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Chording 101: Everything You Need to Know About Piano Chords

Charmaine Li  /  Chording / Aug 24

Understanding piano chords will take you far. In fact, knowing just a handful of chords will unlock hundreds, if not thousands of popular songs. Chords underlie modern Western music (pop, jazz, Classical, folk, rock, you name it) and are how we build beautiful melodies and harmonies.

And you don’t necessarily need to be a master sight reader to be good at chords.

This article will give you an in-depth, high-level introductory look at piano chords. It’ll also direct you to more detailed resources such as free lessons on intervals, progressions, and chord notation systems.

By the way, if you prefer videos over reading, our free, hands-on Chord Hacks course pack might be perfect for you!


Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1: WHAT ARE CHORDS?

Girl in stripy shirt playing light blue keyboard with mic in front of band with drums and bass.

Simply put, a chord is any combination of two or more notes played at the same time. That’s it!

1.1 Why Piano Chords Are King

So what’s the big deal with chords? 

Well, chords are what allow us to harmonize, form melodies, and write cadences that end a song in a satisfying way.

The presence of chords may not be immediately obvious when you look at a piece of music, but once you learn how to identify them, you’ll start to see chords everywhere. For example, take a look at the sheet music for “Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi.

Lead sheet of first line of "Someone You Loved" by Lewis Capaldi with chords and notes belonging to chords labelled.

As you can see, in the first measure, all the notes of the melody belong to the D chord (D-F#-A). And in the second measure, most of the notes hail from the A chord (A-C#-E).

Another good thing about chords is you don’t necessarily need to know how to read sheet music in order to use them.

We’ll run over piano chords in detail in this article. But first, let’s review what intervals are.

1.2 Intervals

Main article: Understanding Intervals on the Piano

An interval is the distance between two notes.

Each interval has a distinct sound. There is also theory behind each interval, but the easiest way for beginners to get a feel for intervals is to associate them with a song. Here are some intervals that use C as a starting point:

Intervals By Ear

INTERVALNAMESONG
C to DMajor 2ndMary Had a Little Lamb
C to DbMinor 2ndJaws theme
C to EMajor 3rdWhen the Saints Go Marching In
C to EbMinor 3rdGreensleeves
C to FPerfect 4thWedding March
C to GPerfect 5thTwinkle, Twinkle Little Star
C to AMajor 6thMy Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean
C to AbMinor 6th“Because” (The Beatles)
C to BMajor 7th“Don’t Know Why” (Norah Jones)
C to BbMinor 7thStar Trek theme
C to CPerfect OctaveOver the Rainbow

The other way to understand intervals is to remember how many half or whole steps are between them.

Diagram of keyboard with half steps and whole steps labelled.

Here’s a summary of intervals understood in terms of half and whole steps. Don’t worry too much about memorizing all this information for now. Just refer back to these tables if you’re not sure what we mean by an interval.

Intervals by Steps

INTERVALNUMBER OF HALF STEPSNUMBER OF WHOLE STEPS
Major 2nd21
Minor 2nd1n/A
Minor 3rd31.5
Major 3rd42
Perfect 4th52.5
Perfect 5th73.5
Major 6th94.5
Minor 6th84
Major 7th115.5
Minor 7th105
Perfect Octave126

The best way to remember intervals and chords is to play them. With enough practice, you’ll be able to hear chord and interval types by ear, no memorization required.

A basic understanding of intervals will help you identify and build chords.

CHAPTER 2: BASIC PIANO CHORDS

Angled photo of Roland V-Grand piano in Pianote studio.

Building chords made up of notes that sound good together is easy. By remembering a few simple formulas, you can build chords on any note in any key.

The first type of chord you should learn how to build on the piano is a triad. A triad is a chord made up of three notes arranged according to certain rules.

2.1 How to Build Major and Minor Triads

Main article: Major vs. Minor Chords—What’s the Difference?

Major and minor triads are piano chords that you’ll find in almost every single song. Major triads sound “happy” and minor triads sound “sad.”

