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I am starting to learn some music theory and improving other things in my piano playing, and I've decided I will begin by learning chords. I've read a bit about them and I know, more or less, how they are built, but I don't know where to go with this knowledge, how to expand it and how to apply it in practice.

My question boils down to these three things:

  1. What constitutes the knowledge of chords?
  2. How to apply this knowledge in everyday playing? (playing from memory/sheet/improvising)
  3. And most important of all: How to learn chords effectively?
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2 Answers 2

From how I learned, most easy seems to remember that

  • A three note major chord can be built on any piano key by pressing additionally a key three keys up and then another two keys more up.
  • A three note minor chord can be built with the opposite rule (first two keys up, then three keys more up).

You need to count both black and white keys. The keys that you actually press do not count ("two keys" I mean two keys = half tones in between, making minor third, and "three keys" is getting the major third). To make easier to remember, note that the distance between the two bounding keys is always the same, six keys, as they always make perfect fifth. Only the position of the middle key changes.

You can learn to find 24 important I would say chords this way in ten minutes at most. Then probably makes sense to read somewhere about chord voicing, also easy. 7th chords are not very difficult to understand but without voicing may be tricky to get on the keyboard.

Also, pressing every second white key, three keys in total, near always produces either valid minor or valid major chord, depending from root note (C Dm Em F G Am and only B/Bm must be picked differently, using one or two black keys).

Further is not so easy but I would recommend to try understanding at least some theory behind rather than just learning the positions of the keys to press.

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You need to know the basic concepts of diatonic functional harmony and chord progressions. There is a Wikipedia article on Diatonic function that will get you started.

The next topic is voice leading and the use of chords in inversions. The concept of voice leading comes from Bach's choral music, but there are rules about voice leading that apply to piano.

Here is a quick and simple example of voice-leading on piano.

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In the key of C, the three basic chords are C major, F major, and G major. We call these I, IV and V, because they are the first, fourth and fifth chords derived from the C major scale.

You can play them as in the first phrase, as triads in root position. However, as a pianist, you would want to play them as in the second example: the C chord in root position, the F chord in second inversion (with the C as the bottom note), the C chord in root position, then the G chord in first inversion (with the B as the bottom note) and then back to the C chord in first position. You can play this chord progression without moving your right hand position. As you move through the progression, you'll see that each chord has one common tone with the chord following it (the first through third chords in the progression have the same "C" note, and the third through fifth chords in the progression have the same "G" note in common.) So this is how to play the chord progression smoothly on piano.

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Not only is it easer to play, the ear can pick out the different voices more easily when there is a lot of "stepwise motion" in them. In Wheat's second example, you'll notice a nice melodic motion in the middle voice, while the first "jumps around" a great deal. –  BobRodes Apr 3 at 15:55

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