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A Beginner's Guide to Playing Piano Chords

Jul 18, 2008
The piano is the most perfectly designed instrument for playing chords. It's visually straightforward, easy-to-understand layout makes it simple for the beginning piano student to learn how to play chords. Unlike other instruments, such as the guitar, the player doesn't need to learn how to contort her fingers in strange, unnatural ways just to play the most simple combinations of notes.

In contrast, the basic chords on the piano seem almost magically designed to be played by the human hand. When learning how to play the piano, the beginning pianist only needs to learn the structures of these basic chords, and a world of harmony opens itself up.

To start, although they are not technically chords, combinations of two notes -- usually referred to as "intervals" or "dyads" -- are often seen in piano music. Even if they aren't technically chords, combinations of two notes are essentially the foundation of all music harmony. Thus, when learning how to play chords, it's also a good idea for students to first learn intervals.

The smallest interval on the Western music scale is the minor second, which is made up of two notes that are only a half-step apart -- for instance, E and the next F, or B and the next C. Although there are various ways of referring to the intervals, they are most often named as follows, in order of increasing size:

1. Minor second
2. Major second
3. Minor third
4. Major third
5. Perfect fourth
6. Augmented fourth (or diminished fifth)
7. Perfect fifth
8. Minor sixth (or augmented fifth)
9. Major sixth
10. Minor seventh
11. Major seventh
12. Perfect octave

You don't have to learn all of them at once, but most piano players must learn them eventually. Plus, there are similar names for intervals larger than an octave, but they don't come up quite as often.

When learning how to play chords, many students start out with triads, which are the most basic form of three-note chords. Basically, while intervals are the foundation of all musical harmony, triads are the starting point to more complex harmonies. Also, they are refreshingly simple and easy to play. For example, if you set the fingers of your right hand on the first five notes of the C major scale -- C, D, E, F, and G -- then your thumb, middle finger, and pinky are already in position to play the C major triad.

Your knowledge of intervals comes in handy when learning triads, of which there are four main types:

1. Major triad: A major third plus a minor third (e.g., C E G).
2. Minor triad: A minor third plus a major third (e.g., A C E).
3. Diminished triad: A minor third plus a minor third (e.g., B D F).
4. Augmented triad: A major third plus a major third (e.g., C E G).

Diminished and augmented triads occur far less frequently than major and minor triads, especially in the types of music usually played by beginning pianists. This will make more sense when you practice playing triads; major and minor triads will sound familiar and comfortable to the ear, while diminished and augmented triads will sound stranger and more dissonant.

Meanwhile, it's important to understand the naming of triads. In short, all triads are named after their root note -- the note which begins the scale the chord is based on. For example, the minor triad of A C E is referred to as "A minor," because it is based on the A minor scale; the major triad of F A C is referred to as "F major," because it is based on the F major scale: the diminished triad of Bb D F is referred to as "Bb major," and so on.

Beyond intervals and triads, the range and terminology of piano chords only becomes more layered and complex. The number of things you will have to learn may seem daunting at first, but it's always important to remember that learning how to play chords is a series of baby steps. For example, soon after learning about triads, you might want to learn about chord inversion, or how to turn triads into seventh chords. Both of these techniques, though becoming more advanced, are relatively simple on their own. So, when learning, stick with one thing at a time, and soon you will not be so confused by all of those bizarre chord notations you see everywhere.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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