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Understanding the C major chord: Inversions and fingerings

c major chord

The C major chord is often the first chord that anyone learns how to play on the piano. This is of course because the key of C major has no sharps and no flats, allowing for anyone to be able to sit down and merely avoid playing any black keys, and you will be able to arrive at some seemingly successful music making. Often this is also the reason why people start teaching with C major chords, because the notes are simple to see and easy to combine together in different settings – C major is not particularly better sounding than any other key, it is just more often used because it is so often taught as the first thing that people learn. 

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What is a C major chord?

The C major chord is going to to be the simplest of all the chords to learn about, because the simplest notes are included in this one. If you look directly at the center of your piano, you will locate the pattern of black keys, two black and then three black keys. The note C is just to the left of every group of two black keys. This is the easiest way to recognize that all of the notes are a big pattern, a pattern that repeats and continues to move in this order on all instruments. 

How do you play a C major chord on piano

Playing a C major chord on piano is one of the simplest things you can do on the instrument. First you start by locating the root note, C, by finding the pattern of two black keys and placing your lowest finger on C. The tricky part of this, of course, is that neither one of your hands have the same lowest finger – because your hands are mirror images of each other. 

Notes in a C major chord

The C major chord includes three notes, arranged in thirds, that is to say every other letter, in alphabetical order. The notes of a C major triad are: 

C E G

These notes are always the same three notes, regardless if the chord is played from lowest to highest, highest to lowest, split between two hands or played at opposite ends of the keyboard.  The notes can be arranged any way you like, as long as you understand that the notes must always be spelled in exactly this order, for it to be a C Major Chord. It will be exactly the same regardless of which instrument you are playing. 

C major triad

A C major chord and a C major triad are two names that are synonymous with each other. The reason that we call some chords triads is because they have three notes, and sometimes they are in the C major scale. Like a triangle, the three points are able to be rotated as if the chord were a shape. We think about triads as being triangles, because each triad only contains three notes. However, very importantly, your chord can have as many duplicates of this chord as you would like, but as long as there are only these three letters.

Common chord progressions in the key of C major

Piano chord progressions are the name that musicians give to a group of chords, as they fit together in the same patterns. Because the key of C major is the most common key for beginners, the chord progressions in the key of C major are also going to be the most common and most widespread knowledge between musicians. 

Common chord progressions sometimes rely on knowing what chords are in C major. They are sometimes written in Roman numerals, but for a simpler explanation here are the chords written out with chords symbols. These are not all chords in C major, but they are some of the most common combinations of all chords in C major. You should look out for the key of C major, which uses only the white keys. These include minor and major chords

  • C G Am F 
  • C F G C 
  • C Am F G 
  • C Am Dm G

Experiment and see if you can find any that you like more than others, but don’t be afraid to combine more than one chord progression with another. Try making chords on every scale degree in the key of C major, and try using these chords when you’re playing in the G major scale too. You might find interesting combinations of piano chords, minor chords where they wouldn’t normally be, or other triad chords that lead you into interesting positions. The Beatles were famous for innovating multiple chord progressions together, using diminished chords, or taking half of one and combining it with half of another, in order to make interesting geometric shapes and combinations of musical ideas and keys, then add in interesting rhythmic patterns, strumming patterns or fingerpicking, and a beautiful melody, and then all of a sudden you will have available to you a beautiful song that is uniquely yours but also connected to common music. 

C major chord piano finger position

Because the C major chord piano is going to be the same chord played by each hand, we know the notes and do not need to change them between our fingers. Additionally, the lowest note for each hand is exactly the same note for both, C. However the finger that plays each of the notes is different, because your hands are both different. This is not a C major chord progression, just the same chord played in a different way. Pay attention to what the root of a C major chord is. 

You must pay attention to which position each of your hands is in and adjust accordingly. In this article both of the chord shapes for each hand will be written out, with correct fingerings for both – and allowing for you to mix and match shapes between hands with ease. These are the simple C major chord positions, for inversions, these are the same chords that can be played when you see a C major chord chart. 

C major chord – root position fingering

When we say that something is in root position we mean that the lowest note of the chord is on the bottom. Because we know that the lowest one is on the bottom of the cord and it is spelt correctly, we know that the root of the chord is also on the bottom. This is called being in root position, it is the standard position for what someone means when you play a chord off of sheet music or after being instructed by another musician. Once you can comfortably play this C minor chord in root position then you can move on to rotating the triad and playing in versions.

