On average, it takes three to five years of practice to be able to enjoy playing the piano proficiently. But if you’re looking to just accompany yourself with chords, you can learn it rather quickly.
With the right knowledge of the make-up of piano chords and lots of practice, you can play pop chords for yourself in no time. Let’s look at how to make and recognize piano chords.
Learn Your Scales and Keys
The first step to mastering chords on the piano is to learn some basic music theory. By understanding the relationship between notes (or the intervals) you’ll be able to build chords exactly the way you want them to sound.
The first interval you’ll need to know is a half step. A half step is the key exactly one key away. So if you start on a C, a half step up is that black key also known as C#. That’s a half step.
A whole step is two keys away. So starting at C again, a whole step away is D.
By just knowing half and whole steps, you can start building a major scale. The order of a major scale always goes whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. In the case of C Major these are your notes:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
C Major is the easiest to learn because you use only white keys and don’t have to worry about any sharps or flats. But you can use that major scale structure to learn any key. If you start on D, for example, the notes would be:
D – E – F# (black key) – G – A – B – C# (black key) – D
It follows the same pattern. Try following that pattern starting from any note on the piano.
Learn Your Thirds
Another interval that you need to know about is thirds. A third is made when you start on one note of a scale and then play a key two notes away from it. For example, a third up from C would be E. A third up from D would be F. A third up from E would be G. And so on.
Not all thirds sound the same. There are major thirds and minor thirds. Knowing the difference between them will be important when you go to build triads or “chords”.
C to E, G to B, and F to A are all known as major thirds. This is because there are four half steps between them. The rest of the thirds are all minor thirds because they only have three half steps between them.
You can change whether a third is major or minor simply by extending or shortening the space between them. You can do that by moving either the first or second note up or down a half step.
For example, if you wanted to make C to E a minor third you could either play C# (the black key above C) to E or C to Eb (the black key below E).
If you want to make D to F a major third, you need to make the space bigger. Either lower D to Db or raise F to F#. Which you do will depend on what belongs in the scale key you’re playing in.
Build Triads From Intervals
Once you understand intervals and thirds, you can start building triads. A triad is a chord including three notes. They are the most common building blocks of chords for piano, and you can find triads in almost all popular music. There are chords with more than three notes in them, but you can get to seventh chords later unless you want to read more about them now.
There are four kinds of triads – major, minor, augmented, and diminished. And they all add a different sound quality to the music.
Major triads are made of a major third on the bottom and a minor third on top. For example, C – E – G is a major triad or a C Major Chord. You may notice that if you start on the first note of a major scale and put two triads on top of it, you’ll always have a major chord.
Minor triads are made of a minor third on the bottom and a major third on top. It’s like major triad flipped! An example of a minor triad is D – F – A or the D Minor Chord. If you start on the second note of a major scale and build a triad it will always be a minor triad.
An augmented triad is made of two major thirds on top of each other. C – E – G# (we raised the G to make a second major third) make a C Augmented Chord. Augmented chords do not naturally appear in a major key, but they may be added for musical interest.
A diminished triad is made of two minor thirds. B – D – F is a B Diminished Chord. If you start on the seventh note of a major scale and add two-thirds on top, you’ll always have a diminished chord.
Try A Simple Piano Chord Progression
Once you know how to play some easy triads, you can start putting them in order to play a chord progression. One of the most common chord progressions in pop music is I, IV, V. What does that mean?
I is a major chord starting on the first note of a scale. IV is a major chord starting on the fourth note of a scale. And V is a major chord starting on the fifth note of a scale. Play that in order over and over until you feel comfortable with it.
In the key of C major it will go:
- C Major Chord (C – E – G)
- F Major Chord (F – A – C)
- G Major Chord (G – B – D)
Once you master it in C major. Follow the same pattern in starting on some other notes.
Reading a Pop Chord Progression
Once you know how to make triads out of thirds, you can start reading a piano chord chart to know what chords to play during a song. Sometimes they’ll use Roman numerals like above. Capital letters mean major chords, lowercase mean minor chords, a degree symbol means that it’s diminished, and a plus sign means it’s augmented.
More often instead it’ll use pop writing. You won’t have numbers. You’ll just have chords named by their first note names. Again, capital letters mean major. Lowercase and with a lowercase m mean minor (cm is C minor). Augmented will be capital with a plus. Diminished will be lowercase with a degree.
Practice Consistently to Master Piano Chords
These tips and explanations should give you a good start to learning to play piano chords. But to master them, you have to practice consistently. Let building triads become second nature to you so that you can play them in any key.
Looking for more advice about how to practice piano? Check out our Music articles for more music advice!