How do you play chords on the piano? This blog takes you through the basics! Learn how to convert chord symbols for the piano, keyboard or organ, which is handy when playing music from a songbook. Once you’ve got the hang of it, try a piano book, keyboard book or music theory book to really enhance your skills!
- Playing Chords
- What Is a Chord?
- The Piano Keyboard
- Playing a Chord
- Bass Note
- Going from One Chord to the Other
- Play Your Own Accompaniment
- Using a Sustain Pedal
- Broken Chords (Arpeggios)
- Piano Chord Overview
- Simple Piano Chord Overview
- Extensive Piano Chord Overview
What Is a Chord?
A chord consists of three or more different notes that are played at the same time. A standard C chord (C major) consists of the notes C, E and G. Below, you will find a table of commonly-used chords. Do you want to know more about chords? We offer various music theory books that tell you all you need to know!
The Piano Keyboard
At the top of this blog, there is an image of a keyboard. If you look closely, you will see only twelve different notes. The rest of the keys are a repetition of the same notes but in different octaves, meaning they are either higher or lower in pitch. Think of it like a child and a grown man singing the same song – they are both singing the same melody, but the notes that the man sings are in a lower register than what the child is singing.
- The black keys have two names because they are located between two notes on the major scale.
- If you’re overwhelmed by the amount of keys, concentrate for a moment only on the black keys. They are in groups of two and three. The C note is always the white key directly before a group of two black keys. Or… you can use key stickers.
Playing a Chord
Let’s start by playing a C chord. As mentioned before, this chord consists of the notes C, E and G. See the keyboard depicted below – all the C, E and G notes in every octave are marked with a dot. Play any three C, E and G notes on your own piano or keyboard. You can try playing multiple Cs, Es and Gs at once, as long as you play at least one of each!
Go to YouTube or your favourite music player and look up the song ‘Let it Be’ by the Beatles. The very first chord played when the vocals begin is the C chord!
It doesn’t matter which C, E or G notes you play on the keyboard, but professionals agree that it sounds best to play the C, E and G notes that are in the same octave. You can start playing the chord in the root position by pressing the C note first, then the E, and finally the G. See the example below.
You can also try different variations of the C chord, as long as C, E and G are in the same octave. Here are some examples:
- If you play the chord too low on the keyboard, it has a tendency to sound dark and cluttered.
- The chord progressions above (CEG, EGC and GCE) are known as inversions, which you can play in any octave on the keyboard.
Everything you have learned up to now is to be played with your right hand, which means your left hand is free to play the bass note. By pressing a minimum of three notes with your right hand and one bass note with your left, you can play a solid, complete chord.
How do you play a bass note? It’s important to know that the bass note is the lowest (the furthest left) key in the entire chord. In a C chord, the C is the bass note (C is also the root of the C chord). See the example below. You can play any C on the keyboard, as long as it’s lower than the rest of the notes in the chord.
Sometimes, a chord will be denoted as C/G. This means that G is the bass note of the C chord. See the example below. This type of variation is always specified in the sheet music because it gives the chord a different ‘colour’!
- A chord might also be C/E. If this is the case, then E is the bass note of the chord.
- If C is the bass note of a C chord, then the chord will sound finished. If you play a different bass note, then the chord can sound open and unfinished.
Fingering refers to which fingers are placed on which keys. The goal is to be able to play notes and chords as comfortably as possible.
The fingering for playing the chord progression C, E, G is as follows: thumb, middle finger, pinky. This placement should feel very natural. If you look closely, you’ll see that there is a white key under each of your five fingers. Congratulations, you have officially just nailed fundamental piano fingering!
- The fingering for playing the inversion E, G, C is: thumb, index finger, pinky.
- For the inversion G, C, E, it is: thumb, middle finger, pinky.
Going from One Chord to the Other
If you want to play a C chord followed by a G chord (like in ‘Let it Be’), then begin by placing your right hand on the C chord in the C E G progression (with C as the root) like the image shows:
From here, you can move to the G chord. The G chord consists of the notes G, B and D with G as the bass note. Choose the G, B and D keys that are closest to the C chord you’re playing. See the image below.