One thing to remember when talking about chords is the term for each note in a standard chord “stack”:

  1. The root note is the note the chord is built upon. However, the root note isn’t always at the very bottom of the stack! (Learn more about this in the inversions section.)
  2. The third is the note a third above the root. In a triad, it’s sandwiched in the middle
  3. The fifth is the note a fifth above the root.
  4. The seventh is the note a seventh above the root.
C-E-G piano chord on treble clef staff with root, third, and fifth labelled.

Major Triad Formula

Keyboard diagram and C-E-G piano chord on treble clef with intervals and half-steps labelled.

A major triad contains a major third, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. A major triad can also be formed by counting 4 half-steps above the root note (the note you choose to build a chord upon), and by counting 3 half-steps from the middle note.

Minor Triad Formula

Keyboard diagram and C-Eb-G piano chord on treble clef with intervals and half-steps labelled.

A minor triad contains a minor third, a major third, and a perfect fifth. You can also form this chord by counting 3 half-steps above the root note, and by counting 4 half-steps above the middle note.

2.2 Seventh Chords

Main article: Playing With Minor and Major Seventh Chords

Seventh chords have a dreamy, colorful sound. If you plan to play jazz piano, seventh chords are a must-know.

There are several different types of seventh chords, but the ones you’ll run into most are major 7th chords, minor 7th chords, and dominant 7th chords.

Cmaj7 piano chord on treble clef with major 7th interval between C and B.

Major 7th Chords

A major 7th chord consists of a major triad and a minor triad. For example, Cmaj7 consists of the triad C-E-G (major) and the triad E-G-B (minor). You’ll also notice that the interval between C (our root note) and B (our seventh) is a major 7th interval.

Cm7 piano chord on treble clef with major triad (Eb-G-Bb) and minor triad (C-Eb-G) labelled.

Minor 7th Chords

A minor 7th chord contains a minor triad followed by a major triad. For example, Am7 has the triad A-C-E (minor) and the triad C-E-G (major). The interval been A and G is a minor 7th.

Dominant 7th Chords

In general, a dominant 7th chord is a seventh chord built on the fifth note of the scale. For example, the dominant 7th of C Major is G7 (G-B-D-F), and the dominant 7th of A Minor is Em7 (E-G-B-D).

C Major diatonic chords with Roman numerals underneath and V7 (dominant 7th) circled.

In chord charts, dominant 7th chords are written without the “maj” like C7, G7, and C#7.

Dominant 7th chords use the same sharps and flats as the key they’re the fifth note of. So, the intervals involved don’t use the same seventh interval.

C7 piano chord on treble clef with minor 7th labelled between C and Bb.

2.3 Diminished Chords

Main article: The Most Villainous Chord Piano Chord

A diminished chord is a stack of minor thirds. Here is a diminished 7th chord in C Major. The superscript “o” indicates the chord is a diminished chord.

Diminished chords are rife with tension and create a dramatic, horror-movie-like sound.

viio7 piano chord on treble clef with intervals labelled.

You’ll discover that the more types of chords you learn, the more colors you’ll have in your palette to make interesting music.

2.4 What Piano Chords Go Well Together (Diatonic Chords)

Main article: Diatonic Chords, Explained

If you want an easy way to find chords that fit well together, learn diatonic chords.

The term “diatonic chords” sounds very scientific and complex, but it’s a pretty simple concept. Diatonic chords are simply chords built on the degrees of a scale. C is the first degree of the C Major scale, D is the second, and so on.

C Major diatonic chords on treble clef with Roman numerals on top and note names on the bottom.

If you don’t know how to read sheet music yet, that’s okay! In fact, it may be easier to visualize diatonic piano chords on the keyboard. Simply use the triad shape and scooch it up the scale, like this:

If you build a triad on every note of the scale, you would find all the diatonic chords of that key. These triads, major or minor, are what chords go well together if you’re chording a song in C Major.

🔥🎹 HOT TIP: If you’re curious about why we use Roman numerals to indicate chords built on a certain scale degree, check out the Nashville Number System. Using numbers to talk about chords frees you from the constraints of key and makes transposing a piece of cake.

2.5 Four Piano Chords to Know First

Main article: Play Hundreds of Songs With Just Four Chords

We’ve talked about major, minor, seventh, diminished, and diatonic chords. Wow, that’s a lot of chords!

