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How to Play Piano Chords: Triads, 7ths, Extensions & More

Pianote  /  Chording / Jul 31

Cm7b5. Cdim7. Cadd9… If these symbols confuse you, you’ve come to the right place! This article is all about chord symbols and how to play piano chords of all types.

Click to a section if you need a quick reference or read this post from top to bottom. If you’re a total beginner, consider taking our free Chord Hacks course. That’s four free piano lessons about one of Western music’s most foundational concepts: chords!



How to Play Piano Chords: Triads

The following chords are usually played as triads, meaning they’re three-note chords. However, sometimes musicians will play these as four-note chords by doubling the root note.

🎹 WORD OF THE DAY: ROOT A chord’s root is the note it’s built on and named after. For example, the root note of a Cm chord is C, and the root note of a B♭maj7 chord is B-Flat.

For each chord type in this article, we’ll use C as the root as an example. We’ll also list the common name, chord chart symbol, and formula for each type of chord. The formula is based on the C Major scale.

Major Chords

Name: C Major
Chord symbol: C
Formula: 1-3-5

Let’s start with one of the simplest and most popular types of chords: major chords! Major chords sound “happy” and are built on the first, third, and fifth note of the major scale. If you know intervals, you can also think of a major triad as being a minor third on top of a major third.

How to play piano chords. C keyboard diagram with C, E, and G highlighted in red and higher C highlighted in pink. Formula: 1, 3, 5

Minor Chords

Name: C Minor
Chord symbol: Cm
Formula: 1-♭3-5

The minor chord is a close relative of the major chord. Minor chords sound “sad” and are built on the, first, flat third, and fifth note of the major scale. We flat the third by lowering that note a half-step. In Cm, E becomes E♭. You can also look at this triad as a major third over a minor third.

Cm keyboard diagram with C, E♭, and G highlighted in red and higher C highlighted in pink. Formula: 1, ♭3, 5

Diminished Chords

Name: C Diminished
Chord symbol: Cdim
Formula: 1-♭3-♭5

You can think of diminished chords as minor chords that have been “shrunk.” Like the minor chord, the third in this chord is lowered by a half-step. The chord further “shrinks” because we also lower the fifth by a half-step. The resulting chord can sound jarring, but when used appropriately, adds a dramatic flair to a song.

How to play piano chords. Cdim keyboard diagram with C, Eb, Gb highlighted in red and higher C highlighted in pink. Formula: 1, b3, b5.

Augmented Chords

Name: C Augmented
Chord symbol: Caug or C+
Formula: 1-3-#5

Augmented chords can be thought of as “wider” or “bigger” than a major chord. In an augmented triad, we take a major chord and raise the fifth by a half-step. 

Caug or C+ keyboard diagram with C, E, G# highlighted in red and higher C highlighted in pink. Formula: 1-3-#5.

🔥 Pop Quiz!

See if you can name what notes are in these chords. Answers are at the bottom of this post.

  1. E
  2. Bdim
  3. Faug

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How to Play Piano Chords: 7th Chords & Chord Extensions

You can play a lot of good music using just triads, but seventh chords are where things get magical. Seventh chords quickly jazz up a song because they add an extra layer of depth and tension to your harmonies.

Major 7th Chords

Name: C Major 7
Chord symbol: Cmaj7
Formula: 1-3-5-7

A major 7th chord is built by adding a major seventh to a major triad stack. These chords add a dreamy, jazzy feel to songs but still sound very “major.” Be careful not to mix up major 7th and dominant 7th chords—there is a difference!

How to play piano chords: Cmaj7 keyboard diagram with C, E, G, and B highlighted in red. Formula: 1, 3, 5, 7

Dominant 7th Chords

Name: C Dominant 7th or “C Seven”
Chord symbol: C7
Formula: 1-3-5-♭7

Dominant 7th chords have a flattened seventh note. This is because this chord takes the key signature of the note a perfect fifth down from the root. “Dominant” in music means “fifth.” Think of the chord’s root note (C) as the fifth note of a scale. Count down a perfect fifth, and you’ll land on F. F Major has one flat (B). Therefore, C7 is the dominant 7th chord of F Major and comprises C, E, G, and B♭.

How to play piano chords: C7 keyboard diagram with C, E, G, and Bb highlighted in red. Formula: 1, 3, 5, b7

Minor 7th Chords

Name: C Minor 7
Chord symbol: Cm7
Formula: 1-♭3-5-♭7

To create a minor 7th chord, take a minor triad (1-♭3-5) and add a minor seventh interval. If C is your root, your chord would be C-E♭-G-B♭.

How to play piano chords: Cm7 keyboard diagram with C, Eb, G, and Bb highlighted in red. Formula: 1, b3, 5, b7

Diminished 7th Chords

Name: C Diminished 7
Chord symbol: Cdim7
Formula: 1-♭3-♭5-♭♭7

Diminished 7th chords have a dramatic, “villainous” sound. While they may sound jarring on their own, appropriately used diminished 7th chords can add a powerful emotional punch to songs.

You can think of diminished 7th chords as a stack of minor 3rds. We double-flat the seventh, which makes the top note in Cdim7 equivalent to A. Learn more about diminished chords here.

