What are piano chords?
Strictly speaking, a chord is when any two or more notes are played at the same time. Usually, chords consist of three or more notes. You will even find advanced piano pieces in which every finger is used to play a complex five-note chord! For many piano students, especially beginners with smaller hands, chord playing can present a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Many students find using more than one finger on each hand at a time to be a great challenge. However, as any accomplished pianist will agree, learning to play chords is well worth the time and effort!
Why is chord playing important?
Because of the nature of the piano, chords are a huge part of the piano repertoire. Chord playing forms the basis of countless musical styles, ranging from classical through to jazz, pop and rock. Chords can also form the starting point for composition and improvisation.
Developing a basic understanding of harmony and chord structure will be of great value to those starting out on their musical journey. Being able to identify and name chords will allow you to more quickly find the correct keys, leading to greater fluency and confidence.
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Piano chords for beginners
The most common type of chord used in piano playing is a triad. This is a three-note chord constructed of the first, third and fifth notes of a major or minor scale.
For example, the notes of the C Major scale are: C D E F G A B C
To play the C Major triad, we will take the first, third and fifth notes— C, E and G— and play them at the same time.
Jumping straight into playing three notes together can be difficult, so a great way to tackle chord playing is to build up slowly.
Let’s start with the right hand. Using fingers one (thumb) and three (middle), find the first two notes of the C Major triad— C and E. You will find it most comfortable to begin on middle C. Focus on keeping your hand rounded. You should be playing with tip of the third finger and the side of the thumb. Play the two notes slowly, ensuring both keys are pressed at exactly the same time. Now play it again, listening to the sound. Make sure you are playing both notes at the same volume. Keep practicing two notes together until you can play them evenly and comfortably.
Now, let’s add G to complete the triad. In the right hand, we will use finger 5 (pinkie) to reach G. Play the three notes (C, E, G) slowly, focusing on pressing all three notes at exactly the same time. Pay particular attention to the fifth finger. It’s a lot weaker than fingers one and three! Is it playing as loudly as the other fingers?
It’s easy for tension to gather in the hands and wrists when playing chords, so take a moment to notice how you feel. If you feel tense, shake and stretch your hands and arms. You’ll find chord playing much easier when you are relaxed!
Once you can comfortably play all three notes together, practice finding the C Major triad in different places on the piano.
Let’s change hands. When playing the C Major triad in the left hand, we will use finger five to play C, three for E and the thumb for G. Because it is easier to begin with the stronger fingers, start by finding the notes E and G with the left hand. (Place your thumb on the G four steps down from middle C.) Repeat the same technique as the right hand: practice slowly playing E and G together and then add the C with the fifth finger.
For many students, chord playing is one of the most difficult elements of piano playing, so be patient! You may not master the whole three note chord in your first session, but keep persisting. Patience and practice are the key!
Playing a Piano Chord Progression
Once you have mastered the C Major triad, you can use the same technique and hand shape to find many other chords. When multiple chords are assembled into a pattern, it is known as a progression. Most people will recognize the iconic Twelve Bar Blues progression; a pattern used in countless jazz, blues and rock songs. The progression is simple, consisting of only three chords. Let’s take a look at the Twelve Bar Blues in the key of C Major.
The progression uses three triads: C Major (which we have already learnt), G Major and F Major.
To find the notes of F Major triad, we take the notes of the major scale:
F G A Bb C D E F
and use the first, third and fifth notes— F, A, C to construct the triad.
Again with G Major. Here is our scale:
G A B C D E F# G
therefore, the notes of the triad are G, B, D.
Try playing these chords on the piano. In the right hand, simply place your thumb on the home note (F for F Major and G for G Major) and use the same fingering as for C Major. You will notice these chords all feel very similar to play.
Once you can comfortably play the three chords, try playing them in the following Twelve Bar Blues Progression:
Don’t forget to try using both the left and right hands!
Playing these simple triads will provide you with a great foundation to develop your chord work. Experiment now by altering the notes of the chord (for example, can you hear what happens if you change the E in your C Major triad to an Eb?), or rearranging the notes of the chords to create inversions. Playing the notes of your triads individually will produce broken chords, a pattern used regularly in the piano repertoire. Can you add notes to produce jazzy four—or even five— note chords? Chord playing allows for a huge range of creativity, so experiment and enjoy.
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