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Basic Piano Chords

How to play basic chords on piano (and some advanced ones)

Last Updated: January 2023 | Article Details: 2912 words (17 – 19 minute read)

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Want to learn some basic piano chords for beginners?

In this straight forward guide you’ll learn everything you need to know to put together any chord you want.

We’ll show you the basics and then show you a few more advanced ones too!

The best way to master all the different chords you can build, though, is with some of these structured piano lessons online.

Let’s get it…



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What You Need to Know First

In our previous piano guide, you learned how to form piano scales and modes. You only need to know how to put together major scales for this guide.

There are many different ways to build piano chords – it can get very complex, especially when we get into piano chord inversions.

But we’ll keep things straightforward here.

If you’re not familiar with the basics of how to play piano for beginners, read that guide first. Why? Because you need to know how to put together scales and other absolute fundamentals to playing piano.

Alternately, scroll to the bottom of the chord diagrams below to learn more about the fundamentals.

Black and White Closeup of Hand Playing a Chord on Piano

The Major Scale and Number System

Start on any key and follow this pattern: (R) – W – W – H – W – W – W – H

W = whole step, H = half step

Next, assign a number to each note: (1) – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

So if we started on the C note, we’d end up with a major scale that looks like this:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

Cool? Dope… let’s get to the good stuff


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How to Form Triads

A triad is a chord with three notes. There are 4 different types of triads:

  • Major triads (1 – 3 – 5)
  • Minor triads (1 – b3 – 5)
  • Diminished triads (1 – b3 – b5)
  • Augmented triads (1 – 3 – #5)
Basic Triad Chord Diagrams for Piano

You put these together by taking some version of the 1, 3 and 5 notes of any major scale.

So for example, using the C Major scale, we’d form a major chord using C-E-G. But for a minor, we’d use a flat 3 note by lowering it a half-step, making it C-Eb-G.

For the diminished chord, we also flatten the 5 note, becoming C – Eb – Gb. Alternately on the augmented triad we’d just make the 5 note sharp by raising it a half-step. We end up with C – E – G# for a C augmented.

Remember, you can use this same technique on any key of the piano. You just need to figure out the major scale, and put numbers to each note in that scale. (hint: use the shortcut/pattern at the top of this page.)

Chord Extensions

The next few chords we go over contain 4, 5 or more piano notes. You’ll see we introduce the 7th note into the mix and also the 9th note.

But we only numbered 8 piano notes in total. So how do we get the 9 note? We just continue the numbering up the scale.

So if the C Major scale is:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

Then we just keep going up the keyboard to the next octave:

…D=9, E=10, F=11, G=12, A=13, B=14, C=15

Simple right?

The chords in this section are:

  • Major 6 (1 – 3 – 5 – 6)
  • Major 7th (1 – 3 – 5 – 7)
  • Minor 7th (1 – b3 – 5 – b7)
  • Dominant 7th (1 – 3 – 5 – b7)
  • Major 9th (1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9)
  • Minor 9th (1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9)
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The same concept used above applies to these chords.

A C Maj 6 would be C – E – G – A, while a C Min 7 would be C – Eb – G – Bb, etc.

7th and 9th chords are full sounding and provide a complex emotion – you see them often in jazz piano, soul and R&B music.

Extended Piano Chord Diagrams

Two Hand Chords

The next four options are going to require both of your hands on the piano.

They’re called 11th and 13th chords. And you’re NOT going to see these come up often in music. Maybe in some crazy jazz piece, but only rarely in popular music.

Here they are:

  • Major 11th (1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 11)
  • Minor 11th (1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11)
  • Major 13th (1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 11 – 13)
  • Minor 13th (1 – b3 – 5 – b7 – 9 – 11 – b13)

These are VERY full sounding varieties, almost to the point of too much. But once you learn about voicings (an advanced topic), you can often find ways to slip these into your progressions.

Diagrams of Two Handed Chords on Piano

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Advanced Piano Chords

Now that you know the basics, here are a few other ones that we really like.

You’ll notice that these “advanced” varieties don’t necessarily have a lot of notes in them. But the way the notes work together give you an interesting emotion.

You build these using the same technique that we’ve been using all along. Number the notes of the scale you’re working in, then play the notes listed by the type of chord you want.

