Piano chord basics are very important for all musicians. I spent many years teaching this stuff in schools and colleges.
This is a short introduction to music theory useful to jazz, rock, pop musicians on any instrument or voice - and helpful if you compose or improvise music. Although we'll be looking at the piano keyboard, most of this approach works equally well on guitar or bass. My other hubs on piano chords have photos of the chords if you are more of a visual learner. For me, it's been much easier to learn piano through patterns and memorizing chord shapes, and I actually find reading music fairly unpleasant.
I have bought loads of music theory books - some of them are great, but it's so hard to stay focused on the material, which gets close to maths a lot of the time. Classical theory will make you lose the will to live. Should you wish to pursue this, it's easy to find on the internet - but all you really need to know is harmonised scales and the cycle of fifths in my opinion. Certainly, that is the practical and relevant stuff.
If you play guitar or bass, I would strongly advise you to get some basic keyboard knowledge. It can be very easy to transfer guitar and keyboard ideas from one instrument to another, and the underlying theory is easier to see on keyboard.
Guitarists and bass players will probably gain a lot from seeing how chord inversions work, which is much easier on the piano. For instance, a D chord (consisting of D,F# and A) can sound a lot better with an F# bass note underneath, or an A bass note.
Chords and harmony
If you look at some songs from a Beatles songbook, or at chordie.com for example, you will see the same combinations of chords are used again and again, because they fit well together and support the melody in a logical/ predictable manner. Even if you go back to the 1930s, much of the material is what we're using today, and was used by the greats of modern pop music throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
A key, or tonal centre, is usually established by the first and last chord of a song. So if the key is C (first and last chord will usually be a C) you can use these notes: C, D E, F, G, A, B, C
with these chords: Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7, G7, Am7, Bm7b5. Cmaj7.
Note that there are only 7 different chords in each key. For all the different major keys, the pattern remains the same, so anything you learn is transferable.
The basic triads or 3 note chords are even easier. Just play C, E, and G for a C Chord and by moving one step to the right on the white notes you can play all the basic chords in this key. Pictures of this on my other hub on piano chord pictures.
Four note chords (chords with added 7ths)
Each chord is built on a note of the major scale. You could use just plain major and minor chords, but these sound more inspiring. For reference: Cmaj7 contains the notes C, E, G, B. To play this chord on piano it's play one, miss one on the white notes only. All the other chords are the same pattern, moving up one step at a time, to your right. If this needs more explanation, please check out my other hubs. When you can play this sequence in your right hand, add a bass note with your left, one octave down. An octave is eight notes.
Using the chords - I'd recommend just using any three chords together, ending on a C chord. For instance, Dm7 G7 Cmaj7- which is a strong sequence. In your left hand add the bass note of the chord.
Another very important approach is to sing over the top of the chord patterns. Try using the Am pentatonic scale, the same notes as a C scale, missing out the F and the B. This is a much easier scale to improvise with as it avoids note clashes.
If you number each chord with Roman numerals - chords I, IV, V would be C, F, G7. These chords are the building blocks of all those songs from the 1950s and the early days of rock n'roll, often extended to C, Am, F, G7 sequences. Still all you need to write simple songs, especially if you fit them into regular 8-bar patterns.
Improvise over the top with C D E F G A B C, or even easier, a pentatonic scale like A C D E G A. This scale contains the same notes, but misses out two of them.Then try cautiously adding some of the other chords now and then.
Using different keys
Now the good news - the intervals between all the notes and chords, or the distances between them, are just the same for all the other keys - they just start at a different pitch. So in the key of D we find:
Dmaj7, Em7, F#m7, Gmaj7, A7, Bm7, C#m7b5, Dmaj7
and the major scale is D E F# G A B C# D. Everything is the same, but moved up 2 frets or 2 notes on the piano. Notice that the key signature sign for this key has 2 sharps.
Which keys are the easiest for piano players?
You can make life easier by choosing the right key, and then maybe shifting key or transposing on a digital keyboard. Typically, the key of F will work well, especially for anything in a jazz style.
More handy stuff
The cycle of fifths contains a lot of essential information. Look up my hub Music theory- The Cycle of Fifths.
Looking at C for example, the adjacent points are F and G, giving you the I, IV, V chords in any key. The very common ii V I sequence is found by going anti-clockwise, three steps. In every key the ii chord is minor, the V chord is a 7th, the I chord is major. In this key Dm7, G7, C. All other keys work the same way. In jazz, a common progression is a minor ii V I or Dm7b5, G7, Cm7 which you can transfer to all other keys in the same way. In another key it would be using E, A, D to give you the chords Em7b5, A7, Dm7. Again, you are going three steps around the circle. Four-step sequences are also very common, and sound great. For instance, Am, D7, Gmaj7, Cmaj7.
