Piano Chords Have Recipes,
But You Can’t Eat ‘Em!
Hopefully, this quick lesson about piano chords will be somewhat of a revelation to you. Once I learned the structure, and the magic formula for building virtually any chord, I was amazed at how structured and beautiful it was – almost as if God, or the Universe, or whatever higher power you believe in, had designed all of it to work out just right.
There are different types of piano chords that are generally associated with different “feelings” – happy, sad, tense, scary, etc. – and I’ll point out those associations as we go along. Please keep in mind that I am writing this using my “western” ear, without consideration for other scales found in eastern cultures – and there definitely is a difference.
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We’re going to start with a very basic set of chords here, and later we’ll get into more complicated chords, especially for you jazz piano players out there. So, please subscribe to your free email piano lessons below for more great piano chord tips!
Get Out Your Building Blocks
The most basic building blocks we have to work with on the piano are the piano notes themselves, and the distance between them, otherwise known as intervals. The smallest interval that can be played on the piano is called the half step, and is the smallest distance between two keys on the piano. That distance can be between a white key and a black key – like from C to C# (the black key immediately to the right of C) – or a white key and another white key – like from E to F. Both of these are half step intervals, and these are the units we’ll need to talk about when building piano chords.
So, let's get started...
That Chord Makes Me Happy!
Chances are, if you hear a chord that just sounds pleasant and happy, without any hint of sadness or tension, you’re probably hearing a major chord, the most basic, common chord there is. Any major chord is made up of two intervals stacked on top of each other: a major third and a minor third. Wait a minute…what’s a major and a minor third?!
Breaking things down into our building blocks, a major third is equal to 4 half steps. So, if we start on C (which is also called the root of the chord) and go up 4 half steps (C# – D – D# – E), then play those two notes (C and E) together, we have a major third.
A minor third is equal to 3 half steps. You can also think of it as “flatting” the major third, or lowering the major third one half step. A flat symbol (b) lowers a note one half step, and a sharp symbol (#) raises a note one half step. So, starting with E and going up 3 half steps (F – F# – G), and playing the E and G together give us a minor third.
Now, if we put those two intervals together, we end up playing C E G together, and that’s a major chord – voila!
Any major chord can be built this way, starting on any note on the piano. Just pick a starting note (like Ab), then play the note 4 half step above it (C), and also play the note 3 half steps above that (Eb). You’ve got a major chord!
This chord should sound pleasant, happy, and “stable.” If it doesn’t to you, chances are you’re playing the wrong notes, or you need your piano tuned!
Here's what it looks like in music and on the keyboard:
Ooh…The Sad Chord
OK, now that you’ve got the major chord, it’s “sad” relative is called the minor chord, and is very easy to create if you’re already playing the major chord. The recipe for the minor chord is simply a minor third with a major third stacked on top of it. In other words, start with the root (C, for example), go up 3 half steps (Eb), then go up 4 half steps (G), and you have a minor chord (C Eb G).
You probably noticed that we just took the major chord and lowered the middle note a half step. Try playing the major chord followed by the minor chord, and play them one after the other. Hear the difference in sound and “feeling”? The minor chord is usually associated with sad or "down" feelings.
Two Other Interesting Chords
Now, play the major chord (C E G), then raise the top note a half step (to G#) and play the chord again (C E G#). Sound a little weird? This is called an augmented chord. It’s usually associated with some degree of tension, which you can probably hear yourself.
It’s kind of a “dynamic” chord – meaning that it’s often used in moving from one chord to another – whereas the major and minor chords are more “static” – they sound OK played alone, without moving to any other chords.
Another interesting dynamic chord is the diminished chord. Simply play the major chord (C E G), then lower both the middle and top notes a half step (C Eb Gb). This is called a dimished chord, and also should sound like there’s some tension in it. Once again, this chord is often used to move between other chords when playing.
Well, that’s enough about piano chords for now. Later, we’ll talk more about how chords are combined into music, how alterations add even more color to piano chords, and how different types of piano chords are used in different situations. Stay tuned on our RSS feed or in your free email piano lessons!
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