Keep the pinky of your right hand on the G so you only need to move your other two fingers to the left! This is to ensure 1) you don’t move your hand/fingers unnecessarily and 2) that the chord transition sounds as natural and smooth as possible.
- Don’t forget your fingering! The following placement is most natural:
- C E G : thumb, middle finger, pinky
- B D G: thumb, index finger, pinky
- In terms of fingering for the bass notes, the following example is recommended:
- Bass note C: pinky
- Going to bass note G: thumb
Play YourOwn Accompaniment
It’s Easy to Start
You can count along to most songs in fours: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. In this exercise, play a chord on each count and play the bass notes on every second count. As an example, we’re going to use chords C and G again.
Using a Sustain Pedal
Using a sustain pedal, you can make your accompaniment sound even more beautiful and flowing. How should you use the sustain pedal?
- Press: immediately after the chord is played.
- Release: just before the new chord is played.
- Practice this as much as you can, so that the different chords don’t ring out at the same time.
If you don’t have a sustain pedal, check out our Sustain pedals. Always check that your instrument has a socket for connecting a sustain pedal (or ‘damper’ pedal).
Broken Chords (Arpeggios)
Here, ‘broken’ means that the chord is split into pieces or notes and played as an arpeggio. With most songs, you can play two notes per count, one after the other. As soon as you try this yourself, you’ll recognise the flow. Two examples are included below, but you can get creative and find your own note orders when playing arpeggios.
You can also play the first two, highest notes of the chord at the same time, and then the lowest note:
With some songs, three notes are played, one after the other, per count. Some great examples are: We Are the Champions, House of the Rising Sun, and Nothing Else Matters. See the example below. You can also be as creative as you want here, and invent your own arpeggios!
Piano Chord Overview
Simple Piano Chord Overview
- For each chord in this table, the notes/keys in major are indicated as ‘maj’ and minor are indicated as ‘min’. For each chord, there is also a seventh tone so you can play seventh chords.
- Chords are usually denoted in the following way:
- major: C
- minor: Cm
- major seventh: C7
- minor seventh: Cm7
- Here are a few examples:
- If you want to play a D chord, a.k.a D major, start by looking up ‘D’ in the left-hand column in the table. Then, go to the right to find the three ‘maj’ notes (D, F#/Gb, A) that belong in that chord.
- Want to play Dm? Again, start at ‘D’ in the table, but now select the ‘min’ notes (D F A).
- Dm7: select all ‘min’ notes and add a seventh (C D F A).
Extensive Piano Chord Overview
How Does It Work?
Note: chord symbols are not always logical, so you always need to learn what each symbol means.
Say you find the chords for the song, ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles.
- The first chord of this song is ‘C’. That’s just a letter, without a symbol.
- No symbol means: the major chord, as you can see in the table at the bottom of the chord overview. These are all the maj notes.
- Go to the keyboard marked ‘C’.
- Play the maj notes shown in the image. So: C, E en G. Remember: you have learned that you can always choose the order. Here are the possible orders:
C – E – G
E – G – C
G – C – E
- Do you need to play a Cmaj7? See the table at the bottom of the chord overview. The symbol maj7 means: all maj notes plus the maj7 note. On the image of the C keyboard, you can see that these notes are C – E – G and B. Again, you can choose the order yourself:
C – E – G – B
E – G – B – C
G – B – C – E
B – C – E – G
- Sometimes, chord books will write an add9 as a 9. Simply try both to find out which is correct.
- dim7 is also sometimes notated as ‘dim’ or ‘ᵒ’. When you come across these, just try both out.
- Sometimes you’ll come across a chord that we haven’t included in this overview. With Google, it can be easily found!
- In song books you might see ‘capo’ written above a song, which is meant for a guitar. To play it on a piano or keyboard, if you see e.g. ‘capo second fret’, then move all of the chords and notes of the song two notes up. Have another look at the notes at the top of this article. If you go two steps up from the C, you come to the D. In the same way, each E-chord is played as an F♯, and so on. Is this too tricky? Then a useful solution when playing a keyboard or digital piano is to use the transpose function (see the manual of your instrument), which in this example, you would set to two steps higher.