C major chord inversions

Chord inversions are when we take the chord shape or triad and rotate it, but when they are expressed in sheet music or on a chord chart we often will see a different symbol. The symbol we see will be the name of the chord, indication of whether it is Major or Minor, and then a separate note written underneath in order to express whether it is written in first inversion or second inversion. These are common in a C major chord progression piano. 

However, unless you are playing extremely old classical music, the inversions will not be written out indicating which inversion it is written in, instead it will be written that the lowest tone will be a note inside the chord. It is up to you to learn to recognize whether the note underneath the inversion is indicating if the chord is in first inversion or second inversion, but it will very rarely be indicated by the chords in c major, the key. Often a C major chord progression piano written in music notation can be vague and you will be expected to understand how to play piano, and all of the inversions whenever you are needed to play them. 

C/E – first inversion

The first inversion is for whenever a chord is underneath the third of the chord, and the root is instead placed on the top of the chord, making sure to keep the fingers together. Be careful because as the chords start to rotate many of the stretches will become unplayable for each hand unless the fingering changes. The fingerings for the left and right hand are different for each inversion. 

C/G – second inversion

Second inversion is for when the 5th of the chord is placed on the bottom and the top of the chord is occupied by the third. This inversion is called second inversion, because it continues the rotation as expressed by the first inversion. This is often considered the strongest of the inversions because the fifth below the root creates a very full and rich sound that is powerful and strong. 

How to know when to use an inversion? 

Using an inversion for your chord playing is not an easy thing to recognize when you should or should not use one, because it is a question of taste. If the chord symbol is ever written as a slash chord, or written as an inversion of a chord as explained above, e.g. C/E, then you as a pianist are being instructed on playing the chord as an inversion, with E in the bottom, or written as first inversion. 

If the chord is not written explicitly, you may or may not use a chord inversion – it is up to your choice. Many times it will be encouraged for you to play a chord inversion in your right hand but to keep the bass note in the left hand instead. Often times deciding to use an inversion is not just about a single chord, separated from everything else – it is actually about the chord that precedes or follows the chord being played currently. For instance, if any two chords have a single note in common, or two notes in common, notes in c major chord. It is almost always simpler to transition to the following chord as a chord inversion rather than to make an entirely separate movement and slide your entire hand to a different location, in order to play a root position C major chord. 

Do I play a C major 7 chord? 

Importantly, the C major chord or the C major chord inversions are not the same thing as a C major 7 chord on piano, because these are not the same chords for piano even though they have many words in common. Though a triad, or C major chord may appear in many different keys, and so you can play these inversions wherever you would like to, you can not play a C major 7 chord in place of these. The C major 7 chord piano has an additional note, B natural, that we have not included for these triads, because it is not part of the basic triad, and the dissonance between the B and C in this chord can be considered too spicy or dissonant for the context of playing a C major chord. This traditionally is used when playing jazz chords on piano

Play popular songs with the C major chord

As the C major key is the most common musical key for all pianists and beginners, and then so to the piano chord C major is also the most common chord for all instruments and all musicians of any level. In this case we have plenty of songs to play and choose from inside of Skoove’s gigantic library of songs. 

Coldplay – Clocks

This lesson begins with a review of chord inversions, focusing on C major. It is a perfect compliment to his lesson, as the song Clocks by Coldplay actually features all of these chord inversions we have introduced in this lesson, but showing them in an arpeggiated configuration relative to the features of the song. 

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The Beatles – Hey Jude

Written for John Lennon’s son about the complicated relationship of his parents, and not to worry about it, Hey Jude has stood the test of time as one of the great chord progressions. This song uses the C major chord not as the center root position of the key of C, but actually as the 5th chord in the key of F major. This drives our song and directs us back to home of F major, and inside the context of the song is a great use of the chord. 

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Queen – We Are The Champions

This song employs a perfect usage of the C major Chord in the context of a chord progression that is commonly referred to as the Blues. It is preceded by a F and G chord, then leading directly into our C major, allowing us to move in-between the world of pop music, classical music and blues chord progressions, making everything as simplistic and coordinated as possible. 

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Conclusions for C major inversions

Chord inversions are an advanced concept that will add all sorts of interesting detail and complexity to your musical playing that was not available before. The musical influences of chord inversions cannot be understated, and they are featured in music from every genre and combination of instruments, from choirs to banjos to solo piano music, chord inversions cannot be overused. The C major chord inversions on piano are the most common and easiest to learn, and once this concept has been mastered, the musician can easily apply all of these concepts onto other musical chords, keys, and chord progressions. 

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Author of this blog post:

 

Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.

 

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Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
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