C major key in so many kinds of music, the first chord you will probably encounter is the C major chord, which not only serves as the primary chord (also known as the tonic) within the C major key, but is used in many other keys as well. This chord is made out of three different notes: C, E, and G.
Before we delve more into what a C major chord is, let’s see how we can play it on the piano.
How to play a C major chord on piano
The fingerings for C major chords are fairly straight-forward — depending on the size of your hand, you may choose one of the following fingerings:
As you can see, the fingerings of each hand mirror the other, making it easier to memorize. Try them out and see which one fits your hands better!
Notes in a C major chord
The C major chord, like any other triad, consists of three different notes — in this case:
- C, which serves as the root of the triad — think of it as the foundation of the chord.
- E, which serves as the third, giving the triad its major quality.
- G, which serves as the fifth, making the triad more resonant and therefore completing it.
Each of these notes can be duplicated or repeated in different octaves although, as you gain more experience, you’ll learn that some notes are better to duplicate than others.
C major triad
As we mentioned earlier, the C major chord is a triad — a collection of three different pitches separated by thirds. This pattern of thirds is easy to visualize in the piano, as the span from C to E, and from E to G, in both cases, is three white keys. If you’re not familiar with thirds or intervals yet, don’t worry! You can learn more by reading this Skoove article about piano intervals.
Common chord progressions in the key of C major
A chord progression is simply a series of chords that serve as a harmonic foundation or bedrock for musical ideas, such as melodic phrases. Chord progressions are often based on a specific key or scale, such as C major, making use of mostly chords available within that key — in the case of C major, these triads consist of only white keys:
What we find is a collection of minor and major chords that can be combined to create different kinds of progressions, from very simple to more complex ones. Consider the following common progressions in C major, along with examples of famous songs in which they are used:
C major chord progression. Used in The Four Seasons’ Sherry
C major chord progression. Used in Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’
C major chord progression. Used in Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman
C major chord progression. Used in The Beatles’ Happiness is a warm gun
Before moving on, try playing them and see if they remind you of other songs!
C major chord fingerings
The fingerings provided earlier in the article are just one of many possible fingering alternatives for this chord. The fingerings will vary, not only depending on the number of notes we play and the size of our hands, but also on the inversion we use. First, let’s consider the root position — that is, without inversion.
C major chord – root position fingering
We say that a triad or chord is in root position when the root of that chord is the lowest note of the chord. For instance, these are all C major chords in root position:
If we were to replace the lowest note, C, for a different pitch in the triad, either E or G, we would get an inversion of this chord.
C major chord inversions
Chord inversions are a great way to emphasize or highlight a specific note of a chord, by placing it as the lowest sounding note. This change, although subtle, does affect the overall quality of the chord, giving you additional control over the resulting sound.
A chord has as many possible inversions as there are notes, minus one — for instance, every triad (three notes), in addition to the root position, will have 2 inversions. Similarly, a 4-note chord will have a root position and 3 inversions, and so on.
Let’s consider some common fingerings for each inversion of the C major chord:
The first inversion is achieved by placing the third of the triad, E, as the lowest note of the chord, like so:
Similarly, the second inversion results from placing the fifth of the chord, G, as the lowest note:
Notice that for inversions and root position, the only thing that matters is which note is the lowest one — the specific order of the notes above it, does not affect what inversion it is. Play them and see if you can tell the difference between them!
How to know when to use an inversion?
The use of inversions (and root position) is, to some extent, a matter of preference and it may take time for you to notice a difference between them. A great way to build an intuition is to take any chord progression, and try out different inversions for each chord. Overtime, you’ll start noticing that certain inversions work better than others in certain contexts.
For the time being, however, you can assume that root position is more common to use than 1st inversion, and 1st inversion is more common to use than 2nd inversion.
How do I play a C major 7 chord?
Seventh chords make reference to a broader topic called chord extensions, most commonly used in jazz. This typically means taking a triad, and continuing the pattern of stacking thirds on top of each other in order to further extend or modify the sonority of that triad. Doing so with the C major chord, for instance, can give us a large variety of chords, such as the one below:
This chord is known as the C major major-seventh chord, or Cmaj7 for short. The major 7th in the name makes reference to the fact that the interval between C and B is a major seventh. Play it and see how different it sounds, and put into practice what you just learned and try out its different inversions!
Play popular songs with the C major chord
Now that we’ve discussed different aspects of the C major chord, let’s take a look at a few songs that make use of it, all available as lessons through the Skoove app.
Billy Joel — Piano Man
If you’re just starting to learn piano, this is a great lesson to take. It starts by teaching you how to play the C major scale, before moving on to learn Billy Joel’s hit Piano Man. By the end of the lesson, you’ll be able to play the song with instrumental accompaniment so that you can get an idea of what it’s like to play in time and with other instruments!
A great way to start enhancing your performance skills is by playing in front of your family and friends. For instance, learning Christmas songs will give you a chance every year to do so, and one such Christmas classic is Silent Night which is available through Skoove. This song will teach you how to play C major chord arpeggios, as accompaniment to the main melody.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can learn an all-time favorite with The Entertainer. As with every Skoove lesson, you’ll first learn how to play each hand separately and in time, before moving on to perform the entire song with both hands. It’s a great, playful song to have in your piano repertoire!
Making the most out of the C major chord
In this article we discussed different aspects of the C major chord and its inversions, along with some of its common fingerings and chord progressions. Additionally, we looked at different songs that make use of the C major chord, all available through the Skoove app. Now it’s time for you to put the theory into practice by making the most out of the C major chord. Happy playing and until next time!
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