If you’re new to the piano, the idea of learning how to play chords might seem like a difficult task. To someone unfamiliar, the keys on a piano probably look strange, disjointed, and intimidating, but what you might not realize is that the structure of the keys on a piano represent the simple basic music theory concepts that govern every instrument in music. When a teacher teaches a guitar student about music theory, they have to look at the keys on a keyboard to learn about things like chords, scales, and intervals. We can learn how to play chords on the piano quite easily when we learn some simple rules that govern a keyboard’s makeup and structure. In this article, we’ll show you how to play a myriad of chords using an easy-to-understand piano chord chart for each chord. To learn these basic chords, you’ll either need a keyboard or the image of a keyboard to use as a reference.
In order to understand how to build simple chords on the piano, we’ll have to get familiar with intervals first. In music, an interval is the relationship between two notes. The intervals we cover here will be the ingredients for basic and complex piano chords. To make things easy, we’ll learn intervals and chords in the key of C using the middle C on the keyboard. The middle C is located in the middle of an 88-key keyboard. If you don’t have an 88-key keyboard, feel free to use any C on the keyboard.
Minor 2nd (m2nd)
A Minor 2nd is the relationship between a C and a C# located a half step above. Intervals constantly show up in popular music, and the most famous Minor 2nd in music is the one found in the theme from the movie Jaws.
Major 2nd (M2nd)
A Major 2nd is the interval of a C moving two half steps up to a D. The first notes played together in the song “Chopsticks” feature this interval. A Major 2nd is also the first two notes in a Major scale.
Minor 3rd (m3)
Minor 3rd intervals can be difficult to identify in music. A Minor 3rd is a C moving three half steps up to an Eb. Minor 3rds are the building blocks for Minor chords, and one is featured in the opening melody of the song “Greensleeves.”
Major 3rd (M3)
A Major 3rd is the relationship between a C and the E four half steps above it. Like Minor 3rds, Major 3rds can be difficult to identify in music. The opening notes from the melody in “Oh, When The Saints” features the interval of a Major 3rd. Major 3rds are used to build Major chords.
Perfect 4th (P4th)
The relationship between a C and the F five half steps above is a Perfect 4th. The opening notes in “Here Comes The Bride” are interval of a Perfect 4th.
Tritones are famously dissonant intervals that are found in the opening melodies of “Maria” from West Side Story and the theme song from The Simpsons. The relationship between a C and the Gb six half steps above is a Tritone. Tritones are used to build dominant 7th chords.
Perfect 5th (P5th)
Perfect 5ths are the intervals between C and G, seven half steps above. The most famous Perfect 5th in music is the one featured in the opening melody of the theme from Star Wars. Perfect 5ths can be used to build any type of chord, though they aren’t seen as necessary from a compositional standpoint.
Minor 6th (m6th)
A Minor 6th is the interval between C and eight half steps above to Ab. This interval can be heard in Scott Joplin’s ragtime song “The Entertainer.”
Major 6th (M6th)
Major 6th intervals are the distance between one note and another one nine half steps above. In the key of C, a Major 6th would be from a C moving up to an A. The “N-B” notes in the NBC theme song feature a prominent Major 6th interval.
Minor 7th (m7th)
A note of a C moving up 10 half steps to a Bb is the interval of a Minor 7th. This interval is featured in the original Star Trek theme.
Major 7th (M7th)
In the key of C, a note of a C moving 11 half steps up to a B is a Major 7th. A-Ha’s “Take On Me” features a Major 7th interval.
An octave is the distance between one note and the one sharing the same name 12 half steps above or below. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” features an octave in the first two notes of the vocal melody.
Intervals serve as the building blocks to basic chords. You can use your knowledge of intervals to build a simple Major, Minor, or Diminished chord. A piano chord chart like the ones we’ll show you in this article makes it easy to see the intervals and where the notes are. We’ll show you how to build these chords in the key of C, but feel free to explore other keys if you’re ready.
The sound of Major chords can be sort of difficult to describe to a musician who is just starting to memorize and identify intervals and chords by listening. They feature a whole or complete sound, as opposed to Minor chords which tend to sound morose and dramatic. The piano chord chart we’ll use to show you how to build features two easy-to-remember intervals: The Major 3rd and the Perfect 5th. We’ll refer to the note of C (or any note you build a chord from) as the root:
Like Major chords, Minor chords feature simple combinations of intervals. A root combined with the intervals of a Minor 3rd and Perfect 5th for Minor chords.
Diminished chords are tense, unsettled-sounding chords that feature the interval of a Tritone. If you’ve ever heard a piano playing jarring, dramatic chords during old silent movies where a villain ties a helpless girl down to train tracks, then the chords you heard were Diminished chords. Diminished chords are built from the root, a Minor 3rd, and a Tritone.
Major, Minor, and Diminished chords are considered basic chords because they’re found in every Major and Minor key in music. Following a simple piano chord chart for each type of basic chord will give you the knowledge to play any chord in any key. That’s not to say there aren’t other chords out there. Other intervals added on top of the basic chords we’ve covered make up new extended chords that create unique characters and moods. There’s no way to describe every kind of chord to you here in this article, but we’ll walk you through some of the more important ones.
Dominant 7th Chords
Dominant chords are built from Major chords with an interval of a Minor 7th added. The function of a Dominant chord is to provide tension that resolves back to the first chord in a key, which is typically referred to as the tonic. Blues music usually features simple progressions that include Dominant chords, and the tension and unresolved nature of these chords reflect the longing and dissatisfaction of the lyrical content of blues music because Dominant chords are only resolved with more Dominant chords. If you see a chord labeled “C7,” then the chord you’re seeing is a Dominant 7th chord. You’ll notice that this piano chord chart looks similar to the one for the C major chord. The only addition is the Bb, or the minor 7th.
Major 7th Chords
Major 7th chords are built from Major chords with the interval of a Major 7th added. Although the Major 7th interval can sometimes sound dissonant, the Major 7th chord sounds beautiful and light. These chords are frequently featured in jazz and pop music. Again, this piano chord chart will look very similar to the C Major example above, just with the added B or Major 7th.
Major 6th Chords
These chords are a favorite among songwriters and composers because they are can be heard as both Major and Minor chords. For example, a C Major 6th chord is made up of the notes C-E-G-A, and an A Minor 6th chord is made up of the notes A-C-E-G, the same notes but in a different order (we’d call that a chord inversion in music theory). Major 6th chords are built off of the notes from a Major chord with a Major 6th interval added.
Order of Notes
It’s completely up to you, the musician, how you want to play the chords you’ve learned here. Typically, the left hand plays the root of the chord, but that’s not always the case. Like we mentioned before, sometimes the bass note in a chord isn’t the root of the chord. When this happens, it’s called a chord inversion. Notes from any chord can be played multiple times in the same chord, and usually the root of the chord is repeated but not always. Also, it should be noted that these chords don’t have to be played in the order of root-3rd-5th as they’re laid out for you on the provided piano chord chart.
Plenty To Explore
Like we mentioned before, the vast array of possible interval combinations that form chords are too many to list and describe here, but using a simple piano chord chart to help you build basic chords is a great place to start. Once you master building basic chords, take some time to add different notes to form extended chords. From here, we recommend learning how to play simple chord progressions found in songs.