Piano chords made easy: build and play 100 chords and more!

piano chords made easy

Do you want to know all about piano chords?


I learned piano without knowing any chords for years.

That’s sad.

Because I missed a good part of what music is.

I have spent years only trying to reproduce (badly!) classical pieces that I didn’t always feel in my heart.

Music is emotions.

And chords are an essential vector of emotion.

They can bring joy or sadness, mysterious ambiance or fulfilled resolution of an existing tension.

Chords give a context, an harmonic context to a melody.

They are the foundation of a song.


And I want you to have access to this.

So let’s not lose any more time and dive into the wonderful world of piano chords!

Download the FREE piano chord book and play hundreds of chords without learning them by heart:

Why playing chords on a piano?


Chords are like the legs of a table or the foundations of a house.

There are musical structures you can build music on.

So what is a chord?

A chord is a group of notes played together at the same time.

That’s it. You know it all now and you can go do something else.


Just kidding.

Stay tuned, I will explain further what you need to know about chords.

And what do with them!


How chords are formed?

Let’s start with the beginning, how chords are formed.

Chords are made of a least, and the most often, three notes.

They are also called triads.


Why at least 3 notes?

My personal view is to see this as the legs of a table.

With one note (one leg), your table won’t be stable and you can’t do much on it.

With two notes (or legs), it is slightly better, you might start to be able to make it stand.

With three notes (or legs), it is perfectly stable and you can build from it.

Some chords have more legs..notes I mean. Which can bring back some interesting instability and movement in the music.

But let’s keep this for later on.

For now, we need to understand the foundations of a chord, which is a group of notes.


Notes and intervals

On your keyboard, you have different notes (88 on a regular piano keyboard) with different pitch height.

 If you want to know more about the piano keys, read this! 

To form a chord, you know now that you need to combine at least 3 notes together.

But you can’t just take any note and put them together and say that you are playing chords.

There are rules.

And these rules are based on note intervals.


But don’t worry, it is not too complicated.


What are the different intervals on a piano?

On the keyboard, there are white keys which give 7 notes from A to G repeated over and over.

And black keys give 5 extras half-notes with odd names: sharp or flat.

So there are in total 12 notes. Repeated on your keyboard.


Here is a keyboard diagram to remind you the different notes:

Piano keys and notes

The pitch difference between each note is called a semi-tone.

There is a semi-tone between each subsequent key of the keyboard.

But of course, the “pitch distance” or the interval between two keys or notes can be more than 1 semi-tone.

They have specific names that will be useful to build the chord as we will see a bit later on.

Here are the different intervals and their names:


Important note: always start counting from the lowest note of the interval to the highest note. Not backward.

Note that I only mention minor, major, and perfect intervals to make it simpler.

But for instance, an interval of 3 semi-tones can be a minor third as well as an augmented second

“OK, but how do I play chords, I am just confused now!”

Wait a sec, it will all make sense now.


Let’s build 3 notes chords (triads)


The simplest chords, also called triads, are made of three notes, which means two intervals.

Triads are formed by the root, a third and a fifth.

That’s how they are usualy explained.

But I like to make it a bit easier.

You can also see triads like that:

Triad formation
One note – one interval – one note – one interval – one note.

A triad can thus be defined by the first note and the size of the two intervals.

Let’s take an example here.

We will start with the C major chord.

The name of the chord starts with the name of the first note, the root. Here we choose a C.

Then the type of the chord, major here, indicates the size of the two intervals.

Major chord= first interval of 4 semi-tones (named major 3rd) and second interval of 3 semi-tones (minor 3rd).

And since the first interval is a major third, it is called a major chord.

So to build a C major chord, you just need to know where is the C and count the keys.

Root: C

Interval of 4 keys: C#, D, D#, E.

Thus the second note the chord is E.


Interval of 3 keys: F, F#, G.


The third note is a G.


So the C major chord is formed of the 3 notes: C, E, and G.

You know now how to build all the possible major chords.

This is illustrated on the video below to help you understand the principle.

Little exercise: build the F major chord.

Let’s change the root the chord to practice a bit more and be sure we understand how this works.

Let’s take the F major chord.

First note?

F of course.


So what is the second note of this chord?

….

A.

That’s right, the 4th key after the F. Its major third.

And the third note?

….

C.

This time this is the 3rd key after the A, its minor third.

Great!


A F major chord is thus formed by F A C.


But what about the other chords?

Indeed, the major triads are not the only chord you can build and play on a piano.

Don’t worry, we will see the main chords categories right now!


The BIG chord list

This is a list of the most used chords but it is not a full list of all possible chords.

Why?

Because there are tens of thousands of possible chords.

That’s a lot. And not very useful in the end.

I want you to have a package of chord you can use daily, to play songs or create your own music.

But if you want to get more, you can find a good list of chords here.

Also, there is a nice web app on this site to find out more chords and hear how they sound.


