Why will knowing how to play your primary chords boost your confidence quickly? My decades of experience as a piano coach have made it clear to me that the majority of piano beginners want the shortest path to immediate results possible. This is understandable since even small successes breed further enthusiasm and interest. So what’s the best way to go?
Well, there is more than one option, of course. That said, it is my perspective that if you can get a handle on just a few of the most often used chords, the fun you can have with them can have you enjoying many hours at that piano or keyboard of yours.
Here’s How To Know What They Are
So, what are the chords used most often? Well, quite simply they are the the chords that are built on the first, fourth, and fifth degrees of a given scale. Let’s look at the note names in the key of C Major:
C D E F G A B C
The first, fourth, and fifth notes (or degrees) in this scale are C, F, and G. We use Roman numerals to refer to these scale degrees. Therefore, we can refer to these three degrees of the scale as I, IV, and V.
Once we build a chord on these degrees, we have the following:
C Major, F Major, and G Major (illustrated below)
The key furthest to the left in each of these chords is the name of the chord. We call this the Root of the chord.
These three chords, the I chord, IV chord, and V chord, form the “backbone” of the key of C Major. You will notice that if you actually play all these chords at the same time (not practical), you are playing all the members of this scale.
The I, IV, and V chords are known as the primary chords, or primary triads, of the key (a triad is a chord that consists of three notes).
These Primary Chords Serve As Your Foundation
The great news? Once you can play these three chords, you can play a lot of songs! That’s right… countless tunes include just these three chords. Here’s even more good news: all the other chords you will learn have their basic foundation in these three chords. Once you have a handle on these three, you are actually in a much better position than you might currently imagine.
Okay, since you know that there certainly is value in knowing this chord “trio,” let’s not put it off any longer. It’s time to play them!
Free Video Shows You How To Play These Chords And More
Since these three chords are primary, they are more apt to be used in most songs. A person trained to play by ear automatically listens for the existence of these chords. So, by making it a priority to familiarize yourself with them, you’re doing a world of good for your musicianship.
Keep It Fun
You’re on your way, so have fun mastering these major triads! By the way, if you ever have a question, feel free to send it my way. I would love to hear from you.
I want to put it on the table right away so there is no misunderstanding. It is not my intention to minimize the benefits of reading music. The ability to read music opens you to an entire world of wonderful possibilities.
That said, let’s be real. Based on my over four decades of teaching people, I know for a fact that there are lots of people out there who never even gave themselves permission to enjoy themselves tickling those ivories because they saw “the need to read” as an obstacle to overcome. They let that stop them from having fun getting involved with what could be an absolutely terrific, fulfilling hobby. I also think it’s accurate to say that most of these people are not aware that some of the most outstanding musicians of our time never learned to read music.
When an adult with absolutely no experience enters my studio, getting them to learn how to read music is the least of my concerns for the time being. The main goal is to get that individual to express himself or herself in a musical way as soon as reasonably possible. Most of the time, within about 20 minutes, these people become intrigued by the possibilities in front of them.
Expressing Yourself Is Natural
Remember this: you expressed yourself verbally before you could read or write your language. When you were hungry, you learned quickly how to cry for food. When you were thirsty, your instincts made it easy to get your message across.
Making music can be the same way… and it ought to be.
A most delightful way to enjoy quick results at the piano or keyboard is to explore your harmonic possibilities. Harmony can be simply defined as two or more notes played together that sound good. A chord can be easily defined as harmony that consists of three or more notes played together that sound good.
So, friend, if you want to start enjoying yourself at the piano without knowing how to read a note of music, start having fun learning chords. Chords are where it’s at!
A Quick Way To Have Fun With Chords At The Piano
I put together a very informal, easy-to-understand video and guidebook that makes learning your basic chords so easy, it’s almost funny. It doesn’t require shipping. As with everything in our online store, you can gain instant access to it. It’s called Piano Chords 101 and you can click here to start having fun with playing chords right away. Yes, I mean within minutes, not hours.
You see, there is something about even just playing chords on the piano that is satisfying. I believe that we were put on this planet to live in harmony. So it makes sense that producing harmony is a very natural, rewarding experience.
Sure, once you learn those chords, you’ll soon be in touch with creative things you can do with them. Actually, that video described above will get you started playing chords in a creative way. There is no time like the present to begin making music… let that time be now.
Contrary to what is normally introduced to a new student during a first piano lesson, my choice is to immediately expose that individual to the diatonic chord system. Why? Because once understood even to a small degree, anyone can sound good at the piano almost immediately.