Do I need the whole cycle? Not really. Up to 4 flats and 4 sharps will do. This is as far as E in one direction and Ab in the other.
My new hub Guitar- advanced and jazz contains chord pictures and a lot more info on applications of this.
Another recommended hub is by nvsongwriter on the nashville number system.
Doing your homework
If you find any of this info useful or interesting, check out Tom Kolb's book on theory on the link below. It's very good value, and well written. Although guitar-centric I think many keyboard players would welcome the clear and practical approach. It includes a CD, which is a real bonus.
Naming the notes
On any instrument the note names follow the same sequence:
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B (with sharp names)
C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B (flat names)
So F# and Gb are the same notes. Depending on the key signature you call them one thing or the other. Classical musicians might know this as "enharmonic equivalence" - let's just call them "the same bleedin notes".
Guitar players would learn this sequence starting on the E as strings 1 and 6 are tuned to E, it makes it all easier. Just remember there is no extra note between E. F and B, C. All the others have them. On piano, this is easy to see because there is no black note between the two notes.
If you play the sequence of notes above, you are playing what is called the Chromatic scale. In the real world, you'd only use short sections of this, because it doesn't sound that great. A chromatic run of C, B, Bb, A for example is really common in jazz from the 1920s-1940s.
In some of my other hubs this is discussed in detail. Very briefly:
A C chord is c,e,g (play one, miss one on the piano keyboard) Normally the C or tonic note of the chord is at the bottom, the lowest note in the chord - but you can use any of the three notes as the bass note, giving you inversions of the chord. Try playing the same chord over an E bass or G bass note and it can make the chord progression sound much better.
Play C, C/E (C over an E bass note) F - a bit like the Penny Lane chorus!
Some of The Kinks songs as well as those by the Beach Boys make great use of this idea.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on February 20, 2012:
Hi- try to get your kids to transfer chords from piano to guitar, it'll help a lot with music theory.
Ann Leung from San Jose, California on February 20, 2012:
Very useful hub! My kids are taking piano lessons. We have two guitars in the house and no one know how to play them. I will go check out your hubs about how to play guitars if you have any. Thank you for sharing! :)
Garzon on January 19, 2012:
I use chordie all the time, great site, great info:
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on May 19, 2011:
Hi John - you're welcome. You can e-mail any questions too.
John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on May 18, 2011:
Great hub. Thanks for posting
online piano course on December 13, 2010:
I just enrolled in a piano class. I really wanted to learn and play piano. I want to thank you for posting this kind of article. This will really help a lot of beginners in piano just like me.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on July 05, 2010:
Hi Pamela - I teach guitar but I'm always encouraging students to play piano too, it's very important.
Joyful Pamela from Pennsylvania, USA on July 05, 2010:
Hi ~ I teach piano and woodwinds. I think anyone to wants to play any other instrument or sing should learn about all the music basics from piano. It is the easiest way to learn about fundamental music theory. Thanks for the article.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on March 10, 2010:
Thanks - although I mainly play guitar, I think all musicians should study the piano if they really want to make progress.
piano internet course on March 09, 2010:
Hi--I love your blog. I'm so glad you are creating a resources page. What a great idea!Its designed to be used in private piano lessons. I would love it if you added it to your resources page, as music history is something many music teachers find important.
School of Rock Keyboard on August 07, 2009:
Nice article. Expecting more blogs from you.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on February 25, 2009:
Hi Joe - thanks a lot for your comments. Will check out your hubs - nashville number system is really good. It makes conventional classical music theory look very cumbersome.
You might find Dave Stewart's books interesting - there are links on some of my hubs. They cost next to nothing and are full of good info.
Cheers, Jon Green
Joe Russ from Kill Devill Hills, NC on February 24, 2009:
Reading your article here I began to feel like I wrote it. You and I think the same way on several issues. First, I too, teach theory using a piano keyboard. It is so much more visual and easier to remember the chord formations than on a guitar fretboard. I also use numbers, the Nashville Number System to be more specific. I spent 12 years in Nashville and couldn't have worked there if I didn't know it.
I enjoyed your page. It's the 2nd one I've read. Good work. I have several I've published if you are interested. I just finished one called Songwriting-Nashville Style and I have a guitar lesson series called Guitar Lessons That Don't Suck, plus one on Online Guitar Lessons. I'll look for more of your articles. Have a great day!
Britneys Fan Club on February 12, 2009:
Hi there Yeah music makes my world go round its what i need every day to lift up my mood and soul :))
like your hub its very informativ
pls come by visit my music hub as well
greetz c ya soon ;)