Piano chords – an introduction

In this article, it is explained what a chord is and which the most common categories of chords are. Pianoscales.org does not primarily focus on chords, and therefore there are no diagrams here for particular chords. In that case Pianochord.org can be recommended.

What is a chord?

A chord is several notes played together. There are three-note chords (triads), four-note chords (also called four-part chords) and five-note chords (also called five-part chords). There are even chords with six or seven notes, but in this case some notes are usually skipped when playing. It does exist chords with two notes (dyads), which are less common on piano. Chords are also related to scales, read about how chords are built from scales.

… And what are they good for?

Chords can, for example, tribute with harmony and structure. By harmony, in this case, means that a chord adds bass notes to a melody and make it more full-flavored. By structure means that chords can add rhythm and variation to a melody. To create harmony a chord is often played simultaneously as a melody note, and to create structure a chord is often played between melody notes.

Different chords

Major: a major triad is commonly written only by the name of the root of the chord.
For example, C: including the notes C – E – G.

Minor: the minor triad is commonly written with the name followed by “m” (short for minor).
For example, Cm: including C – Eb – G.

7: when the number seven is following the name of the note it is a dominant seventh chord. A minor seventh in the scale is added and make it a four-note chord.
For example, C7: including C – E – G – Bb.

m7: this is a minor seventh chord (m is an abbreviation for minor). A minor seventh is added to a minor triad.
For example, Cm7: including C – Eb – G – Bb.

maj7: this is a major (maj is an abbreviation for major) seventh chord. A major seventh is added to a major triad.
For example, Cmaj7: including C – E – G – B.

7-5: this is a dominant seventh chord with a flattened fifth. This chord can also be written 7b5.
For example, C7-5 or C7b5: including C – E – Gb – Bb.

7+5: this is a dominant seventh chord with a sharpened fifth. This chord can also be written 7#5.
For example, C7+5 or C7#5: including C – E – G# – Bb.

6: this type is constructed from a major triad with the sixth note in the scale being added.
For example, C6: including C – E – G – A.

m6: this type is constructed from a minor triad with the sixth note added.
For example, Cm6: including C – Eb – G – A.

9: here the ninth note in the scale is added to a dominant seventh chord.
For example, C9:, including C – E – G – Bb – D.

m9: here the ninth note in the scale is added to a minor seventh chord.
For example, Cm9: including C – Eb – G – Bb – D.

maj9: here the ninth note in the scale is added to a major seventh chord.
For example, Cmaj9: including C – E – G – B – D.

dim: is an abbreviation for diminished and the chord is diminished in the way the third and the fifth notes are flattened. There is also diminished 7th with a flattened seventh note.
For example, Cdim: including C – Eb – Gb or Cdim7, including C – Eb – Gb – A.

m7b5: is also called half-diminished and is built by extend the dim triad with a major third.
For example, Cm75b: including C – Eb – Gb – Bb.

aug: is an abbreviation for augmented and the chord is augmented in the way the fifth note is sharpened.
For example, Caug: including C – E – G#.

sus: is an abbreviation for suspension. Here the third is replaced by either the fourth note (sus4) or the second note (sus2) in the scale.
For example, Csus4: including C – F – G or Csus2, including C – D – G.

With the knowledge about the categories of chords explained above, you will be familiar with the most chords you could stumble upon. There are however even more categories and some less common chords are:

Test your ability to distinguish chord types in this ear training module.

Inverted chords

Inverted chords are very common and means that the notes in a chord shifts their positions. If we take a major triad as an example, there are two inversions possible. The first inversion uses the second note as bass note and the second inversion uses the third note as bass note.
The original chord, C Major is constructed C – E – G.
The first inversion, C/E is constructed E – G – C.
The second inversion, C/G is constructed G – C – E.

One way to think about inversions is by using digits, one for each note in the chord. Whereas 1-3-5 is the root position of a triad (major or minor doesn’t matter here), 3-5-1 would be the first inversion. Thinking in numbers may help you to see the broad picture instead of memorizing specific chords and situations. Learning intervals in music may be helpful for better grasping this concept.

Chords in practice and voice leading

Another central concept concerning the piano and chords are voice leading. A difference between the piano and the guitar is that playing chords in a straightforward fashion will not reach the same nice result at the piano. A simple sequence of triads such as G, C, D can sound inspiring on the guitar whereas it will sound fatigue on the piano. A pianist must add something more, to make a chord progression interesting on its own.

And voice leading is often the method for doing this. Voice leading is about arranging the chords in a way that they “floating together” in smooth transitions. This is often made by include inversions. Instead of playing the progression C – F – G in root position it could be played with inversions as C – F/A – G, which creates a descending bass line. (F/A is F major in first inversion, meaning A is the bass note).

Another possibility is playing the same progression as C – F/C – G/D, which involve even less movement. The C to F/C sequence involve only a change in the two upper voices (meaning the second and third notes in the chords).

Voice leading often involve chords with four notes, which makes the somewhat more challenging. Whereas 1-3-5-7 is the root position of a seventh chord, 3-5-7-1 would be the first inversion. Another way to express this would be Cmaj7 and Cmaj7/E, for C major seventh in root position and with E in the bass).

See also Theory: what is a scale?

Combining chords in a key

Playing examples that show how scales can be harmonized into chords and embellishments.

Pdf and sound
E minor scale with chords and embellishments pdf

D minor scale with chords and embellishments pdf