I will generally introduce that person to the basic triads (three-note chords) in the key of C Major. Following that, we look at these same chords arranged in fifth intervals. Once a student’s two hands can somewhat comfortably play these chords around the diatonic circle of fifths, he or she experiences a sort of mystified delight that says, “Wow, I didn’t know I could be doing this so quickly!” It’s no surprise that this new student’s curiosity is aroused and he or she has a genuine desire to explore further.
It’s A Natural Musical Law
Gravity is a basic law that we all have to live by. If you hold a ball in mid-air and let go, the ball must fall downward. It’s a natural force. In a somewhat similar way, music has a “gravitational force.” I’m referring to the natural progression of chords that is most pleasing to the ear. Although there are many directions a chord can move, the strongest root motion that exists in music is “down a fifth.” As an example, a C Major chord is likely to be followed by an F chord of some kind more than any other chord (Going downward, C B A G F is a fifth since five letters are included). Is this always the case? Of course not. However, it is the strongest and most natural tendency.
Playing With Gravity
One of the most interesting harmonic characteristics of music is how a composer or improviser will play games with this “law of musical gravity” by defying it and returning to it. For example, that same C Major chord can move upward to a D minor chord… or to an E minor chord… or any other chord. So, this “musical gravity” is played with (or somewhat defied) but it usually gets revisited. Just take a look at a number of songs in any collection that you might have and look at the last two chords of the song. A good percentage of the time, you will find the second to the last chord of the song progressing down a fifth interval to the final chord of the song (which is usually the chord assuming the same name of the key the song is in). For example, if the song is in the key of C Major, the last two chords are often a G chord or some kind followed by a C chord.
Let’s take a look at the key of C Major. Our scale consists of:
C D E F G A B C
If we assign each of these letters as being a “root” of a chord (or name of a chord), we will have a C chord, D chord, E chord, F chord, G chord, A chord, and a B chord.
We can easily build a chord on each of these roots by simply playing the root and two more tones that are each a third away from the previous letter. In simple terms, if you play C, then skip D and play E, then skip F and play G, you are playing C, E, G which is a C major chord. In effect, you are starting with the name of the chord and then playing “every other letter.”
If we took this a step further, we could add the B to the chord, creating a Cmaj7 chord (C, E, G, B).
We won’t get into all the theory here, but we could apply this same system to all the other notes in our C Major scale:
C E G B
D F A C
E G B D
F A C E
G B D F
A C E G
B D F A
All these chords are in the key or C Major because they are derived from the scale of C Major and ONLY notes from the C Major scale have been used… that’s what we mean by diatonic.
You will note that the roots of the above chords simply follow the order of the letter of the scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B).
Let’s Put Them In A Circle of 5ths
However, if we start with the C chord and “move down a fifth,” we arrive at an F (like we did earlier). Taking it further, that F moves down a fifth to a B… then we move to E… etc.
Then this order of our new arrangement would look like this:
C E G B
F A C E
B D F A
E G B D
A C E G
D F A C
G B D F
Yes, we are playing the same chords but each chord “moves down a fifth” to the next.
Let’s illustrate this arrangement in the form of a circle:
[You will often see this diatonic circle of fifths presented going in a counterclockwise direction instead. However, the root motion is still “down five.”]
You will notice that Roman numerals are used in the illustration to designate a chord built on the first letter of the scale (I), fourth letter of the scale (IV), etc. It is common for Roman numerals to be used when discussing chord functionality in music.
Let’s Hear This Diatonic Circle Of 5ths
This short excerpt from Chord Progressions And How They Work demonstrates how this progression of chords sounds so natural. This movement of fifths is quite appealing. Let it also be noted that no song was in mind while playing this. This was just a simple improvisation around the diatonic circle of fifths. That’s one of the terrific things about familiarizing yourself with this circle in the early stages of learning. For one, you are really getting a handle on how music works. Also, you have a guide that you can use to play in a way that sounds terrific instantly!
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Undertanding This = Musical Mastery
You see, when you are completely aware of the scale or key that your music is centered on, you are in command, whether that be as an improviser or a composer. Mastering the diatonic circle of 5ths is likely to inspire you to both improvise and compose. We have just taken a look at the key of C Major. However, you will want to eventually explore this circle in all your keys. talk about musical confidence!
Playing Music By Ear
Would you like to master the art of playing by ear? Then you’ve just been handed the ticket! By having your antennae set to hear chords progressing around this circle, you will amaze yourself! Friend, your entire musical world will open wide once you tune into this.
Just a note: if you happen to take advantage of that video session, and your watching and listening leads you to having some questions, I would love to hear from you. I have a deep sense of appreciation for your wanting to really grasp this.
