What is a chord?
In music, a chord is simply the combination of two or more notes played simultaneously. Anytime you sit down at the piano and push down two or more keys at the same time, you have played a chord! That’s it. The secret is out.
However, there are some specific attributes that define the chords that are most commonly used in music.
The basics of chords
The main type of chord that you will be learning about in this post is called a triad. A triad is a three note chord. Think of a triangle or a triceratops. Anything with the prefix “tri” indicates a group of three.
Triads have three notes. The first note is called the root note. This is the defining note of the chord. You will see it written first as a capital letter. For example, if you are playing a song and the first chord is C major, that means your chord will start on the note C.
The middle note of the triad is called the third. The third is extremely important. The third defines the chord as a major chord or a minor chord. A major chord generally sounds happier and brighter while a minor chord generally sounds darker and more sad.
I don’t want to overload you with theory right now, but just so you know, a major third is four semitones away from the root note and a minor third is three semitones away from the root note.
Check out these diagrams below to see the major third and minor third on the keyboard.
The top note of the triad is called the fifth. The fifth adds stability and weight to the chord and closes out the triad sonically. The fifth is also important because it can further define the chord as an augmented chord or a diminished chord. In a major or minor chord, the fifth is seven semitones away from the root as shown in the diagram below:
However, in an augmented chord, the fifth is eight semitones away from the root and in a diminished chord the fifth is six semitones away from the root.
Generally, an augmented chord sounds surreal and bizarre while a diminished chord sounds creepy and ominous. It is helpful to create associations to all of these chords as you learn more about them. The more you can define for yourself what music sounds like, the faster you will deepen your connection to it!
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The next chord you will learn is the D minor triad. D is two keys to the right of C, or two keys higher in pitch, or the next white key to the right of C. Remember, when you move to the right on the keyboard, the notes move higher in pitch and when you move to the left on the keyboard, the notes move lower in pitch.
With your right hand, push down D with your first finger, F with your third finger, and A with your fifth finger. Nice work! You have made a D minor triad.
Now, you will learn to play an E minor triad. E is two keys to the right of D, or the white key to the right of D.
With your right hand, push down E with your first finger, G with your third finger, and B with your fifth finger. Nice job, this is an E minor triad!
Next, you will learn to play an F major triad. F is one key to the right of E. Notice there is no black key in between E and F. This is an important pattern to memorize on the keyboard, as it happens every octave.
With your right hand, push down F with your first finger, A with your third finger, and C with your fifth finger. Awesome, you have made an F major triad!
Now, you will learn to play a G major triad. G is two keys to the right of F, or the next white key above F.
With your right hand, push down G with your first finger, B with your third finger, and D with your fifth finger. This is a G major triad.
Next, you will learn how to play an A minor triad. A is two keys to the right of G, or the next white key above G.
With your right hand, push down A with your first finger, C with your third finger, and E with your fifth finger. Nice job! You have made an A minor triad.
The final chord shape you will learn right now is the B diminished triad. The note B is located two keys to the right of A, or the next white key above A.
Push down B with your right hand first finger, D with your third finger, and F with your fifth finger. Great! You have just played a B diminished triad. Spooky, right?
What similarities do you notice between these chord shapes? They all use the same three fingers: thumb, middle, and pinky finger. They only include white keys and they are all made of only natural notes, meaning there are no sharps or flats in them. You will learn more chords using sharps and flats as you progress.
How chords are notated in music
Now that you know some basic piano chord shapes, how will you know how to recognize when a song calls for a particular chord? Chords are notated in a few different ways.
One way chords are notated is through chord symbols. A chord symbol is a shorthand method to indicate a particular chord. Chord symbols are generally notated in the area above the staff (or the area where music is notated).
The symbols for a major chord looks like this:
Cmaj C C△
The symbols for a minor chord look like this:
Cmin Cm C-
You don’t need to learn a million chords!
You do not need to learn a million chords in order to play your favorite songs on the piano. In fact, most popular songs only contain a few simple chords. You have already learned a few of these common chords in the last chapter, and you will learn a few more in this chapter.
With this information, you will be able to play most of your favorite pop tunes just by looking at a chord chart! If you don’t believe me, check out our blog about the most popular piano chord progressions.
What is a chord chart?
A chord chart is another shorthand method of notating music. Chord charts are used by musicians to quickly communicate the chord progression of a song using chord symbols. Here is an example of a chord chart using some of the chords you have just learned:
This chord progression of C major to A minor to F major to G major is called a I-iv-IV-V and is one of the most common chord progressions in popular music. This chord progression is literally hundreds of years old and has been used in countless songs. Congratulations! You now know an important piece of musical history!
What chords do you absolutely need to know?
You only need to know a few chords in order to be able to read a chord chart and play almost any popular song. You already know how to play seven chords: C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished. Now you will learn some more.
