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All about chords: Superprof’s essential tips for improving your piano game

From Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Music > Piano > Piano Playing 101: Chords

Before all else, learning to play the piano is about self-expression. This is the same no matter the genre – from jazz piano to classical piano – and method. But getting there is the result of years of training to read sheet music, understand music theory, learn solfege and tempo and play chords.

When you begin to learn to play on the piano or keyboard, you’re faced with – like every absolute beginner – an seemingly unattainable goal: coordination between the brain and the right and left hand. Then there’s the challenges of sight reading and improvisation. And how to find that middle C…

But you don’t have to be a great piano virtuoso like Bach or Schubert to take pleasure from piano playing: with some basic chords, you’ll be able to play pieces by the greats. To play a Bach Prelude, for example, you only need to master a relatively easy arpeggio of chords! And with determination and practicing, you won’t be far off from Beethoven’s Clair de Lune sonata!

In this article, Superprof is focusing on learning the basic piano chords – they may seem difficult to beginner piano players, but they are easier than you think. Soon you’ll know how to play a chord perfectly. Get your metronome ready!

Get out your metronome: we’re watching you..

The major and minor piano chords

To learn the basic piano chords, there’s no need to study solfege in an intensive piano class. You can easily retain several chord progressions, because the fingering doesn’t change much. Although taking a piano course is not usually a bad idea! (But stay away from free piano online lessons.)

Generally, on the piano, the left hand plays the chord, while the right hand plays the melody. The melody comprises notes in the scale in which the chord is played. If this seems difficult to understand at this point, just remember one thing: playing the melody means juggling with notes played by the left hand.

Ok but how can you learn, recognize, and play minor chords and major chords? These are things you could find out in a private piano lesson or an online piano tutorial too!

The major piano chords

Buying a piano requires professional help Pop quiz: do these notes belong to the minor chords or major chords?

The major chords are what bring certain “joyful” sounds to the ear. You know what tunes we mean!

They’re not as hard to play as you might think. But you’ll still need to learn a few solfege basics first, notably concerning the note intervals. How well can you read music or play by ear?

Always start from the tonic note to play a perfect major chord. Then, increase by two keys to find the major third. Then, go one and a half pitches higher to find the minor third, the last note in a three-note chord. For example, a major C is played as such: c, e, g. that’s the perfect chord of C major, composed of a fundamental (c), a major third (e) and a minor fifth (g).

If you follow this, you can play all the major chords of a major scale:

  • C: c-e-g
  • D: d-f#-a
  • E: e-sol#-b
  • F: f, la, c
  • G: g, b, d
  • A: a-c#-e
  • B: b-d#-f#

This gets a bit more complicated when playing flat and sharp major chords: you’ll need to move your fingers on the black keys by counting the note intervals.

But be careful! Always be sure to remain two pitches between the tonic and third chord, and one and a half pitches between the third and fifth. (No one said it was easy to learn how to play piano!)

The minor piano chords

The minor chords add a more melancholic sonority to a piano piece, creating a sadder atmosphere.

Now that you know how to play a major chord and have started to train your fingering, finding the minor chord will be a piece of cake!

Really?

Yes, because to find the minor key of a piano chord, you just need to lower the major third by a half key: the one that becomes a minor third is played on the flat (often a black key to the left) of your note. It’s the same process for the major chords: a minor C becomes a c-e flat-g. And this time move one and a half key between the tonic and minor third, then two keys between the third and fifth. If you’re interested in improving, consult a basic chord chart to learn other basic chords! Next you’ll be playing arpeggios and octaves on the piano keyboard in your sleep!

4 indispensable piano chords

One major advantage of playing piano is that once you know the basic chords, you’ll also know how to imitate the basic guitar or accordion chords. From your beginner piano lessons you could be an accordionist one day!

Playing the piano Scales are often repetitive in music.

Was it Michel Audiard who said that “The piano is the accordion of the rich”? Well, both have black keys at least!

A main instrument of music instruction, the piano is often called the “noblest” of all the string instruments. Once you’ve learned all about sharps and quarter notes on the piano, it will be easier for you to pick up any other instrument!

And yet, playing a “functional” melody doesn’t call for many chords. To do this, you need only learn four chords, the magical whole chords:

  • C major
  • G major
  • A minor
  • F major

These chords are called magical because they are found in a vast range of music, from the Beatles and Pink Floyd to Elton John, from today’s pop and variety hits to classical music of the past.

Magical chords are piano chord progressions that “sound” good to the ear, and are constructed in the same structure (in musical harmony, the seven degrees of a piano scale). How well can you read music?

Magical chords are often composed as such:

  • A major chord in the first degree (the first note of the scale),
  • A major chord to the fifth degree (fifth note of the scale),
  • A minor chord in the sixth degree (sixth note of the scale),
  • A major chord in the fourth degree (fourth note of the scale).

Creating melodies with the suit of C major, G major, A minor, F major, are favorites that always work well! You’ll be a great piano player soon enough!

The hardest part isn’t actually playing the chords, it’s finding a melody that works well!

Thanks to this degree hierarchy, if you want to change the key of the piano degrees, just change from where, on the keyboard, you played the first chord. For example, if you begin by an E major: E major (e, g#, b), B major (b, d#, f#), C sharp minor (c#, e, g#), A major (a, c#, e). It’s easy to do this on the keyboard because the interval between each note is the same. Who said it was difficult to learn piano?

If you are having trouble, here is a trick: count each note of the scale of C (do, ré, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do) on your fingers and find the chord progression. All beginner pianists will be happy to discover that many a song is constituted of the same magical whole chords. Music is not as hard as you might think, so start practicing those piano keys!

Learn piano chords with a private instructor

With a private piano teacher (perhaps one found on Superprof?), every beginner musician wanting to learn to play piano will benefit not just from a tailor-made pedagogical method, but also by regular follow-up.

Where can I find private piano tutors? Don’t forget that a music teacher might be the most important tool for learning piano.

So make sure you assess your progress and future goals at each piano lesson with your teacher. What to revise for the following week: Für Elise, Bach’s Prelude or something more contemporary? Your posture, an octave, or something more advanced?

In a private piano lesson, a piano teacher will create progress plan and target the student’s weaknesses. In this way, the piano lesson will be adapted to your level: is an initiation necessary, does the student need to revise solfege basics, learn to read sheet music, work on right/left hand coordination, or pass directly to playing a piano song?

Whether the lesson takes place in the piano student’s home or in a music school, the student needs an environment that’s conducive to chord training. That means spending the necessary time on applying music theory, learning how to form chords with the intervals of notes, perfecting fingering, etc.

The piano teacher should also provide students with a chord chart to work on at home.

After having reached a certain level, the student could also ask his or her music teacher – a personal trainer for the piano – to teach him or her how to play songs by the big composers, like the Nocturne Opus 9 No. 2 in E flat major by Frederic Chopin. No more Mary had a Little Lamb for you!

Other than reading sheet music and learning piano tunes, the student can also ask his or her teacher to play different music genres, such as jazz piano, blues piano, tango or classical music. Why not do a bit of research on the Internet, where you’ll find plenty of videos and free piano tutorials to teach you about music styles!

Lastly, private piano classes are a powerful tool of motivation, especially for kids and adolescents.

If I had to learn the piano on the internet alone when I was an adolescent, there’s a strong chance I would have abandoned playing. In contrast, my 5 years of private lessons in music school during my primary school and high school years allowed me, almost 15 years later, do chord progressions that actually still sound good, and not feel completely inept in front of a keyboard!

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