We are going to take a look at a chord voicing that you really ought to know if you would like to add some dimension to those standard tunes. Actually, I’ve had my private students apply this particular voicing to every chord in a ballad such as Erroll Garner’s Misty because it sounds great. If you use just this one chord voicing throughout a ballad, you will indeed sound “pro.” If you are a more advanced player, you’ll want to use it in conjunction with others, of course.
Your familiarity with 7th chords is rather essential to take advantage of this. If you are not at that point yet, let this serve as some inspiration to want to get a handle on some of those 7th chords!
Okay, this same formula applies to all your 7th chords, so we’ll use Cmaj7 for our example. Let’s take a look at what a Cmaj7 looks like in its basic root position:
This chord is also said to be in closed position since all the chord tones are as close to each other as they can be (we’re about to change that).
This chord certainly sounds nice just as it is. However, as you will notice in the chord video, making one subtle change to this chord can make a world of difference.
One Subtle Change Is All it Takes
If we take the 3rd of the chord (in this case, E) and simply play it one octave higher instead, our result is still Cmaj7, of course. However, we are now playing a Cmaj7 in open position. Yes, we have “opened” the chord up since not every chord tone is as close to each other as possible (the E in between the C and G is no longer being played). Play this chord and listen:
The sound texture of this new chord structure is much different, yes? By the way, when we rearrange tones of a chord in this fashion, we are “voicing” the chord. The same basic chord is being played but it is restructured a bit. The topic of chord voicings will be acknowledged more and more on this site.
Below you can watch and listen to a few minutes of a video session that I had fun with as I demonstrated different techniques within the context of Duke Ellington’s Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. You can skip to 2:00 on the counter if you like. If you’re interested in the full session, you can visit here. In this particular excerpt, we are demonstrating the use of this chord voicing described above:
I cannot emphasize enough the value of applying this chord voicing formula (1-5-7-3) to each and every 7th chord you know and using it within the context of your favorite songs. You will reap the benefits for a long time to come!
In one form or another, a common question I’ve been asked by many pianists who aspire to become comfortable with playing from lead sheets has been, “What do I do with that left hand?”
Many of these people know how to play the chords that are asked for in the music but feel limited with their capacity to make them sound like anything to talk about. In other words, they might be able to comfortably play a chord like Gmaj7 in its basic form as shown here:
but when it comes to actually incorporating that chord into a ballad, they feel at a loss for ideas. Does that sound familiar?
The Mistake Most Piano Beginners Make
Okay, let me say it straight:
Most people who find themselves in this situation are overthinking about what they should be doing.
You see, it’s really easy to be dazzled by the many chords and jazz piano voicings that the pros play when performing these standard songs. It’s quite another to feel overwhelmed by thinking that you need to know them all in order to sound “pro.”
I’m all for expanding your chord voicing repertoire. actually, I created a 25-lesson program devoted to that. After all, the more colors an artist has on his or her palette, the more choices there are with painting a picture. However, on that same note (!), I will say that a truly creative artist would be able to paint a beautiful masterpiece with just three basic colors like red, blue, and green.
The Real Key To Sounding “Pro”
It’s not WHAT colors you use but HOW you use them. This applies equally to the harmonic colors of music. Please don’t forget this. It is so crucial to the development of your musical artistry.
It’s not uncommon for an individual to approach me for lessons in my studio who has a handle on playing those basic chords and is eager to expand on his/her chord voicing and improvisation skills. However, that person has not displayed any competency with using the tools they know in an artistic manner. The most important point I strive to help this person understand is that the ability to play artistically starts right from the beginning.
You don’t have to wait until you know a massive vocabulary in order to sound articulate, do you? Of course not. Well, the same is true when it comes to performing music. You don’t have to wait until you know a massive chord or voicing vocabulary in order to sound artistic.
Remember: “artistic” does not necessarily mean “fancy.”
You can take that to the bank. If you want to sound “pro,” then practice sounding “pro” with what you already know. I have so much to say about this to my private students. I don’t think a day goes by in the studio when this matter isn’t brought to someone’s attention. I’ll very likely be talking more about it in upcoming writings here, too.
For now, remember, it’s not WHAT you say but HOW you say it.
Consider the other aspects of performing besides fancy chords that come into play when putting a song across: dynamics (volume contrasts), piano keyboard range used, and more.
A Simple “Pro” Left Hand Technique You’ll Want To Own
In this video below, which is just the first few minutes of a one-hour session I created called Sneak Peeks 2, four basic chords are being used: Gmaj7, G#dim7, Amin7, and D7. Since this is the very beginning of the video lesson, you may want to skip right to 1:30 on the counter when we actually start this demonstration:
You’ll notice that the left hand is alternating between playing the “shell,” which is the 1 and 7 of the chord, and playing the full chord. You see, this might be equated to an artist lightly stroking the brush on the canvas with a blue and then stroking a little more heavily with brush for different textural effects.
