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Piano Chords Beginners Study

Updated on January 27, 2021
Jon Green profile image

For many years I taught music in college, and incorporated music theory into learning guitar and piano.

Improving your keyboard/songwriting

In my previous hub I passed on some basics for beginner keyboard players. Hope these were useful - we'll now build on that info, and keep the theory as simple as possible. As much of my background is in playing guitar, songwriting and recording this material should be accessible to guitarists. A lot of my approach to instruments is experimentation, but based on what works in the standard tunes.

In my opinion, everyone could enrich their lives generally, and definitely musically, by piano and keyboard study. If you're a singer, guitarist, bass player, sax player - you really need to put some time into this. Any songs you want to record could be enhanced with a keyboard part, and this could be as simple as it needs to be.

As a starting point, accompany songs by playing a chord in your right hand, and a bass note in your left hand, or an octave bass note. For a normal 4/4 bar, chord and bass note on beat 1, then chord only on beats 2,3,4 while the left hand sustains the bass note. When you get in the groove, changes can be made, you can arpeggiate the chord for example, but keeping it simple is a really good idea.

Improving chords and harmony Just as a simple example: add ninths, instead of C (CEG in right hand, C or octave Cs in left) play CDEG. In your left hand play a C or an octave C.This is now C add9 - does the same job, but sounds fuller and more interesting. Replace minor chords with minor 7ths, instead of Am (ACE) play ACEG. Also, I will try to embellish chords whenever possible: here are some examples of what you could do with chords from the C harmonised scale,

C Dm Em F G Am B dim C

C - can be replaced by Cmaj7, C6,Cmaj9, C add9 (But - only if it sounds good in context)

Dm - Dm7, Dm9, Dm11(sometimes)

Em - Em7

F - Fmaj7, Fmaj9

G - G7,Gsus4, F/G (F with G bass) G9, G13

Am - Am7, Am9


C - it all starts again! So you can take the diatonic chords from the key of C and give them a little spice by adding notes from the C major scale. You can also change the inversions - so C to F is much stronger and more logical if you go C, C/E, F. The bassline is driving towards the next chord. C/E is still using the notes of a C chord (C,E,G) so it is an inversion.

The Beatles used a great trick - making the IV chord minor. So you could go C, F, Fm, C. There is a temporary change of key, because Fm uses a black note.

Look up the chords on if you don't know them.

Chord construction

Play a C chord in your right hand (C,E,G) To play Cmaj7 you could just add a B note to the top, right? - But I think this works better. Play GCE (low to high)with your right hand, whlie holding a C note in your left, an octave down.

Now move the central C note down to B, Bb then A .Keep the other notes the same. Try the four chords in sequence, which are C, Cmaj7, C7, C6

Next- Start with GCE again, with C in the bass (l/h) Now if you do the same sequence with the high E taken down 1 to Eb you will get these four chords:

Cm,Cm maj7, Cm7, Cm6 . Granted, the second one is a bit mysterioso, but this is a very common and useful chord sequence.

Piano and keyboard chords

Tribute to JS Bach

I'm not a classically trained pianist, but I know what I like. Increasingly, I appreciate how brilliant some of Bach's compositions were (and are).Here is a little exercise in that style:(2 beats on each chord) Air - on - a - G string stylee. If you want to check out this kind of chord progression, have a look at the Bach video on my hub The Best Music in the History of the World, ever.

l/h: C r/h: GCE

l/h: B r/h:GBE

AN ace





The notes are given left to right, low to high. All three note chords with one added bass note.

12 Bar Blues

C7 / C7 / C7 / C7 / F7 / F7 / C7 / C7 / G7 / F7 / C7 / G7. Play each bar for 4 beats,and when you have got it, replace some of the 7th chords with 9ths or 13ths.

There is a link below to Martan Mann's book and CD, called Improving Blues Piano. From Amazon it is $7.99 which is unbelievably cheap for the level of information and expertise it offers. There are a few mixed reviews, which you should cheerfully ignore. Even at the list price, it is a bargain.

Virtual keyboard

There is a link to below, a great resource for music theory students, keyboard players, guitarists. You can use the virtual keyboard, and hear everything you do, learn scales and chords. Highly recommended.

Song Structures

If you study the craft of songwriting (it is partly a craft...) song structures such as verse,chorus,bridge,intros,riffs are vitally important. Usually units of four bars are chained together: some great songs use 8-bars structures. Most rock n' roll is based around 12-bars, most jazz uses 32-bars in an AABA pattern.

So one valid approach to songwriting is to create a bar structure and then fill in the missing spaces. I think this is a really good way to go, and it does not preclude inspiration and rule-breaking.

Composing your own songs and instrumental pieces is vital in your development as a keyboard player, and makes it all more fun and more rewarding. Don't be too critical of your own efforts. If you can suspend any critical or analytical approach for a while it will give creativity a fighting chance!

Voice leading

This is really important - instead of jumping between chords, which is kind of how we all start out, try connecting them by changing the least number of notes possible. For instance - linking F and Dm7. Play F A C (r/h) and change the F to D (l/h)

Also, look for the nearest version or inversion of a chord to where you are already. Changing from C to F - use C F A (r/h) for the F chord

This is something you could research on the net.

Listening / Recommendations

Here are some keyboard greats you might want to check out:

Lyle Mays (Pat Metheny Group)

Art Tatum

Randy Newman

Carole King

Bill Evans

Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)

Stevie Wonder

Fred Hersch

Barry Harris (Jazz God)


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