Play Keyboard chords

First steps

This article is mainly for guitar and bass guitar players, who want to record keyboard parts to enhance songs and arrangements of songs, or just understand music theory better.

A lot of the material covered here is also featured in my new hub Piano Chords and basic music theory - many of the chords are shown in photos, which may be helpful.

I started as a guitarist, and found that I could transfer a lot of what I already knew to keyboard and piano. It gave my songwriting another direction, helped me understand music theory and arrangement better, and was just great fun too. Also, playing in bands I was able to make a better contribution, and got some music theatre work. If you're looking to play guitar in a band, having some keyboard knowledge is really handy, and might make a difference to your chances of finding paid work - it's also quite straightforward. This article should be interesting to songwriters too.

Another hubpages article that you may find helpful is Piano chords with photos. This includes pictures of chords to help navigate the keyboard.

Two concepts are used in chords: every note has an alphabetical name (A to G only) and you will also see numbers.

Numbers denote an interval, or distance from the note you started from. Using the C major scale as a reference: C D E F G A B C

For instance C to E is 3, C to G is 5, C to B is 7. So a chord can be described as C E G or 1 3 5, but it means the same thing. The more numbers, the more complex the chord will be, and arguably the more interesting it will be too.

Intervals and note names for keyboard

Transferring chords

I will give some links below. For beginners: Your keyboard has black and white notes, all of which have alphabetical names. Look at the white notes and identify middle C, which is just to the left of the 2 black notes. Use your right hand, and play C.Then add an E and a G (play one,miss one) Play all three notes, there is your C chord. If you look at the shape in terms of intervals you have 1,3,5. Or C,E,G.

Now take this shape and move it up one note - Dm or D,F,A. Keep moving up, one note at a time. There are 8 steps in all, then you are back at C again, but one octave (8 notes) higher.You'll end up with a harmonised scale of C - C Dm Em F G Am Bdim C.

The pattern of all these chords is the same, they're just starting from different pitches - some are major, and some are minor. Every different key follows the same sequence, major then two minors etc.

Why learn this? - because this set of chords is the basis for 90% of rock and pop songs. It might sound difficult, but in practice it is really easy.

Using the harmonised scale

Now play the sequence of chords in your right hand,and play the root note of each chord with your left hand,one octave or 8 notes to the left. So your left hand is playing a low C, right hand is playing the chord up an octave.Keep your hands parallel as you move up the scale. It should sound nice and full, but keep it simple with just one hit on each chord. Now try playing some easy songs,such as Let it Be. Count two beats on each chord.Tip: lock your hand up when moving chords, and slide along the keyboard without taking your hand off the keyboard. Looking for chords for songs? Try chordie.com Music theory? looknohands.com

Chord construction

Making it sound nicer

Add an extra note to each chord, still using the play-one-miss-one principle. Now you should have C E G B which is called C major 7, D, F, A, C or Dm7, then Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bm7b5, Cmaj7 again. You can play these chords in any order to create your own songs.Try going Cmaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7. Or try Cmaj 7, Fmaj7 and think of Gymnopedies, or possibly shampoo adverts!

If you number the chords in this sequence, Cmaj7 = I Dm7 = ii G7= V

(Roman numerals is the convention)

So a ii V I progression is Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 in this key. This happens to be about the most common chord progression in music. The same progression in the key of D would be Em7 A7 Dmaj7. Note that the distances between the chords remain the same, but they are just coming out at a different pitch.Though the pitch is different, the sound is the same.

More complex chords: Count C to C - eight notes.The ninth note would be D. So C add 9 chord would be CDEG. (A C chord with an added D or ninth) Or CEGD, it's the same thing.

C9 is a different chord, based on C7 (C E G Bb) Again you add the ninth, leaving you with C E G Bb D = C9. Use both hands or it's going to hurt.

C sus 4 would be C F G. Try playing this chord, moving to C, with a C bass in your left hand.

A really good way of getting started is to use Apple's Garageband programme, which is a free part of the i-life suite.

Using this you can play chords with a loop backing groove, it is totally addictive and best of all, you will not have to read a manual as it is pretty intuitive. In 30 mins you could have it working well and be burning CDs.

The new I-Life 2009 with the latest version of Garageband is complemented by a series of software lessons for guitar and piano. These are very well produced - and if you're considering Mac ownership, it might just tip the balance.

I would also recommend using a proper piano with a weighted keyboard if you have access to one. If you want to enlarge your chord vocabulary, check out looknohands.com and learn 7th, 9th, minor 9th chords. Also, the Hal Leonard series called Fasttrack is very good. I just bought some on Amazon to do lessons in college.

Guitar scales

OK, we all know the pentatonic scales on guitar. our very,very favourite (!) Am pentatonic is A,C,D,E,G. Play this on keyboard. notice that there is a group of 3 notes together. In no time you will be able to improvise with this, over anything in the key of C or Am,basically the same thing. In other words, any chords from the list above when used together. Try making it more blues flavoured by sliding into the note from a semitone below - next black note on the left in other words.

WARNING! we are now leaving the cosy world of C major! Cm pentatonic is C, Eb F, G, Bb, C. Use this with a Cm chord, which will be C, Eb, G (or 1, flat3, 5) A fun thing would be to combine this with a funk groove from Garageband, and maybe put in a bassline with the same notes.

Playing in other keys

Playing in the key of F: Chords will be

F Gm Am Bb C7 Dm Em7b5 F

Playing in the key of G:

G Am Bm C D7 Em F#m7b5 G

Key signatures: at the start of most written music you'll see a key signature, which is a number of flats or sharps (b or # signs). The music could easily just tell you what key it's in, but that would make it too easy for people to learn stuff! So instead we have to crack the code.

Code-breaking instructions: the last but one (penultimate) flat sign position tells you the key. The last sharp sign is one semitone below the key - note. Don't tell anyone. Here are some examples:

C: no flats or sharps.Just use the white notes.

F one flat (b)

Bb two flats (bb)

Eb three flats

G one sharp (#)

D two sharps (##)

A three sharps

The cycle of fifths is being used here, an essential part of theory. Look at my other hub on the cycle of fifths.

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Comments 5 comments

Michelle 7 years ago

Thanks! I've been playing the keyboard for years and this helped clear up questions I had about expanding chords.


Jon Green profile image

Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK Author

Thanks Michelle. I've tried to use different angles on some of my other hubs, so you might find them useful too. There are quite a few good lessons on youtube too.

Cheers, Jon


Time4Travel profile image

Time4Travel 5 years ago from Canada

This has helped me understand chords a bit better. Thanks!


Jon Green profile image

Jon Green 5 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK Author

Hi - do feel free to ask questions, I'll post a reply.


Sophie dowse 5 years ago

im only 12 and i play keyboard and its better if you do small songs with 1 hand first then 2 hands then you can do pop song like magic by B.O.B.... i know loads of good songs

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