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Piano chords in pictures
Getting started on music theory and the piano
Do you consider yourself unable to understand music and/or the piano? In this article I hope that we can make a decent start in understanding how music works, without any notation, and really quite fast. We are not looking at endless hours of practice before breakfast, and everything is shown in a visual context. You could work through this material with just a virtual keyboard from the internet, or any piano, electric keyboard, organ, harpsichord, spinet, scrap of paper, etc.
Musical notes are described in two ways - as letters ( A B C D E F G plus sharps and flats) and as numbers, when the interval or space between notes is described.
You can also ask questions through the comments box!
Simple chords only need three notes, and with three notes you can play any major or minor chord. Any 6th, 7th or maj7 or min 7 chord will only use four notes.
Chords and harmony
Most music works like this:
- There are 8 notes in a major scale - but only 7 different notes as notes 1 and 8 (the octave) are the same
- In the key of C these 8 notes are C D E F G A B C (all white notes)
- Each note can have a chord (three notes) built on top
- A C chord contains the notes C E G (play one, miss one)
- This C chord is shown in the first photo
- With your left hand, play a C note that sounds lower in pitch at the same time
- So, left hand plays a C note, right hand plays a C chord.
- Next - move the chord shape one step to the right, a Dm chord (D minor)
- As the chord moves to the right, move the bass note in parallel, up one note.
- Up another step, Em (E minor)
- Up another step, F
- Now review all four chords, and have a tea break.
- NB - don't copy the fingering in the photos, it's not the best way of playing the chords but just to show the notes more clearly. Generally, your thumb will play the lowest note in the chord.
Piano Chords in key of C
Chords in C
Now we have the first 4 chords down in the key of C:
- C, Dm, Em, F
- Continue moving the chord shape to the right, one step at a time
- This will give you the remaining chords - G, Am, B dim, C (not shown in the photos)
- If you now swop the chord shape to your left hand, you can play all the notes of the C scale C D E F G A B C over the chords, and all the notes will fit, though some will sound better than others!
- Now go back to using your right hand for the chord, left hand for the appropriate bass note and play C, F, G - the basis for hundreds of songs.
This would be a good point to stop and review everything so far. You could now play some simple chord patterns and sing some easy songs that use just 3 or 4 of these chords. When the Saints Go Marching In, Stand By Me are good examples. Get a songbook from amazon or your local library and just read the chord symbols.
A week later....
Now we're looking to build on our chord and harmony knowledge, by making small adjustments to the chord shape we have already learned. Major chords are all very well, but they do sound a bit vanilla and not all that interesting! These chords have a more jazz / soul sound to them.
- With your left hand playing a low C, try to play the C maj7 shape
- The notes were C, E, G - for C
- Now they are C, B, E, G from left to right - the lowest note in the C chord has come down to B, but everything else is just the same.
- Now by continuing to move down the lowest note only, one note at a time, we get
- C7 and C6
- What do the numbers mean? - they are just the intervals from the starting note, so C to A is 6, etc. But fully decoded, the chord symbol means -
- Play a C Chord, then add a 6th from where you started
- This chord progression was used by The Beatles, amongst many others - as in Something by George Harrison, Simple Twist of Fate by Bob Dylan.
Maj 7, 7th, 6th chords
Added 7th chords
Now take the C maj7, and move it one step to the right, just as we did with the first set of 8 chords.
You will now have a nice sequence of chords as you continue moving the shape one step to the right:
- C maj7
- F maj7
- C maj7
Don't forget the bass note in your left hand, and channel your inner Carole King!
Minor chord progression
Now, we are doing a very similar logical movement, but starting with an Am chord. This sequence will sound like many of the best songs from the 1940s to the present day -
- My Funny Valentine
- Stairway to Heaven
- Cry me a River
Keep a low A bass note going throughout the sequence with your left hand.
NB - ignore the fingering shown, it's only there to show the chord notes clearly.
Am6 is the first chord of Summertime. It's good to remember chords in this sort of context.
Am chord progression
C sus4 and C add9
Finally, here are two more chord forms that are widely used in popular music of all styles -
- C sus 4 is spelt C, F, G
- It badly wants to resolve to C major, C, E, G. Please let it have its way.
- C add 9 is often used instead of C - it has a nice texture.
- This chord could also be called C add2
- Note 2 and note 9 are the same (D)
- You could use the same chord shape to play G add9, just by moving it up the keyboard.
C sus4, C add9 chords
Here is a glossary of some musical terms used in this article.
- m = minor
- Maj 7 = major seventh, an interval.
- Interval - the space between two notes
- Chord - three or more notes sounded together
- Experimentation is good - try altering bass notes underneath these chords
- For instance, a C chord with an A bass will be an Am7 chord
- Although you only need three notes to form a chord, a four - note chord will always sound better, and should have a bass note added too. If the music calls for a C chord, try using C Maj7, Cmaj9, C6 instead and it will usually sound better.
- A great way to improve your chord knowledge is to work through a Beatles songbook, although some are better than others.
Chords in C, please memorize!
CDEFGABC = major scale