Note: Sus actually stands for “suspended”

Here they are:

  • Sus2 (1 – 2 – 5)
  • Sus4 (1 – 4 – 5)
  • Dominant 7, add 9 (1 – 3 – 5 – b7 – 9)
  • Major 6, add 9 (1 – 3 – 5 – 6 – 9)
  • Minor 6, add 9 (1 – 3 – 5 – 6 – 9)
Advanced Piano Chords Diagrams

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A Deeper Dive Into Basics

Here’s some more details on how everything is formed with the piano theory behind it.

Major Chords

All major triads in western music use the 1st tone, 3rd tone and 5th tone of the major scale you’re playing in. So, for example, in the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) let’s apply numbering. Here’s what you get: C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7, C = 8


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Since the major triad is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th tone of the scale, the C-major triad would use the notes C, E and G. Go over to your piano and play C-E-G together at the same time. You can hear it sounds bright and happy, just like the C major scale.

Here’s how it looks on the keyboard:

Major Chord Keyboard Diagram

You can use that same formula (1st tone, 3rd tone, 5th tone) to build ANY major chord, using any note on the piano. All you have to do is know the piano scales you want to play in, choose a root note (the first tone), find the 3rd tone and 5th tone of that particular scale and play those piano notes together. Let’s try a D Major Triad: The first, third and fifth notes of the D Major scale are D, F# and A. Play those 3 notes and voila you’ve got a D Maj. There are 12 major chords that can be played. Try and learn them all.

Minor Chords

Minor triad scales are played with the same types of notes as in the major scales – the 1st tone, 3rd tone and 5th tone of whatever minor scale you’re playing in. The difference comes from the notes that actually make up the major and minor scales. If you remember, the notes of the C minor scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C.

C = 1, D = 2, Eb = 3, F = 4, G = 5, Ab = 6, Bb = 7, C = 8

So the C-minor would be made up of the notes C, Eb and G. And again, you can use the same method to find out the minor chord for any of the 12 notes on the piano. What about a D Minor? The 1st, 3rd and 5th tone make up D-F-A. Play it and you’ll see it’s got a sombre/sad vibe to it. That’s what the minor mode is all about. Here’s what the C-minor looks like on the piano.

C Minor Chord Diagram on Keyboard

Another way you can find a minor is simply by “flattening” the 3rd. What does this mean? Well, if you’ve already got a major chord worked out – like the C-major (C, E, G), all you have to do next is make the 3rd note a flat. So C-E-G would turn into C-Eb-G. Again, you can do this for ANY major to make its minor equivalent. So, to recap: A triad is made up of the 1st tone of a scale, the 3rd tone of the same scale and the 5th tone of the same scale – whether you’re in minor or major.

Other Types of Triads

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are a ton of different chords that can be played on the piano. Augmented and diminished chords have a different, almost jarring or in-harmonic, sound. They’re the “horror movie” type of sound. Here’s how you build them…

Diminished Triads on Piano

Diminished chords are built by taking any minor triad (ex/ C Min – C-Eb-G) and flattening the 5th tone (the G becomes Gb). So a C Dim is C-Eb-Gb. Play it on your piano, and you’ll see why I say it’s a jarring sound.

And you can do this with any minor chord to get your diminished variation.

Augmented Triads on Piano

Augmented chords work the same way, but in the opposite direction. Take any major (ex/ C Maj – C-E-G) and sharpen the 5th tone (the G). Sharpening a note means moving it UP a half step on the piano, or making it a sharp note.

So a C Aug is C-E-G#. Play that on your keyboard and you’ll see why I say it’s that “horror movie” style sound. Again, you can do this with any major chord to get an augmented triad.

Augmented and Diminished Chord Diagrams

Inversions and Voicings

Let’s take a quick detour, before moving on to more, and talk about chord inversions and voicing.

Inversions

Inversions are when you play the piano notes in a different order than original. So, you can play the it in it’s original form (called it’s “root” position) or in it’s first or second “inversion.”

A C Maj in root position is C-E-G. To invert that, you take the first note (the C) and make it the last note (after the G). So the chord gets played as E-G-C, with the E as the lowest note on the piano. It’s still a C Maj, it’s just played in it’s first inversion.

You can do that again. Take the new “first” note (the E) and make it the new “last” note (after the C). So the chord gets played as G-C-E. Still a C Maj, but it’s now in it’s second inversion. Why would you do that. Cuz it’s cool and sounds different… (there are other reasons, but that’s all that really matters).