Cdim7 keyboard diagram with C, Eb, Gb, and Bbb highlighted in red. Formula: 1, b3, b5, bb7

Half-Diminished 7th / Minor Seven Flat Five Chords

Name: Often just called “C Minor Seven Flat Five”
Chord symbol: Cm7♭5
Formula: 1-♭3-♭5-♭7

The half-diminished or flat-five chord strikes fear in many musicians because it looks super complicated, but it really isn’t! The instructions are in the name: just take a normal Cm7 chord and lower the fifth by a half-step.

How to play piano chords: Cm7b5 keyboard diagram with C, Eb, Gb, and Bb highlighted in red. Formula: 1, b3, b5, b7

Chord Extensions

In genres like jazz, you may find funny-looking chords like C9 or even Cmaj13! These are called chord extensions. Chord extensions refer to chords that have notes beyond the octave.

Basically, we keep stacking notes on top of a seventh chord to create tension. However, a key thing to remember is that numbers greater than 7 are, by default, major intervals from the root. So, a Cm13 chord has an A, not an A♭ (as it would if we were to use the C Minor key signature), because a major ninth from C is A.

Here are examples of chord extensions with the extended part in pink:

Chord extensions: three keyboard diagrams. Cmaj13: CEGB with numbers 1-3-5-7 highlighted in red and DFA with numbers 9-11-13 highlighted in pink. C13: CEGBbDFA with numbers 1-3-5-b7 highlighted in red and DFA with numbers 9-11-13 highlighted in pink. Cm13: CEbGBbDFA with numbers 1-b3-5-b7 highlighted in red and DFA with numbers 9-11-13 highlighted in pink.

Important: You do not have to play these chords with one hand! Most pianists will split these chords across two hands. And many pianists will even omit some notes, as sometimes too many notes can create dissonance. So, experiment with omitting different notes.

🔥 Pop Quiz!

What are the notes in the following chords? Answers are at the bottom of this post.

  1. Fmaj7
  2. Gm7
  3. D11

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How to Play Piano Chords: Other Chord Types

As you go along your piano chording journey, you’ll meet more interesting chord symbols and musical words that describe the context of a chord or what’s been altered. Here are some other common types of chords.

Diatonic Chords

See: Diatonic Chords, Explained

Diatonic chords refer to all the chords that naturally occur on a certain scale. These chords align with the scale’s key signature. For example, here are the diatonic chords of C Major:

C Major Diatonic chords on treble clef with chord names in red (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim) and Roman numerals in red (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio).

Interestingly, the pattern of chord types here is the same across all major keys. A ii chord in F Major will also be minor.

F Major Diatonic chords on treble clef with chord names in red (F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm, Edim) and Roman numerals in red (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, viio).
🔥🎹 HOT TIP! The Roman numerals refer to the scale degree the chord is built on. They also tell us whether a chord is major or minor. Uppercase letters mean the chord is major, and lowercase numbers mean the chord is minor. Learn more about the number system; it’s handy for chords!

Slash Chords

Slash chords look like a combination of a chord symbol and a single note. When you see a symbol like this, play the note to the right of the slash with your left hand as a bass note. Then, play the chord to the left of the slash with your right hand. You can think of this chord symbol as saying “play C over E.”

C/E is essentially a C chord in first inversion. Slash chords are how we notate inverted chords in a chord chart.

Slash chord keyboard diagram with C-E-G highlighted in red and labelled right hand and lower E highlighted in pink labelled left hand.
🔥🎹 HOT TIP! If you want to transition quicker between chords and alter the sound of your playing without changing the function and quality of a chord, learn about inversions!

“Sus” Chords

In this case, “sus” means “suspended.” Sus chords are when we suspend a middle tone and replace it with another.

In a sus2 chord, replace the third with the second note from the root. In a sus4 chord, replace the third with the fourth note from the root.

Sus chord keyboard diagram of Csus2 and Csus4. Csus2: CDG highlighted in red with E crossed out. Csus4: CFG highlighted in red with E crossed out.

“Add” Chords

When you see “add” in a chord name, this means add an extra tone on top of your existing triad.

The difference between “Cmaj9” and “Cadd9” is that Cmaj9 includes the whole stack of thirds, while Cadd9 just means add the ninth tone to the existing C triad.

Add Chords keyboard diagram: Cmaj9 with CEGBD highlighted in red. Cadd9 with CEGD highlighted in red.

🔥 Pop Quiz!

What are the notes in these chords? Find the answers at the bottom of this post.

  1. IV chord in A Major
  2. B♭/D
  3. Fsus2
  4. Gadd9

We hope you found this article on how to play piano chords helpful! For more free articles, interviews, tutorials, and more, subscribe to The Note, your source for the best piano content on the web!

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Pop Quiz Answers

Triads

  1. E = E-G♯-B
  2. Bdim = B-D-F
  3. Faug = F-A-C♯

7th Chords & Chord Extensions

  1. Fmaj7 = F-A-C-E
  2. Gm7 = G-B♭-D-F
  3. D11 = D-F♯-A-C-E-G

Other Chord Types

  1. IV chord in A Major = D-F♯-A
  2. B♭/D = B♭-D-F (right hand) over D (left hand)
  3. Fsus2 = F-G-C
  4. Gadd9 = G-B-D-A

Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note.

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