This can be very overwhelming for a beginner, which is totally understandable.

But here’s a secret: if you just want to start playing songs on the piano and have fun, you really only need to know a handful of specific chords. In fact, there are four chords that appear over and over again in pop songs. These chords are: C, G, Am, and F.

Here’s how to play them on the right hand with the bass note on the left.

C Chord

C chord on grand staff and keyboard diagram with notes highlighted and labelled in red.

G Chord

G chord on grand staff and keyboard diagram with notes highlighted and labelled in red.

Am Chord

Am chord on grand staff and keyboard diagram with notes highlighted and labelled in red.

F Chord

F chord on grand staff and keyboard diagram with notes highlighted and labelled in red.

THESE are your four secret ingredients! You can literally play dozens of songs with just these chords.

Don’t believe us? Here are some famous songs you can play right away:

“Let It Be” (The Beatles)

“Let It Be” is one of our most popular song tutorials ever, and for good reason. Almost everyone knows (and loves) this classic, it’s easy to sing, and it’s simple to play. We have a full free tutorial for this song that remains one of our biggest crowd-pleasers.

“Cups” (Anna Kendrick)

This is a campfire classic from everyone’s favorite a capella movie, Pitch Perfect. You can download the free chord chart here and make sure to check out our 4 Easy Piano Songs tutorial where we feature this song. Once you can play the piano part, why not grab a friend to play the cups and duet together? 🥤

“Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)

Funny enough, “Hallelujah” references the exact diatonic chords we’re talking about in the lyrics: “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor falls, the major lifts…” (F and G are the fourth and fifth chords of C Major). There’s an extra E chord that appears near the end, but otherwise, it’s mostly just our four basic chords.

CHAPTER 3: BEYOND ROOT POSITION

Closeup of hands on piano with one hand pointing at keyboard.

So far, we’ve been talking about chords in root position. Root position is the default position of chords. It’s when all the notes of a chord are neatly stacked in thirds of a certain order. Some people call these Snowman Chords.

C-E-G chord on treble clef with root: C, third: E, fifth: G labels and doodle of snowman.

In this section, we’ll look at playing chords in ways other than root position. We’ll mix them up, switch in notes, and even visit unusual chords that give distinct sounds.

3.1 Chord Inversions

Main article: Ultimate Guide to Piano Chord Inversions

Inversions are when you re-position the notes of a chord a certain way.

For example, take the root position of the C Major chord, C-E-G. The 1st inversion is when we flip C up to the top, creating E-G-C. The 2nd inversion is when we flip the chord again, making G-C-E.

Keyboard and treble clef diagram of C Major chord in root, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion with keys on keyboard labelled with fingering and note names highlighted in red.

The tricky thing to remember about inversions is that 1st inversion is not the first position of this chord. Root position is.

Inversions are useful because they give you a variety of ways to play the same chord. This way, you create the same harmonic effect as a root position chord with just a slight difference in sound.

Inversions can also serve as a shortcut between chords. For example, jumping from the root position of C Major to the root position of F Major is a bit of a leap.

BUT, moving from C Major root position to F Major 2nd inversion is a piece of cake. Right next door!

The best way to practice and get familiar with inversions is to memorize shapes, not notes. Inversion shapes are consistent across keys.

You can find more practice tips and a downloadable set of inversion chord charts here.

3.2 Slash Chords

Main article: What Are Slash Chords?

Slash chords look weird, but they’re straightforward to decipher.

The first letter to the left of the slash is the chord you’re playing. Usually, we play this with our right hand.

The letter to the right of the slash is the note you’ll play in the bass with your left hand. So, the slash essentially means “over.”

Slash chord on keyboard diagram with notes highlighted in red and labelled. Other labels include left and right hand and slash meaning "over."

So, if you see G/B, you play the G chord (G-B-D) on your right hand “over” a B on your left.

You may notice that this is, essentially, a G chord in 1st inversion. So, you can think of slash chords as instructions to play inversions.

