Chords lay the foundation for all music. If you understand how chords work and how to play them, you can unlock hundreds of songs. In this lesson, we’ll teach you the formulas to all major, minor, and seventh piano chords.
You can also download our free chord poster that shows all the chords we’ll discuss in C Major. Print this out and post it on the wall behind your piano!
In this lesson, we’ll stay in the key of C Major. This means we don’t have to worry about sharps and flats!
So, the notes we’ll work with are C-D-E-F-G-A-B.
To easily build chords, we’ll be using formulas that talk about these notes as degrees of the scale.
All this means is we’ll assign each note of the scale with a number. C is the first note of the C Major scale, so we’ll call it 1. D, the second note, we’ll call 2. So on and so forth until we reach B (note 7) and start over on C (note 1).🔥🎹 HOT TIP! SCALE DEGREES: Knowing how to talk about music in scale degrees can help with transposing, chord progressions, and more. To learn more about scale degrees, check out our lesson on Nashville Numbers.
The first chords we’ll learn are triads, which are chords made of three notes.
What it means to “flat” or “sharp” something: You’ll notice that we’ll be “flatting” or “sharping” some scale degrees (calling them “flat-three” or “sharp-five”). This means lowering or raising that note by a half-step. For example, note 3 in C Major is E, so when we get a formula like 1-♭3-5, we’ll lower E by a half-step by playing E-flat.
Is this lesson making you dizzy? If you’re new to chords, check out Chord Hacks, our six-part free course on chording fundamentals.
Seventh chords have an added seventh note to the triad. While triads sound great, seventh chords are what add personality to piano chord progressions.
It can be difficult to remember the difference between seventh chords — that’s okay! Learn chords one at a time. The name of a chord also gives you clues on how it’s built.
See a chord you don’t recognize? Don’t waste your time Googling! Find any chord fast and easy with the Pianote Chords & Scales Book. You’ll have every chord variation and inversion at your fingertips. Thousands of pianists are already using this every time they sit down to play, and it’s a game-changer. Grab yours today and make playing chords a piece of cake!
People often mix up major and dominant 7th chords — Cmaj7 vs. C7, for example. Dominant 7th chords (like C7) are built on the fifth note of a scale and will take the sharps or flats of that scale. For example, C7 is built on C, which is the fifth note of F Major. That’s why C7 has a B-flat; it’s the dominant 7th chord of F Major. Meanwhile, Cmaj7 is built within C Major, so there are no sharps and flats in that chord.
Hint: the formula to the Dominant 7th Flat 5 chord is in the name. Just take a normal dominant 7th chord (1-3-5-♭7) and add a ♭5!
The Minor 7 Flat 5 chord is also called the half-diminished 7th chord. Think of building this chord as building a Cm7 first, then flatting the fifth.
You can think of a diminished 7th chord as a “stack of minor thirds.” You may wonder why we call the seventh note B-double-flat instead of A. That’s because we want to keep the seventh chord formula of using the first, third, fifth, and seventh notes of the scale. In other words, we “spell” the chord within the alphabet of C Major. You can learn more about diminished 7th chords here.
Whew, that was a lot of chords to learn!
If you’re intimidated by the volume of chords, don’t worry, you don’t have to memorize them all at once! Print out the chord poster and hang it behind your piano. The more you make use of these chords, the more you’ll remember them.
When you’re ready to move on from C Major, try another key. It’s all the same formula. For example, a dominant 7th flat 5 chord in D Major is 1-3-♭5-♭7. Translated into D Major, it would be D-F#-A♭-C♮.
To learn more about keys, check out our lesson on the Circle of Fifths. Happy practicing!
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