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These past few months I've been teaching myself how to play piano, using my background in guitar and a basic knowledge of music theory I've picked up from that. I am having difficulty "memorizing" seventh chords and inversions. I know how to formulate any type of chord technically, but I want to be able to play chords quickly and not need to figure out each note.

To be more specific, I'll list what I already know and try to explain the next step I want to take. I'd greatly appreciate any tips on how to achieve that next step, or what intermediate steps I'm missing.

On piano, I'm already comfortable 'quickly' playing:

  • the 12 major scales starting at the root
  • the 12 major chords in root position
  • And of course, flatting my middle finger (the third) to play the 12 minor chords

By quickly, I mean my hands can somewhat instinctively find whatever I'm looking for. If I want to play a B major, I don't have to think about what's the major third and what's the perfect fifth from B, I just know what shape to make. I'm having trouble extending this to seventh chords. If I'm playing a seventh using my left hand, I currently make the shape using my pinky (root), middle (third), and thumb (fifth), then move my thumb to the (major or minor) seventh, and awkwardly shift my ring and index fingers to the notes I was holding with my middle and thumb fingers previously. That's obviously untenable. The two methods I'm aware of for memorizing chords are either to memorize the four-finger shapes (which seems a bit scary but perhaps I should knuckle down and try to do it) or use chord stacking, where for instance to play a major seventh, I'd play the root and then play a minor chord based off of the third. This seems like a "lot" to think about while playing however, and so I'm concerned this isn't the right way to approach 'memorizing' chords to be able to play them quickly. Is there another method or should I just try one of these two (or both) and slowly keep practicing?

Anyone have a practice regimen they prefer? Just learn a few sevenths at a time? How could I introduce memorizing inversions, ninth chords, augmented chords, etc into this? In short, my brain knows what it wants to play but my hands are too clumsy to move my fingers around quickly, and without the comfort of movable chord shapes that I've been spoiled by on the guitar, I've found myself at an impasse for continuing to teach myself piano. Thanks (and sorry for the verbosity).

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You seem to have to work on developing you muscle memory. This takes patience and a whole lot of practice. Also try and work on your sight reading. That should help as well. – Neil Meyer Aug 12 '14 at 12:34
Hi. Did you have any success with the tips you got here? I'm beginning on the same path and I'm trying to get some good information. – Mario Marinato -br- Jan 1 at 21:20
up vote 7 down vote accepted

You should memorize the shapes. You shouldn't need to think about anything when playing these chords.

One method to build familiarity is to pick a particular chord and play it, then play the first inversion, then the second, the third, and back to root (an octave higher). Then come back down. You quickly pick up which notes are involved in the chord and how the finger positions differ, and you won't have your middle finger in the way or be confused about where your thumb goes.

You can play arpeggios the same way, going through the inversions. The rough shape of how you need to hold your hand is the same for every 7th chord in the same inversion — e.g., it's only a minor change to play C#7 in root instead of C7 in root, really — and doing these exercises for multiple keys will help you burn the differences into muscle memory. You want to have your hands form the shape automatically when you go to play a chord, no thought required.

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Thanks. This confirms my suspicions. Would you agree it's best to learn all the seventh chords in root position first, and then use these drills to learn inversions? I feel like that at least would provide a quicker reward, as my repertoire of songs would increase. Also how extensible is this? Do you tend to memorize the shapes of all the other chord flavors (augmented chords, 9ths, etc) using exercises or just through a matter of playing them enough? – snackdefend Oct 19 '11 at 0:55
@snackdefend I think it could probably work to go either way; I believe I learnt them one at a time (learning all 4 positions before moving to the next). I would use the same method for other chords, yes. – Matthew Read Oct 19 '11 at 0:57

For memorizing chord shapes, nothing beats practice. Keep working at it until they fall naturally under your fingers. Practice 2-5-1 in the circle of fifths, practice 2-5-1 in random keys, practice songs.

For inversions, however, a simple technique can yield great benefits. Instead of building the chord in root position and then moving notes up or down octaves, simply start with the correct finger on the root for that inversion and build the chord out from that finger. For example, to play a second inversion Bb7 chord in the left hand, place the second finger (index finger) on Bb and then build the chord up to D with the thumb and down to the F with the pinky.

