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Basic Piano Chords for Beginners

Posted on August 24, 2021

Do you dream of being able to play the piano and sing your favorite songs? It might seem like an impossible dream–but if you follow these steps to learn basic piano chords, you’ll be playing like a pro and amazing your friends in no time.

Learning to play piano is a rewarding journey all around – physically, mentally and emotionally. Like playing sports, the more you play, the stronger your muscle memory becomes and you’ll have more strength to challenge your new limits. Learning how to play piano with chords equips you with a powerful knowledge skill, so you can play virtually any song you want as long as there’s a chord chart available. You’ll not only be able to play more songs but also gain a solid sense of gratification from feeling connected with the songs while playing something you didn’t even know you could play.

How to find your way around on the piano?

First of all, the piano is laid out with sets of black notes in groups of two and three. The white notes are called A, B, C, D, E, F and G. The note after G is A–and the pattern repeats. If you step up to a black note from a white note, that is a sharp. If you step down to a black note, that is a flat.

What’s the difference between reading music notes vs. reading chords?

While learning to play piano by reading notes is a great way to master your music reading skills, it also calls for some patience as you learn to become more familiar with reading music and playing. On the other hand, being able to read piano chords allows you to be able to approach piano playing with much more flexibility as you don’t necessarily have to be familiar with songs you come across. Yousician’s Songs Library is made up of songs that can help you improve reading music notation as well as reading chords.

Starting off with some of the basic piano chords will be your first step on your journey to becoming the next piano virtuoso. But before we get to that point, let’s look a bit closer at piano chords, so you can start playing and acquiring all the necessary skills to become a skilled and talented pianist.

What are piano chords?

A chord typically consists of three distinct notes that are made up of a first note (root), a third note and a fifth note, where the “degree” of notes is referring to a musical distance from the root note. For example, C Major chord is referring to note C (root), note E (third), and note G (fifth). When these distinct notes are played together simultaneously, it’s referred to as a solid chord. If these notes are played individually as a group, it is referred to as a broken chord. To keep things simple, let’s focus on solid chords.

C Major Chord

How to play chords on piano?

Some of the most memorable songs are written with surprisingly simple chords. While it’s true that there are many types of chords, understanding major and minor chords already prepares you with enough skills to start playing the songs you enjoy listening to.

You might have been taught that it’s possible to tell minor and major chords apart just by listening to how they sound: a major chord sounds ‘happy’, while a minor chord sounds ‘sad’.

Let’s recall the C Major chord that was described earlier and take a deeper look at the C Major scale to understand the relationship between the scale and chords.

Piano Scales

When the third note and fifth note are built on top of every note within the C major scale, you can learn a pattern of chord type: the first, fourth and fifth chord built within every major scale will always be major chords. Also, every second, third, and sixth chord built on every major scale will always be minor chords.

I’m Yours by Jason Mraz (in C), is made up of C major – G major – A minor – F major chords in a repeating pattern. While this chord progression is true for this particular song, there are thousands of other popular songs that are made up of this identical chord progression.

Major and minor chords on piano

To play a song on the piano, you just need to learn how to build chords. There are two main types of chords: major piano chords and minor piano chords. Major chords sound “happy” and minor chords sound “sad”.

What is a major chord?

Here’s the easy way to work out any major piano chord. We’ll pick the C major chord to start with.

Find a C on your piano (it’s to the left of a set of 2 black notes). Play C and hold it down. Now, starting with the black note right next to it, count upwards 4 notes (include every note, black and white). So C sharp is “one”, D is “two”, D sharp is “3”, and the 4th note is E.

Next, play C and E together and hold them down. Now count up 3 more notes from E, starting with F, F sharp and the third note you land on is G.

Now play all three notes – C, E and G, together at the same time. Check the diagram below to make sure you’ve worked it out correctly. What you’re playing is a C major piano chord. The best way to play a piano chord is with one hand (you can use either left or right), using the thumb, third finger and little finger. If you find it difficult to play all three notes at once, try taking one of the notes in the other hand. If you keep practicing, you’ll get quick at finding the notes and playing them together.

C Major Chord

What is a minor chord?

Now we’re going to find the other type of piano chord–the minor chord. We’ll start on the same note, C. This time, you’re going to count up 3 notes, which brings you to E flat, then count up another 4 notes and you’ll be on G. Now play those three notes together at the same time and notice the “sad” sound it has. That is a C minor piano chord.

C Minor Chord Piano

Every piano chord is built in this way, whatever the starting note. Let’s try another one. Step down to the nearest black note from C, you’ll land on B flat. Count up 4 notes–then 3. You should have the notes B flat, D and F. That is a B flat major piano chord. Check the diagram below.

B Major Chord Piano

Now for a B flat minor piano chord. Start on B flat again. Count up 3 notes, then 4 and you’ll have made it into a Bb minor chord. Notice that all you’re doing to change a major chord into a minor chord is moving the middle note down one step.