For your reference, here is the lead sheet excerpt Ted Koehler’s and Harold Arlen’s Stormy Weather being used for this demonstration:
Use It To The Point Of Mastery
This simple technique can be applied to virtually any ballad that you know or will learn. Remember to keep the melody in the spotlight and allow those left- hand bass notes and chords (and shells) to just be there without much emphasis. If you remain sensitive to this concept in your playing, you can perform any ballad in a way that really displays to the listener that you are an artist at those keys… because you are!
To the beginner with little or no experience or even the classical player whose experience is limited to reading and interpreting the written page, I offer the same suggestions when it comes to being able to play piano creatively.
If you have subscribed to the mindset that playing creatively is reserved for the advanced player, I would like to encourage you to have an open mind about this. I promote creativity right from the start. It’s fun, boosts confidence, and serves as incentive to want to take future steps on your musical journey.
A Most Chordial Visit
Upon entering my piano studio for the first time, a beginner usually learns enough to be able to explore creativity on those keys, at least to a point. I believe – more accurately – I know that a person has the ability to speak music before completely understanding the language.
To help clarify this, let me ask you: At what age did you start expressing yourself verbally? Did you utter your first words after you learned how to read or write the letters of the alphabet?
On the contrary. You were speaking long before you were able to spell those words and phrases that came from your mouth. Before you could read or write, you spoke the language.
To take that a bit further, you had no concern about how to read or write what you were saying. You spoke with confidence. When you were thirsty, you asked for a drink. When you were hungry, you asked to eat. When an adult handed you a phone, you said hello.
In other to do this, you had acquired the ability to use phonetics by hearing them from others and repeating them. By the way, there are people who can play music by ear quite well in this fashion without even knowing how to read or write music. How? The same way we just mentioned. They heard and repeated.
It’s true that knowing how to read a language, whether it’s English, French, Italian, or Music will expand your musical experience. You are encouraged to want to do that. Right now, I’m saying that you can take the first steps of speaking some music before that just like you were speaking your language prior to reading or writing it.
You can think of the “phonetics” that you need to know as the keys on your piano keyboard. Press a key and hear the sound. Go ahead and do that now.
See? You can speak.
Perhaps that was equivalent to “goo-goo” or “gaa-gaa” as a baby but, hey, you have to start somewhere, right?
Once we know that you can press a key, we take things a step further. We ask you to play two keys at the same time… then three.
Now, the good news. You only need to play three keys to play a chord.
See all those white keys on the keyboard? Pick any three that are not exactly each to other, but separated by one key, like this:
You don’t have to be concerned with which particular keys you are playing. Just play three keys… you’re just making sure you’re playing “every other key.”
What fingers do you use? We’ll eventually get to that but simply play them. What you are playing is a chord! You might be playing one of these keys with your left hand and the other two with your right (or vice versa). It’s a chord no matter how you play it.
This can be the beginning of playing music for you if you are a beginner. If you are an experienced player, you likely know this is a chord but we’ll get more creative with chords in subsequent posts.
If you play any two of those notes, you are playing harmony. A chord is harmony that consists of three or more notes.
The next step is to start being comfortable playing these three keys with the fingers of just one hand. It may take some time for this to feel natural but that’s normal. The fingers you would use for either hand would be your thumb, middle, and pinkie.
To make the most of this session of ours, have some fun playing chords on the piano with your left hand and your right hand (not necessarily at the same time), using the fingers mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Remember, you can play any three keys as long as they are separated by a key in between so your chord looks a bit like our image above. Again, you don’t have to be concerned where on the piano you play these. That said, you will notice for yourself that they tend to sound a bit better when you don’t go too far to the left of the keyboard. However, don’t be afraid to play them there, too. It’s all an adventure!
Play a chord… listen…. move your hand and play another chord… listen… repeat… repeat… repeat.
Okay… ready to make more sense of this? Would you like to be playing chords with more confidence within a matter of minutes? Great! Click on the Free Chord Lesson in the menu above to download a free video. You’ll be learning how to play major chords on the piano. As a matter of fact, by the time you finish following the suggestions in that video, you’ll be able to play ALL 12 major triads on the piano with both hands… now that’s AWESOME!
[Sidebar] I realize that each person’s experience is different from another. I’ll ask that you simply bear with me through any of these sessions by understanding that my intention is to assume that the reader may have no experience at all. If you would like clarification of anything you’ve been exposed to hear, why not send me an email? I’ll be happy to try to help.