3.3 Sus Chords

Main article: Sus Chords 101

No, sus chords aren’t suspicious 🙂 The “sus” stands for “suspended” and it simply means to substitute the middle note of a chord (the third) for something else.

There are two types of sus chords, sus2 and sus4. In a sus2 chord, we substitute the third with the second note from the root. In a sus4, we substitute the third with the fourth note from the root.

Here’s an example with a C Major chord:

C chord, Csus2, and Csus4 chord diagrams with notes on treble clef and keyboard diagrams with notes highlighted in red and labelled.

Because sus chords can sound unresolved, a good rule of thumb is to return to the non-sus chord and end on that. For example, if you have a C chord for four beats, you can play a sus chord on the third beat for an extra splash of color, then land back on the C chord for the fourth beat.

3.4 BONUS! Special Chords

Throughout history, some musicians have established a signature sound with unique chords. Here are a few.

The Hendrix Chord

The Hendrix Chord comes from rock legend Jimi Hendrix’s hit “Purple Haze.”

The original chord in “Purple Haze” is E7#9. What this means is we take an E7 chord (E-G#-B-D) and add a ninth on top: F# (the F is sharped because that’s a Major 9th interval above E).

Then, we sharp the F# again, landing us in Fx (F-augmented), otherwise known as G natural.

Our friend Ayla at Guitareo shows you how to play the Jimi Hendrix chord on guitar.

The final chord is E-G#-B-D-G. This chord is so funky because it sounds major and minor at the same time. Usually, putting G# and G-natural next to each other will clash, but since these notes are spread across a distance, the chord doesn’t sound bad, just unique.

The Neapolitan Chord

Some special chords require the context of a chord progression to understand their significance.

Take the Neapolitan Chord. Does this chord come in three flavors—vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry? Not exactly, but, as demonstrated in this insightful video, the Neapolitan does add some dramatic flavor to European classical music.

Jazz YouTuber Adam Neely demonstrates the Neapolitan chord’s usage in European classical music.

The Neapolitan chord is a major triad built on the flattened supertonic (supertonic = second note) of a scale. When used in a chord progression like bii – V7 – i, it creates a satisfying, dramatic, and moody sound. If it reminds you of Beethoven, you’re on to something. Beethoven used the Neapolitan Chord in Moonlight Sonata.

The Tristan (or Harry Potter) Chord

The Tristan Chord takes its name from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, a dramatic story about love, murder, potions, and all that exciting stuff. It’s a decidedly dissonant chord, and it was considered revolutionary at the time because it challenged what was accepted as sounding “nice.”

As shown in this video, the Tristan Chord lies between a i chord and a V7 chord. The video explains that, ordinarily, it’s the V7 chord that creates tension. However, the Tristan chord adds additional “pre”-tension to the V7’s tension…which creates the illusion that we’re resolving on the V7.

This chord is used in John Williams’ score for the Harry Potter movies. So, perhaps a more modern name for this chord is the Harry Potter Chord. Indeed, it does sound dark and witchy…

Tommaso Zillio shows how the Tristan Chord is used in dramatic works like Tristan and Isolde and Harry Potter.

CHAPTER 4: PIANO CHORD PROGRESSIONS

Lisa playing Fazioli grand piano in black dress, shot from behind at an angle.

Chords, by themselves, sound okay. But what makes chords magical is when they’re used in a chord progression. Everything you’ve learned about chords will coalesce here!

4.1 What is a Chord Progression?

Main article: All About Piano Chord Progressions

A chord progression is a sequence of chords that sound good together. Chord progressions are what songs are made of. The movement of chords evoke tension, narrative, and, when chords resolve, a sense of completeness.

A chord progression many music students learn first is the cadence. A cadence is a progression of two chords that end a song or section of a song. The most common cadences are the perfect cadence (5-1), plagal cadence (4-1), and imperfect cadence (1-5).

Grand staff illustration of imperfect, perfect, and plagal cadences with chord names and roman numeral numbers labelled.

The perfect and plagal cadences evoke a sense of resolution, while the imperfect cadence expresses a “we’re going somewhere” feeling.

4.2 The 1-5-6-4 Progression

Main article: The 1-5-6-4 Chord Progression

The 1-5-6-4 progression is the most common progression in pop music. Once you learn this progression, you’ll start seeing it everywhere.