Piano Chord Inversions Diagram for C Major

Voicings

Voicing refers to where you play the different notes. It’s different than inversion because you don’t have to use the same hand to play out the chord. A very basic example of this would be playing the C Major (C-E-G) by using your left hand to play an E while playing a C and G with your left hand higher on the piano.

Why would you do that? Cuz it’s cool and sounds different. Chord voicing is really useful when you’re working with more complex chords like 7ths and 9ths. But I thought it’d be good for you to be aware of now.

Extended Chords

Those major and minor triads aren’t the only piano chords we can make. They’re the basics. These next ones are when things start to get really interesting. Let’s talk about chord extensions.

Seventh Chords

The most basic extension is known as the 7th. It’s when you take a triad (ex/ C Maj – C-E-G), which is the 1st, 3rd and 5th tone of a scale, and adding the 7th tone on top. Easy right? Let’s go back to the C Major scale – C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7. So the C Maj triad becomes the CMaj7 by adding a B. This 7th chord would be C-E-G-B. 

C Major 7 Chord Diagram

Try it out on your piano and hear the complex beauty of a seventh chord. You can turn any Major or Minor triad into a seventh. Take the ROOT note (ex/ the C note is the root note of a C Major), and add on the 7th tone of that note’s scale to the end of your chord.

More Extensions

There are a few other extensions you can add to piano chords to increase the complexity of their sound. Let’s go back to the number system. Once you get to the 7th tone, the scale starts to repeat it self. But instead of the upper C becoming a 1 again, we are going to make it an 8. And we’re going to keep moving up in numbers

C Major Scale: C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7 | C=8, D=9, E=10, F=11, G=12, A=13, B=14 | 

Ninths, Elevenths and Thirteenths:

So the first type of extension beyond the 7th is the 9th chord. And it’s as simple as taking your 7th chord, and popping the 9th tone of the scale on the end of it.

CMaj9 = C-E-G-B-D

And it’s the same thing for 11th and 13th chords.

CMaj11 = C-E-G-B-D-F

CMaj13 = C-E-G-B-D-F-A

C Major Extended Chord Diagrams

You don’t really hear 13th and 11th chords often, but they do pop up in some styles of music. 7th and 9th chords are more commonly seen, especially in jazz piano, R&B and soul music.

Beyond 13ths?

So what happens if you keep going with the numbers? Well… you don’t. The 13th is the last extension. So even if you add the A note an octave even higher than the initial 13th note, it’s still considered a 13th. You’d just be voicing it differently.

Other Chords on Piano

There are lots of other types of chords on the piano that you’ll learn as you progress in your learning. And to add to all of that, you can play any chord in various “voicings.” That simply means that you play the notes in a different order than its “normal” position.

Don’t worry about that for now. Focus on memorizing the basics and build your muscle memory. This will help you learn to play the piano by ear.


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Frequently Asked Questions

Why Should I Learn Piano Chords?

Chords form the basis of many songs. Learning them allows you to master the principles of harmony, which sets the emotional mood of a piece of music. If you don’t know any, you’re very limited in the types of moods you can create through your music.

What Are Piano Chord Inversions?

Inversions are just chords that are played “out of order.” Since a chord is built from the 1st, 3rd and 5th tones of a scale, it can be thought of as being played in the order 1-3-5. Inverting that would mean you play it with the notes in various orders – for example, 3-5-1 or 5-1-3. So playing an inversion of C Maj (C-E-G) would mean playing it where the bottom note becomes E and the original bottom note (C) moves to become the high note (i.e. E-G-C).

Are Piano and Keyboard Chords the Same?

Yes they are the same. Keyboards are based on the same notes as acoustic pianos. Therefore the scales, chords and progressions in music transfer across various types of instruments.

How Many Piano Chords Are There?

There are quite literally an unlimited amount that can be built in music, but there are hundreds of popular and widely used ones. Aside from basic major and minor triads, there are also extended varieties (7th, 9th, etc), suspended chords, augmented/diminished and much more.

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    Wrap-Up

    There you go. With the information above, you’ll be able to create pretty much any chord you want.

    There are a ton of options. Just pick a key, find it’s major scale and follow the rules above to build them out.

    It’s that simple!

    Up next, learn the ins and outs of how to invert piano chords like a pro.

    If you really want to level up your piano playing, there’s nothing better than learning your favorite songs. So I highly recommend you try out FlowKey – the best online piano song library around.

    Now you know all the basic piano chords for beginners (and some advanced formations) – thanks for reading!


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    About The Author:

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    Omar Zulfi

    Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.