How To Play Chords on the Piano

There are lots of different things to practice when learning to play the piano. But learning how to play chords on the piano is perhaps some of the single-most powerful information that a student can master. Being able to accurately and quickly find and play all of your major, minor, and dominant chords will tremendously improve your sound at the piano and unlock all of the mystery of fakebooks. This article is going to be more of a compendium (you like that word, right?) that can be used to help you build all of your major and minor triads and 7th chords, as well as your dominant 7th chords. Let’s get started! MAJOR TRIADS We’re going to discuss 2 different ways to build major triads. In the first approach, we’ll talk about plucking select notes from a major scale. In the second approach, we’ll use a formula that involves the counting of half-steps. Use whichever approach seems easiest to you.   Approach #1  (In order to use this approach, you DO need to know your major scales/key signatures). Let’s build a D major triad using Approach #1. First, take a D major scale: How to Play Chords at the Piano 1 Notice that each note is numbered in the order in which it would be played when playing the scale from low to high. Instead of using the number “1,” we call the first note of the scale the “root.” Second, select the root, 3rd, and 5th of the scale: How to Play Chords at the Piano 2 Third, stack those 3 notes on top of one another and play the notes simultaneously. There you have it – a D major triad! How to Play Chords at the Piano 3   Approach #2 For this approach, let’s build a “B” major chord. First, start with the root of the chord (i.e., ‘B’): How to Play Chords at the Piano 4 Second, count up 4 half-steps. This brings you to the 3rd of the chord: How to PLay Chords at the Piano 6 Third, from the 3rd of the chord, count up another 3 half-steps. This brings you to the 5th of the chord. Play the root, 3rd, and 5th simultaneously and you have a B major triad! How to Play Chords at the Piano 7 MAJOR 7TH CHORDS For major 7th chords, we are simply going to add an additional note to our major triad. Using our two approaches, you can simply add the 7th note of the scale to the underlying triad, or you can count up 4 half-steps from the 5th of the chord (which brings you to the 7th). Let’s use our 2 examples above and turn them into major 7th chords. D Major 7th Chord Using Approach #1 Add the 7th note of the scale to the D major triad. Play all 4 notes together and you have a D major 7th chord! How to Play Chords on the Piano 8 B Major 7th Chord Using Approach #2 How to Play Chords on the Piano 9     MINOR TRIADS In order to play a minor triad, we simply take the major triad and lower the 3rd by a half-step. Let’s look back at both of our major triad examples. In order to turn our D major triad into a D minor triad we simply need to lower the 3rd of the chord by a half-step. How to Play Chords on the Piano 14     MINOR 7TH CHORDS Similar to what we did above when converting a major triad to a minor triad, we can start with a major 7th chord and convert that to a minor 7th chord. Let’s use our B major 7th chord example from above. How to Play Chords on the Piano 12 If we lower the 3rd and 7th of the chord by half-step, the resulting chord will be a B minor 7th chord. How to Play Chords on the Piano 13     DOMINANT 7TH CHORDS In order to build a dominant 7th chord, we simply take a major 7th chord and lower the 7th by a half-step. If we look at our 2 major 7th chord examples above we have a D amjor 7th chord and a B major 7th chord. In order to create a D dominant 7th chord, we simply lower the 7th of the chord (the ‘C#’) by a half-step (resulting in a ‘C’ natural). In order to create a B dominant 7th chord, we simply lower the 7th of the chord (the ‘A#’) by a half-step (resulting in an ‘A’ natural). How to Play Chords on the Piano 15   In order to improve on your ability to quickly build these major, minor, and dominant chords, practice building all three types of chords in all 12 keys and playing them in both the left hand and right hand.
  • Olga says:

    Hello,great article but there is a mistake on approache #2 at third step.
    Here: http://musictheoryonline.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/24/2015/09/How-to-Play-Chords-at-the-Piano-7.png

    It’s 3 half steps,not 4.

    Thank you 🙂

  • Jim says:

    Olga,

    Willie is correct. The diagram you point to has a mistake. The first part of the diagram correctly shows there are 3 half steps between D# and F#. Then it incorrectly counts those half steps and labels them “4 half-steps”. Count them on a piano yourself and it will be clearer.

    In short, major chords are made of 4, then 3 half steps and minor chords are made with 3, then 4 half steps (as Willie says). Diminished chords are 3, then another 3 half steps, and the relatively rarer augmented chords are 4, then 4 half steps.

    Best,
    – Jim

  • Phil says:

    I concur with Jim. Thank you Jim and Willie.