Recall that diatonic chords are chords built on the degrees of a scale. This is what the numbers in “1-5-6-4” mean. In a major key like C Major, the progression can also be notated as I-V-vi-IV, where the uppercase letters indicate a major chord and the lowercase letters indicate a minor chord.

Labelled treble clef staff of triads C-G-Am-F or I-V-vi-IV.

Do these chords sound familiar? They’re the same four chords we told you to keep in your back pocket in Chapter 2!

4.3 The 2-5-1 Progression

Main article: The 2-5-1 Chord Progression

The 2-5-1 chord progression is also called the jazz progression and is built on the second, fifth, and first degrees of the scale.

But for the classic jazzy sound, add a seventh to each chord. This means you’ll be playing a ii7-V7-I7 progression.

Labelled treble clef staff of chords Dm7-G7-C7 or ii7-V7-I7 and perfect cadence labelled.

You may also notice that the V7-17 ending is essentially a perfect cadence.

4.4 The Pachelbel Progression

Main article: Pop vs. Classical: You Love Classical Music (You Just Don’t Know It!)

Finally, here is perhaps the most famous chord progression of all time.

This is Pachelbel’s progression from “Canon in D,” the song that makes an appearance in weddings everywhere. The chord progression in this song is as follows:

I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V

This progression and its derivatives is present in so many songs. In fact, the 1-5-6-4 progression is just a simplified version of this sequence.

Johann Pachelbel died in 1706, but his progression is very much still alive. Just watch this hilarious video in which a musician can’t run away from the progression that haunts his nightmares.

Famous songs affected by this progression include:

  • “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis
  • “Memories” by Maroon 5
  • “Starships” by Nicki Minaj
  • “Basketcase” by Green Day
  • “Air on the G String” by J.S. Bach
  • “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum
Comedian Rob Paravonian’s hilarious rant on Pachelbel’s progression has more than 15 million views.

CHAPTER 5: USING CHORDS

View from the back: Lisa playing "driver's license" by Olivia Rodrigo on Roland grand with sheet music on stand.

Now that you know chords, it’s time to use them in everyday life 🙂

Knowing chords allows you to read and play widely available chord charts. We’ll look at reading chord charts and lead sheets in this chapter.

5.1 How to Read Chord Charts and Lead Sheets

Main article: How to Read Chord Charts on Piano

A chord chart is a document with the lyrics of a song and the corresponding chord changes on top.

Chord chart of Let It Be by the Beatles showing first verse with chords.
Chord chart for “Let It Be” by the Beatles. Tutorial here.

A lead sheet is a document with the melody line notated in standard notation and the corresponding chord changes on top.

Lead sheet of The Scientist by Coldplay showing lyrics, melody, and chords.
Lead sheet for “The Scientist” by Coldplay. Tutorial here.

Chord charts and lead sheets are useful tools because they 1) are widely available; and 2) give you guiding structure while allowing space for creative improvisation.

Where to Find Chord Charts

Many chord charts can be found for free on Ultimate-Guitar.com. Yes, this is a website meant for guitarists, but you can toggle the diagrams to “piano” and it’ll show you what keys to play on the keyboard too.

Do note that many free chord charts on the Web are notated by amateur musicians, not the artists themselves. (Original chord charts tend to be paywalled.)

So, there may be errors. But if something sounds wrong, trust your gut and see if you can figure out the right chord yourself! (Hint: Try diatonic chords!)

Where to Find Lead Sheets

Lead sheets are a little more difficult to find. They require more work to create and are often copyrighted. 

That being said, there are numerous free or low-cost lead sheets on MusicNotes and 8notes.

…And don’t forget that we have tons of free lead sheets here on Pianote. Here are some lessons with lead sheets to get you started:

Up close Lisa holding Stairway to Heaven lead sheet.

5.2 The Number System

Main article: The Nashville Number System – Explained

Congratulations! You’ve already encountered the Nashville Number System throughout this article 🙂 It’s the system we use when we refer to chord progressions like “1-5-6-4.”