Turn the minor chords into major chords
The first way you will increase your chord repertoire is to learn how to change the minor chords you already know into major chords. Remember that the difference between a major chord and a minor chord lies in the third, or the middle note of the chord. The third in a major chord is one semitone (one key) higher than it is in a minor chord. So to transform the minor chords you already know into major chords, all you need to do is raise the middle note by one key. Simple, right?
Take a look at these examples:
Remember, a D minor triad is spelled D – F – A like this:
To transform D minor into D major, all you need to do is raise the middle note by one key. Take a look at the diagram below:
Not too complex, right? To play a D major triad, place your right hand thumb on D, your middle finger on F♯ (the black key directly to the right of F), and your pinky finger on A, as in the diagram above. Nice work! You have expanded your chord repertoire quite easily!
An E minor triad is spelled E – G – B like this:
To transform this E minor chord into an E major chord, all you need to do is raise the middle note by one key. Check out the diagram below to see the change:
To play this E major triad, place your right hand thumb on E, your middle finger on G♯ (the black key directly to the right of G), and your pinky finger on B. Great! You now know an E major triad.
An A minor triad is spelled A – C- E like this:
To turn this A minor triad into an A major triad, follow the same method and raise the middle note by one key. You should now be playing this:
To play this A major triad, press down A with your right hand thumb, C♯ (the black key directly to the right of C) with your middle finger, and E with your pinky. Wonderful, you have made an A major triad!
Great job, now you understand how to turn a minor chord into a major chord and you have gained three new chords in the process. That means you now know ten chords on the keyboard!
Turn the major chords into minor chords
Now you will transform these major chords you have just learned into minor chords. You will use the reverse method to accomplish this. By lowering the middle note of C major, F major, and G major you will gain C minor, F minor, and G minor. After that, you will know thirteen chords and you will be able to play just about any pop song you want. Check out this examples below:
Remember that the C major triad is spelled C – E – G like this:
To turn this chord into a C minor chord, all you need to do is lower the middle note by one key. Check out the diagram below to see this change:
To play this C minor chord, press down C with your thumb, E♭ (the black key directly left of E) with your middle finger, and G with your pinky.
Remember, the F major chord you learned previously is spelled F – A – C like this:
To turn this chord into F minor, lower the middle note by one key. Your chord should now look like this:
To play this F minor chord on the keyboard, play F with your right hand thumb, A♭ (the black key directly left of A) with your middle finger, and C with your pinky. Nice job, you have made an F minor chord!
One more example, the G minor chord.
Remember from earlier that a G major chord is spelled G – B- D like this:
To turn this G major chord into G minor, just lower the middle note by one key. Now your chord should look like this:
To play this G minor chord, press down G with your right hand thumb, B♭ (the black key directly left of B) with your middle finger, and D with your pinky. Great work, you have made a G minor triad!
Now you know enough chords
Congratulations, now you know how to play thirteen chords on the keyboard. You are well equipped to play many popular songs! Now it is time to exercise some of this new knowledge. If you are feeling a little lost and would like to hear what all this sounds like, check this out.
Here is a chord chart to practice jumping between major and minor chords:
Here is a chord chart for an easy four chord progression you may recognize:
Here is another chord chart for a very common chord progression:
And here is one more chord chart for you to practice, a popular classic:
Chords are also commonly written as music notation. Here is an example of a C major triad written in standard music notation:
And here is a C minor triad written in standard music notation:
Not too complex, right?
Here is a C major chord notated in bass clef:
You will see chords notated in treble and bass clef at different times, so it is beneficial to understand how they both look.
What does a minor chord look like notated?
Now check out an A minor chord in standard music notation. Remember A minor looks like this on the keyboard:
An A minor chord includes the notes A – C – E in that order. When all three notes are written together, it looks like this:
And when it is notated in bass clef, it looks like this:
Now look at C major followed by A minor notated on the staff:
Compare this to the same thing notated with chord symbols:
The next step
Here is a little trick. Did you notice a pattern in the C major and A minor chords notated above?
Both of the chords notated above skipped a line or space on each note. For example, the C major chord in treble clef started with C, skipped to E on the next line, and then skipped to G on the next line above that. In bass clef, the C major chord began with C on the second space, skipped up to to E on the next space, and then to G on the space above that. Cool, right?
The A minor chord began on the second space in treble clef, skipped up to C on the third space, and finally to E on the fourth space. The A minor chord began on the first space in bass clef, skipped up to C on the next space, and skipped again to E on the space above that.
If you see any chords notated in this post, or elsewhere, that you are unsure of, check out this awesome piano chord finder tool from PianoWorld.
Piano Chords Generator
This piano chords generator helps you to find any chord you need and will come in handy if you forget any chords along your way!
If you are reading this from a mobile device, rotate it to display the tool in full width.
1. Click on “Chords”
2. Choose the “Root” of the chord
2. Choose the “Chord qualities” (major, minor, etc.)
3. Click “Display”
* You can do the same with scales.
** You can invert chords and scales
Author of this blog post
Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.