And if you want to have some fun calculating all the possible chords by selecting notes on a keyboard, have a look here.

Pretty impressive I should say!

So, back to something more useful right now.

Below is a list of the main chord categories with their construction and example in the scale of C.

Here is the fingers numbering I used here:

fingers numbering on the piano


Download the FREE piano chord book and play hundreds of chords without learning them by heart:


Chords with 3 notes = triads


Major chords

Major chords are formed by a root, a major third and minor third.

The rule to build them is thus:

Root + 4 (semi-tones=keys) + 3 (semi-tones = keys)

The chord equation is thus:

Major = 4 + 3.

See an example below in the key of C:

C major chord in the piano

 Musical tip: major chords sound clean, strong, joyful. 


Minor chords

Minor chords are formed by a root, a minor third and a major third.

The order of the intervals are inverted compared to the major chord.

The rule to build them is thus:

Root + 3 (semi-tones=keys) + 4 (semi-tones = keys)

The chord equation is thus:

Minor = 3 + 4.

See an example below in the key of C:

C minor chord on the piano
 Musical tip: minor chords sound sad or melancholic. 


Diminished

Diminished chords are formed by a root, a minor third and a minor third.

The rule is thus: root + 3 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Dim = 3 + 3.

See an example below in the key of C:

C dim chord on the piano
 Musical tip: diminished chords sound tense or unstable. 


Augmented

Augmented chords are formed by a root, a major third and a major third.

The rule is thus: root + 4 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Aug = 4 + 4.

See an example below in the key of C:

C aug chord on the piano

 Musical tip: augmented chords sound angsty, dissonant. 


Suspended second

Suspended second chords are formed by a root, a major second and a perfect fourth.

The rule is thus: root + 2 semi-tones + 5 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Sus2 = 2 + 5.

See an example below in the key of C:

Csus2 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: suspended second chords sound unresolved, like suspended. 


Suspended fourth

Suspended fourth chords are formed by a root, a perfect fourth and a major second.

The intervals are inverted compared to the suspended second.

The rule is thus: root + 5 semi-tones + 2 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Sus4 = 5 + 2.

See an example below in the key of C:

Csus4 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: suspended fourth chords also sound unresolved, like suspended. 


Chords with 4 notes

Dominant seventh chords

Dominant seventh chords are formed by 4 notes: a root, a major third, a minor third and a minor third.

They are named 7th because the highest note is on the seventh scale degree.

The rule is thus: root + 4 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Dom 7 = 4 + 3 + 3.

See an example below in the key of C:

C7 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: dominant seventh chords are used as a strong transition towards the root (resolution). They are quite present in blues music. 


Major seventh

Major seventh chords are formed by 4 notes: a root, a major third, a minor third and a major third.

The rule is thus: root + 4 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Major 7 = 4 + 3 + 4.

See an example below in the key of C:

Cmaj7 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: major seventh chords are used to add color in a song. Mostly used in jazz and classical music. 


Minor seventh

Major seventh chords are formed by 4 notes: a root, a minor third, a major third and a minor third.

The rule is thus: root + 3 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Minor 7 = 3 + 4 + 3.

See an example below in the key of C:

Cm7 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: minor seventh chords are used to add color in a song. They also sound jazzy. 


Major sixth

Major sixth chords are formed by 4 notes: a root, a major third, a minor third and a major second.

The rule is thus: root + 4 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 2 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Major 6 = 4 + 3 + 2.

See an example below in the key of C:

C6 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: major sixth chords sound mysterious, ambiguous since their identity is not as strong as other chords. They are interesting to spice up a song. 


Minor sixth

Minor sixth chords are formed by 4 notes: a root, a minor third, a major third and a major second.

As for major and minor chords, the major and minor thirds are inverted.

The rule is thus: root + 3 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones + 2 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Minor 6 = 3 + 4 + 2.

See an example below in the key of C:

Cm6 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: minor sixth chords sound darkly mysterious, ambiguous since their identity is not as strong as other chords. They are mostly used in jazz music. 


Using two hands for play chords

Using one hand to play three or four note chords is ok.

But what if you want to play a 6 or 7 notes chords?

Well, you have (hopefully for you) two hands!

The chords we will see next thus use both hands.

They sound richer, more full and are more in use for complex music like jazz.

But you can find them in other music styles like pop or rock.

They are worth learning to enrich your music or simply to play songs.


Extended chords: 9, 11, 13

Extended chords means that there is a note outside of the octave range.

There are plenty of chords which can be named “extended”, especially when you use both hands.

But the 3 main types of extended chords are 9th, 11th and 13th chords.


Dominant ninth

Dominant ninth chords are formed by a dominant seventh with an extra major third.

The highest note is then on the ninth degree of the scale, hence the name.

The rule is thus: root + 4 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones

The chord equation is thus:

Dominant 9 = 4 + 3 + 3+ 4.

