Piano Chords

Now that you know the basics of melodies and playing with the right and left hand, it’s time to have a look at chords.


Chords are a combination of three or more notes, played simultaneously, that blend harmoniously together. There is no limit to the number of notes in a chord (except the number of your fingers!), but the simplest of chords is a triad – with only 3 notes.


These three (or more) notes don’t necessarily need to be played in one hand. It is still a chord if you are playing two notes in one hand and two in the other – as long as the notes are sounded simultaneously,


Chords are a vital ingredient in music because of the way they lead to and away from each other – they are not separate from the melody or bass line you are playing. Because chords are formed around scales, each note you play on the piano can be used in many different chords in a variety of ways. And certain chords sound better when played before or after other chords.


There are three important parts of a chord:


1. Tonic (or root) = the name note of the scale. E.g. the tonic note for the G major scale is G.


2. Major 3rd (or subdominant) = the third note up from the tonic. E.g. from G this would be B


3. Dominant (or perfect fifth) = the fifth note up from the tonic. E.g. for G, this would be D.

A chord made up from the notes of a tonic triad is called a ‘tonic’ chord, while a chord made up of the dominant triad is a ‘dominant chord’.


Have you ever noticed that most pieces of music finish with a sound of finality? This is because they finish on the tonic chord. On the other hand, if there isn’t a sense of resolution at the end of a piece, this is probably because the piece has finished on some other chord, so you feel a sense of incompletion at the end. Because humans have a natural desire for conclusion, a piece that ends on a chord OTHER than the tonic may leave you feeling rather unsettled!


As a side note: in jazz and pop, chords are often represented by roman numerals (I, II, IV etc), or sometimes, just by symbols like Dm, F, and so on. While I have included some chord names in the pieces for these lessons, it is not necessary to understand this notation at this stage.


When you form a chord, use the thumb, third and fifth finger to play the triad. This is the easiest and most natural position for your hand.


A great tool to help you learn chords is Chordhouse piano. This is a free site on the Internet that allows you to type in the name of any chord, and the notes that make up the chord will be highlighted on the keyboard.


Go to www.looknohands.com/chordhouse/piano.

Here are some basic chord patterns to play:


Tonic chords


C major: CEG


D major: DF#A


F major: FAC


Second inversions (chords using the same notes as the tonic, but starting on the second note of the tonic chord):


C major 2 nd inversion: EGC


D major 2 nd inversion: F#AD


F major 2 nd inversion: ACF


Third inversions (chords using the same notes as the tonic, but starting on the 3 rd note of the tonic chord):


C major 3 rd inversion: GCE


D major 3 rd inversion: ADF#


F major 3 rd inversion: CFA


Now try the chord inversions for C major below:

This first piece is made up entirely of block chords - although, apart from hymns, it is very unusual for a piece to be made up from JUST chords!


The time signature of this piece is 2/2, which means there are two minims to each bar. Notice that the chords in the left hand are all based around the C major chord. The chord symbols above, and while we won’t go into these in these lessons, hopefully you will be able to start to see the connection.

Glossary of Terms


Dominant: In music, the dominant is the fifth degree of the scale.


Harmony: Two or more notes played at the same time; in other words harmony deals with chords and simultaneous sounds.


Hymn: A song specifically written as a song of praise, adoration or prayer, typically addressed to a god.


Inversion: A chord with a note other than the tonic in the bass.


Subdominant: The fourth degree of the major or minor scale


Tonic: The tonic is the first note of a musical scale. The triad formed on the tonic note, the tonic chord is the most important chord.