When you’re learning to play the piano, the first and most basic chords you learn will form the foundation of everything that is to come. In fact, the basic, three-tone beginner piano chords constitutes one of the foundational elements of total harmony, which is the basis of most Western music itself, at least until the 20th century.
All of these basic chords will require you to play only three notes. The interval relationship between those three notes determines which type of chord it is. The piano keyboard is ideally suited to learning these chords and, as you progress, you’ll find that it’s easy to orient yourself visually on the keyboard.
Look at the Keyboard
The standard piano keyboard has 88 keys on it. This includes both the black and white keys. The black keys correspond to sharps and flats. The white keys represent the pure tones.
To get started, isolate one octave of the piano keyboard. The easiest way to do this is to look at the black keys. You’ll notice that they appear in groups of two and three. Immediately to the left of the leftmost black key in any two-key group you’ll find the white key that corresponds to the note C. The notes that follow, in the key of C and including the black keys are: C, C#(Db), D, D#(Eb), F, F#(Gb), G, G#(Ab), A, A#(Bb), B. this constitutes one octave, divided into 12 tones.
Learning a Chord
Let’s start with a very basic chord, C major. The chord is named by its root note. Place your finger on the C, E and G keys and strike them simultaneously. This is the C major chord.
Let’s play all the major chords in the octave you’ve chosen.
Major Beginner Piano Chords
All of these chords are made up of the root note, the major third and the fifth. In order to be properly called a chord, a simultaneously struck combination of keys must have at least three notes. Striking one note, obviously, is a note and striking two different notes simultaneously is called an interval.
Experiment with this tonality. Each of the chords you have learned forms the root chord for any piece in the corresponding key. For example, if you were playing a song in A major, the root chord would be A, C#, E.
Minor Beginner Piano Chords
The minor chords are characterized by what is usually described as a darker tonality. They include:
Notice that, in all of these chords, the third note is flattened. This is what makes the chord minor. You can experiment a bit and crawl up and down the keyboard using three note intervals to create major and minor chords. Just as is the case with the major keys, these minor key chords form the foundation of their respective keys.
In most cases, a chord being referred to only by its letter name means that it is major. Minor chords may be denoted by using a lowercase letter, a triangle following the letter or the actual word “minor” or the abbreviation “m”.
The vast majority of songs can be played – or at least accompanied – by playing these basic chords. Most songs use a chord structure that can be described mathematically as I-IV-V. That is to say, if you were in the key of a minor, you could assume that the chords A, D and E would work to accompany most any melody, and you would likely be right.
Not every song you are familiar with, however, is likely to be in a fixed key. For example, the Green Day song “When I Come Around” wanders between C, G, A minor and F.
While it may never have been a big hit, the song “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” is in C major.
Some other songs you can play utilizing only minor and major chords include:
Mad Word, Tears for Fears: Amin, C, G, D
Where is the Love, Blackeyed Peas: C, G, Am, F
Fade to Black, Metallica: Am, C, G, Em
TIP: If it sounds like there is dissonance between the chords you’re playing and the chords that you hear in a song, try adjusting the third. If there is still dissonance, try removing the third entirely. If removing the third entirely gets rid of it, the band is likely playing a root/5th chord, which eliminates the third altogether. It’s very common in pop music.
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