See an example below in the key of C:

C9 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: dominant ninth chords are used to create a sense of threat, drama. Mostly used in classical music. 


Dominant eleventh

Dominant eleventh chords are formed by a dominant ninth with an extra major third.

The highest note is then on the eleventh degree of the scale, hence the name.

The rule is thus: root + 4 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones.

The chord equation is thus:

Dominant 11 = 4 + 3 + 3+ 4 + 4.

See an example below in the key of C:

C11 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: dominant eleventh chords work mostly as dominant seventh but gives you a bit more creative options. Mainly found in jazz, but sometimes in rock. 


Dominant thirteenth

Dominant eleventh chords are formed by a dominant eleventh with an extra major third.

The highest note is then on the thirteenth degree of the scale, hence the name.

The rule is thus: root + 4 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 3 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones + 4 semi-tones.

It is a lot of semi-tones!

You have here 6 third intervals.

It is like playing a 4-note chord with a triad.

The chord equation is thus:

Dominant 13 = 4 + 3 + 3+ 4 + 4 + 4.

See an example below in the key of C:

C13 chord on the piano

 Musical tip: dominant thirteenth chords work mostly as dominant seventh or eleventh and give you even more options to play with. Mainly found in jazz or pop music. 


Chord inversions

Most the Western music you will hear and play is based on only a few chords, often triads.

But it can be a bit boring at times. Or too predictable.

But there is a “secret” to use the same chords, but in a slightly different way to make them more interesting: chord inversions.

The principle is to change the order of the notes forming the chord.

For example, let’s take our famous C major chord.

If you remember well, it is formed of the root C, the major 3rd E and the perfect fifth G.

When you play it, the lowest note is thus the C.

But what if you start with another note, the E for instance.

The bass note, the lowest, will then be the E, then the G and finally the C.

It has been inverted.

It is then written C/E and reads “C over E”.

Beware that the fingering is different from the C major.

This is also called the first inversion.

Which means there is a second inversion.

Indeed, there is another possibility with the same C major chord.

You can start with the G.

You then have: G, C, E.

And it is named: C/G and reads “C over G”.

For 4 notes chords, you will have a third inversion since you have an extra note.

But the principle stays the same.

What to do with chords?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, chords are like the foundations of a house.

These are the foundations of many songs, many musical pieces.

It could be called harmonic foundations in that case.

You can use several chords together to build what is called a chord progression.

I won’t go into details right now about this because it is an entire subject in itself that I will cover elsewhere.

But keep in mind that lots of songs are essentially based on chord progressions, a series of chords played sequentially.

Thus using chords, you can play or write full songs.

But you can also do accompaniment for a melody played by another instrument or a singer.

You can easily play a few chords on the piano and sing something.

 Check here my selection of beautiful but easy song examples. 

More generally, as I said, chords can be used to compose your own music.

You can use them to give it an harmonic structure even if you don’t play any chord in the end.

You may play arpeggios instead or just a melody, based on a series of chords, a chord progression.

OK, I am talking too much about chord progression to leave you like that.

I will tell you the most used chord progression in the world.

The most used chord progression

In pop music, the most used chord progression are:

C, G, Am and F.

4 chords.

The so called I-V-vi-IV chord progression (based on the seven degrees of the scale, with lowercase meaning a minor chord).

I: C

V: G, the fifth note of the C scale (count the number of white keys starting from the C key)

vi: A minor

IV: F

And hundreds and thousands of songs (and more coming!) are based on this chord progression.

And if you want to write a song, it will sound great if you use the same.

You can of course use a different root note, start with a F for example.

Here is a famous demonstration of this in pop music:


There is an interesting study of the most used keys and chords here if you want to learn more.

 Learn more about piano chord progressions with our guide here. 


Arpeggios

Finally, I want to mention something else you can do with chords.

You may have heard or read the term “Arpeggio”.

This sounds fancy but it is very simple actually.

An arpeggio is a chord played note by note.

Nothing more.

But it is a beautiful way of playing chord, giving a movement which you don’t have if you play chords.

I love arpeggios. So do many musicians.

The most famous example is the Prelude in C by Bach:


Conclusion

You have learned a lot:

  • Why chords are important
  • How to form chords
  • The main chord categories
  • What to do with chords
  • And how to play them!

Try them and include them in your own songs.

And don’t hesitate to tweak the extended chords by omitting an interval for instance.

Or using inversions. Let your ears decide.

But don’t forget that chords are included in a musical context.

If you play a dominant ninth in a classical rock song, I am not sure of the result. It will be a bit weird probably.

But, hey, music is an art, do what you want!

Just don’t expect lots of people to appreciate it if it is too odd.


You can also find a nice poster with scales and chord here (#affiliate link).

Perfect to hang on the wall behind your piano!

To learn more about what to do with chord, learn more about chord progressions with our guide here.

And if you are looking for beautiful songs to play, check this article.


Download the FREE piano chord book and play hundreds of chords without learning them by heart:

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