Left hand fingers for 7th chord inversions:

  • Root position: 5
  • 1st inversion: 1
  • 2nd inversion: 2
  • 3rd inversion: 4

A similar chart can be made for the right hand but is left as an exercise for the reader.

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It might be a lame question, but beginners are allowed to do that: what do you mean when you say "practice 2-5-1 in the circle of fifths"? – Mario Marinato -br- Jan 1 at 14:56
@MarioMarinato-br- 2-5-1 means the chord progression using ii, V, and I chords of a major scale (e.g., in C major, Dm7, G7, CM7). Circle of fifths means repeating the progression a 5th away from the previous root (e.g., moving from C to G to D to A and etc.) until you get back to the original key. – Rein Henrichs Jan 4 at 9:51
Ah, get it. That's exactly the kind of exercises I've been looking for. Thanks for your explanations. – Mario Marinato -br- Jan 4 at 11:56

The inversions of seventh chords are really very easy. It is better to know how to figure them out so as to not needlessly make it a memory excercise.

You start from the root and you count when you find notes. So for instance if you have the dominant seventh chord of F Major you have the notes C-E-G-Bb.

If you have this chord in root position it would be

Bb G E C (From Bottom)

If you start from the bottom note and count you get

C > E is three C(1)d(2)E(3)

C > G is five C(1)d(2)e(3)f(4)G(5)

C > Bb is seven C(1)d(2)e(3)f(4)g(5)a(6)Bb(7)

So we notate the root seventh chord as 7/5/3 or just as F7

If you have this chord in first inversion you have the notes C Bb G E

E > G is three E(1)f(2)G(3)

E > Bb is five E(1)f(2)g(3)a(4)Bb(5)

E > C is six E(1)f(2)g(3)a(4)b(5)C(6)

So the seventh chord in first inversion would be notated as 6/5/3 or just 6/5

Second inversion we have the notes. E C Bb G (Bottom)

G > Bb is three G(1)a(2)Bb(3)

G > C is four G(1)a(2)b(3)C(4)

G > E is six G(1)a(2)b(3)c(4)d(5)E(6)

So second inversion could be noted 6/4/3 but not 6/4 (That is our triads in second inversion) Also sometimes noted as 4/3

Third Inversion we have the notes. G E C Bb

Bb > C is two Bb(1)c(2)

Bb > E is four Bb(1)c(2)d(3)E(4)

Bb > G is six Bb(1)c(2)d(3)e(4)f(5)G(6)

So we can note them as 6/4/2 but again not 6/4. Sometimes it may be noted as 4/2

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Did you change your example from F major to C major? Because at the beginning, it says F major, but the example appears to be written for C. – Bradd Szonye Apr 17 '14 at 23:55
I used the dominant seventh of F. Which begins on C – Neil Meyer Apr 18 '14 at 10:43
I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean. Are you talking about the dominant of the key of F, which is C? But in that case, isn't the chord itself C7? Calling it the dominant seventh of F just confuses things I think. – Bradd Szonye Apr 18 '14 at 19:58
No it is F7. C7 has the notes G-B-D-F. The dominant is the fifth degree. Any dominant chord with or without it seventh in the Key of F will start on C – Neil Meyer Apr 19 '14 at 6:35
That disagrees with all of the chord references I can find, which show that C is the root note for C7, F is the root note for F7, and so on. Could you please correct your post either by bringing it in line with conventional notation or linking to a source that supports your viewpoint? As written it's simply confusing. – Bradd Szonye Apr 19 '14 at 7:01 has interactive chord shapes look-up and displays, which are very useful. The static charts below are adapted from diagrams there. Diminished 7th chords are not pictured, but you can figure them out easily.

7(b5) Diminished Minor 7th

7 (i.e. major minor 7th) Major Minor 7th

m7 Minor Minor 7th

M7 Major Major 7th

mM7 Minor Major 7th

M7(#5) ( does not have this, but it is easy to picture as mirror image of mM7) Major Augmented 7th

as for 'practice regimen', try playing cycle of fifth chord sequence in each key (e.g. with root motion going through nth degree of the scale in sequence with n = 1, 4, 7, 3, 6, 2, 5, & back to 1) with smooth voice leading (i.e. instead of using the same shape throughout, try alternating between 1st and 3rd inversions, and between root position and 2nd inversion).

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