Basic Piano Chords (and Some Advanced Ones) for Beginners
Learn how to put together any chord you want on the piano
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Last Updated: August 2022
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 how to play piano chords and then show you a few more advanced ones too!
Let’s get it…
Article Table of Contents
1. How to Play Piano Chords
2. A Deeper Dive
Learn Jazz Piano With One of the Biggest Legends in Music
What You Need to Know First
If you’re not familiar with the basics of how to play piano, 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 of piano chords.
You only need to know how to put together major scales for this guide, but it’s good to know other piano scales and modes for beginners too.
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 chords
(If you really want to learn dope chords, though, take some online piano lessons)
How to Form Piano Chords – Triads
A triad is a piano 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)
You put these chords 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.)
Beginner Piano Chords – Extensions
The next few basic piano chords we go over contain 4, 5 or more 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
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)
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.
Learn piano in a way that lets you improvise beautiful music on the spot!
Two Hand Chords
The next four chords 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 chords, 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.
Advanced Piano Chords
Now that you know piano chords every beginner should know, here are a few other ones that we really like.
You’ll notice that these “advanced” piano chords 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 chords are actually called “suspended chords”
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)
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A Deep Dive Into Piano Chords
Here’s some more details on how everything is formed with the piano theory behind it.
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
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. Congratulations, you just played your first piano chord.
Here’s how it looks on the keyboard:
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 chord. There are 12 major chords that can be played. Try and learn them all.
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 chord 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.
Another way you can find a minor chord 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 chord 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 chords. 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.
Inversions and Voicings
Let’s take a quick detour, before moving on to more, and talk about chord inversions and voicing.
Inversions are when you play a chord, but with the piano notes in a different order than original. So, you can play the chord in it’s original form (called it’s “root” position) or in it’s first or second “inversion.”
A C Maj chord 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).
Voicing refers to what order you play the different notes in a chord. 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 chord (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.
Those major and minor triads aren’t the only piano chords we can make. They’re the basics. These next chords are when things start to get really interesting. Let’s talk about chord extensions.
The most basic chord 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.
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 chord. Take the chord’s 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.
There are a few other chord 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 piano chord 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
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.
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 chord. 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.
What Next? Why not learn all about chord progressions on the piano? Or check out our guide on learning piano by yourself or our reviews of Piano Marvel, Melodics, Flowkey, Rocket Piano or the Piano For All program
Have you heard of Playground Sessions? It’s a great practice aid for piano players. Check out our full Review of Playground Sessions
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There you go. With the information above, you’ll be able to create pretty much any piano 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 your piano chords out.
It’s that simple! Now you know all the basic piano chords for beginners (and some advanced formations) you’ll need for a while!
We hope you found this piano guide helpful Thanks for reading.
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