The Nashville Number System uses numbers to indicate chords built on degrees of the scale. This is useful because it allows musicians to talk about chord progressions without being tied to key.

Here’s an example. This is our favorite 1-5-6-4 progression in C Major:

Triads C-G-Am-F on treble clef labelled 1, 5, -6, 4.

Now, say you need to transpose C Major to F Major. To do this, just substitute the C Major I chord with the F Major I chord and so on.

Triads F-C-Dm-Bb on treble clef labelled 1, 5, -6, 4.

Using numbers lets you transpose songs without having to rewrite sheet music. They’re especially useful in ensembles such as worship bands. For example, you can play in one key for a children’s choir during the morning service, and another key for a grown-up choir during the afternoon service without having to write new sheet music!

CHAPTER 6: HOW TO PRACTICE PIANO CHORDS

Lisa playing and smiling at the piano.

Now that you know why chords are important and how to use them, it’s time to get good! 

If practicing chords sound like a snoozefest, don’t worry. We have tons of exercises on Pianote designed to keep you interested and practicing.

6.1 What to Practice

It may be intimidating to figure out exactly what to practice. If you’re new to chords, here are some basics to get you started:

Solid and Broken

You can use solid and broken routines to practice a sequence of diatonic chords, a sequence of inversions, or even a pop progression.

Solid practice is when you play a sequence of chords with all the notes together.

Broken practice is when you play a sequence of chords with the notes apart.

Practicing diatonic chords like this is helpful because it hammers in the concept. When you’re familiar with all the chords of a certain key, you’ll have faster access to the tools you need to play songs and improvise.

And when it comes to inversions, practicing them broken and solid will get you used to the different chord shapes.

Chord Transitions

Main article: Change Chords Faster on the Piano

One way to practice inversions is to break them down into single transitions. Practice transitioning from root position to 1st inversion a few times, then 1st inversion to 2nd inversion, then 2nd inversion back to root position.

There are tons of combinations you can use to transition using inversions. This can feel intimidating, so we suggest focusing on a few key progressions that are common:

  • I-V: Go from the root position of the I chord to the 1st inversion of the V chord
  • V-vi: Go from 1st inversion of the V chord to the root position of the vi chord
  • vi-IV: Go from root position of the vi chord to 1st inversion of the IV chord with a quick movement of your pinky!

Learn Different Progressions

While the 1-5-6-4 pop and 2-5-1 jazz progressions are handy, to really understand chords, it helps to know a variety of progressions.

Here are some progression routines to check out:

Practice Something Other Than C Major!

We all love C Major, but to really challenge yourself to progress, make sure you don’t just practice in C Major.

Instead, go around the Circle of Fifths. Start with keys that have one or two sharps or flats and then slowly build up. Here are some good non-C Major keys to start with:

  • G Major
  • F Major
  • D Major
  • B Flat Major

6.2 Beautiful Arpeggios

Another way to add some spice to your practice routine is by practicing arpeggios. Arpeggios are essentially broken chords, but they sound a lot more musical.

Here are a few arpeggio practice routines.

Arpeggio Exercise With Both Hands

Lesson: Arpeggio Practice – The FUN Way

In this routine, you play an unchanged arpeggio with your right hand while changing notes—and later arpeggios!—with your left hand. Lisa also shows you how to play two-octave arpeggios that sound absolutely beautiful.

Arpeggios With Crossovers and Sus Chords

Lesson: Beautiful Arpeggio Practice for Piano

Here’s a killer package of practice routines for your arpeggiating pleasure! This lesson includes a range of practice ideas that utilize progressions, sus chords, and crossovers—wow. You’ll create beautiful music and practice your chords at the same time.


Choose Your Own Adventure With Piano Chords

In this lesson, you’ve learned what chords are, how to build them, how to vary them, and how to use them in your everyday piano life.

Remember: chords are the backbone of modern music. A musician who understands chords has a solid foundation in music and will be well-equipped to learn songs quickly, play with others, and improvise.

To further your knowledge of chords, take a look at our library of free chording lessons. Learn how to practice chords in a non-boring way, learn songs, and find chord progressions for every mood. Happy practicing!


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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