B Minor Chord Piano

If you thought that playing the piano would involve hours of playing boring scales and learning to read music, think again. Of course those are good skills to have and it’s great to learn them. However, you don’t need to do all those hours of work to play basic piano chords and sing your favorite songs.

Most popular songs are just four or five piano chords played in a specific order. If you Google a song you’d like to learn and add the word ‘chords’ you’ll find them easily. It’s a good idea to get the lyrics with chord symbols above the words as well. That way you can see where the chords should be played in relation to the lyrics of the song you’re playing.

Start learning songs with piano chords

Now let’s try a song. Let’s take Adele’s song ‘Someone Like You’. The verse has a four chord pattern:

G, Bm, Em, C

If the name of the chord has a little ‘m’ next to the letter, it just means that’s a minor chord. If it’s just the letter name alone, it means it’s a major piano chord. So this verse is G major, B minor, E minor, C major.

See if you can find each of those chords in turn and practice the four chord pattern until it begins to flow. Once it’s flowing quite steadily, try singing while playing the chords on your piano.

Once you’ve nailed playing and singing the song’s verse with these chords, try the pre-chorus. There are only 3 piano chords, but the first one should be played twice, like this:

D, D, Em, C

You already know the Em and the C chord from the verse. Just figure out the D chord and practice that pattern until it flows. Keep it all slow, but steady, and eventually you’ll master these chords as well.

Now we come to the chorus of the song. This is another four chord pattern, repeated 4 times.

G, D, Em, C

You already know all four piano chords to play the chorus. Once you have each section moving smoothly from one chord to another, link them all together so the song flows nicely and you know how to transition from one piano chord and section of the song to another.

In some songs, the piano chord chart might have numbers after some chords such as 7 or 9. You can ignore these when you’re starting out. Even without taking these numbers into account, the song will still sound right. Later you can learn how to include the extra notes those numbers represent.

Also, you may see a chord written something like this: C/E. The first letter is the chord, the second letter is a different single note to play in the bass with the left hand. If you can’t manage that to begin with, simply play the chord as usual. It will sound fine and the song is going to be recognizable for everyone already familiar with it.

Let’s have a look at the piano chords to a song you’ve probably heard before: ‘Despacito’, by Lois Fonzi and Daddy Yankee. This song has a four chord pattern the whole way through, so it doesn’t take long to learn.

Em, C, G, D

Add some rhythm

Once you’ve got the chords flowing, try playing each chord twice in quick succession so that you get more rhythm into the piano chords. If you can play the chords with the right hand alone, you can put a bass note in the left hand. Your bass note should be whatever the name of the chord is. For instance, if you’re playing an E minor piano chord, put an E in the bass. If you’re playing a C major piano chord, put a C in the bass.

Practice tapping out the chords quite lightly and evenly–try to strike all three notes exactly together. When you repeat a chord, you need to lift your hand up quickly after playing the chord the first time so that the notes are released and ready to be played for the second time. In other words, if you keep the notes down too long, you won’t be able to play them again in time.

Inversions: chords beyond the root position

While playing the C major chord in C-E-G order is perfectly valid, chords can also be played in varying note order to make transitions between playing chords as flexible as possible.

C Major chord: root position
C Major Chord (Root Position)

C major chord in root position refers to having the root note C as the lowest note that the chord is built from.

C Major chord: first inversion

C Major Chord (first Inversion)

While keeping the notes that belong to the C chord, it’s also possible to have the lowest note as E, which would push the initial root note C as the most upper note.

This is also considered a C Major chord, in first inversion.

C Major chord: second inversion
C Major chord (second Inversion)

Similarly, note G can take the position as the lowest note that the chord is built from, which would move note C and note E as the notes built on top of note E. This is also considered the C major chord in second inversion.

How to learn basic piano chords

So, when starting out learning to play the piano with basic minor and major chords, here’s how you can progress:

  • Once you have a tool-kit of basic piano chords, choose a song you’d love to play.
  • Next, get the piano chord chart. You can find it by searching online and just adding the word ‘chords’ after the song title in Google, for example.
  • Read through the song’s chords and make sure that you know how to play each one of them.
  • Practice playing the chords until your hand is moving to the next chord without you thinking too much about it.
  • Try singing the words along with the chords and see how you improve with practice.

It’s a good idea to record yourself and listen back so you can hear what it sounds like. Sometimes when we’re playing, we don’t notice pauses or incorrect notes because we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re doing. It’s also a good idea to play along to the song and make sure that you’re familiar with the song’s timing and rhythm. Just listening to the song many times does the trick.

Most of all, have fun playing piano chords, singing the songs you love, and enjoy showing your friends and family what you can do.

Basic piano chords for beginners

Equipped with some understanding of basic major and minor chords, you’re already ready to start playing hundreds of songs with piano chords. These songs and much more are available on Yousician, where you’ll also find loads of different tools and lessons to help you learn and improve. Start searching for the songs you like and experience what it’s like to jam along to your favorite tunes. Stay tuned for more posts about playing songs with more advanced chords and different chord progressions. Make sure to check some of our other blog posts about piano chords and learning how to play:

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