The ONE Thing You Need To Practice On Piano (And Why)

Lisa Witt  /  Practice  /  UPDATED Jan 16, 2023

There is no magic pill you can take to instantly get better at the piano and become the player you want to be.

No big shortcuts either. Believe me, I wish there were.

But there are things you can practice that will make a much bigger impact on your skill and progression. Not all practices are created equal, and by focusing on the things that will make the biggest difference, you’ll see results MUCH faster.

This lesson is all about one of those things.

Diatonic Chords


I know it sounds boring and technical, but hear me out. I’ll explain exactly what diatonic chords are in a second, but first, you need to know why practicing this will make such a big difference.

Practicing diatonic chords will help you to learn and play EVERY chord on the piano (not even kidding). Plus you’ll learn which chords sound good together so you can learn to play songs much faster and even write your own.

I can’t believe how many years of piano lessons I went through before I learned about diatonic chords. I was never taught this skill, which is a shame because it’s so easy to learn!

Convinced yet? Ok, let’s break it down.

“Diatonic” Defined

Diatonic is a fancy word that just means all the tones in a major or minor musical scale. It’s that easy. It refers to all the notes that naturally occur in those scales.

Let’s take a look at this in practice with the D major scale. Here’s what the scale looks like on the keyboard:

And here’s what it looks like in sheet music:

Every one of those notes is a diatonic note in the key of D major. So to build diatonic chords, you just need to build chords from those root notes – but still ONLY using the notes of the D major scale.

Some of the chords will be major, some will be minor (one will be diminished!). Let’s take a look at all of the diatonic chords of D major:

So the chords are:

D – Em – F#m – G – A – Bm – C#dim (C# diminished – don’t worry too much about this one, it is very rarely used).

So what does this all mean?

Here’s where things get fun. Diatonic chords are chords that sound “good” together when they are played in a chord progression. They match each other, they help lay the foundation for beautiful melodies, and they are used in 99% of popular songs.

Let me show you an example. Our song tutorial for “Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi is in the key of D. If you look at the chords used in that song they are:

D – A – Bm – G (and Em in the bridge). Every single one of those chords are diatonic chords for the key of D.

So … you now know which chords will sound good together when you are playing piano in the key of D.

But it doesn’t stop there

Did you notice the little Roman numerals under each chord in the graphic above? Those numeral are part of what we call the “Number System“. They can either be Roman numerals OR they can simply be numbers from 1-7.

The benefit of Roman numerals is that they tell you whether the chord is major or minor. If the numerals are capitalized (etc. I, IV, V) that means it’s a major chord. If they are lower case (ii, iii, vi) it means they are minor chords.

Each number represents one diatonic chord. So you can start using the numbers to create chord progressions. Some of them will sound super familiar to you – eg. the 1-5-6-4 progression (which is used in “Someone You Loved”). Others you might find sound unique.

How this makes you a better pianist

It’s all well and good to be able to play diatonic chords and chord progressions, but at the start of this post, I told you that practicing this will make a huge difference in your skill and progression, and allow you to learn EVERY chord on the piano.

Here’s how…

By learning and practicing your diatonic chords in different key signatures, you’ll naturally learn how to play them all, and you’ll know which ones sound good together.

Plus when you look at songs you’ll be able to instantly recognize the diatonic chord patterns so you’ll be able to learn, play and transpose them with ease.

If that sounds like a daunting task, don’t worry. Start small by choosing one or two key signatures a week, and incorporate diatonic chords into your daily practice.

Don’t be like me and wait years to find out just how wonderful this can be.

Have fun!

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for more than 20 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others. Learn more about Lisa.

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The easiest way to learn beautiful piano chords.
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