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I'm a very new piano player and I have a little bit of a struggle understanding one thing. I recognize notes on the sheet pretty fast now, but only if they're single notes.

I've learned about chords, I think I understand now how minor, major, 7th and inversions work, but it confuses me a little bit when trying to understand how they're supposed to help me.

Let's take this example of The Scientist by Coldplay:

enter image description here

This first section has Dm7 and to my understanding, it means that all the notes in that section will be from Dm7 chord. When I try to slowly recognize Dm7 on the piano, I just count the steps for now:

  • D is root
  • F is +3
  • A is +5

So Dm is DFA. So Dm7 is DFAC (because it's always the first note minus 1)

Then, I've learned that the left hand is pretty much always the root of the chord (D in this example). And that's alright, it's a pattern and I can easily undestand that, look at the sheet and play it pretty fast. It's really helpful for the left hand, because I don't have to recognize the keys, I can just look at Dm7 and I know these 2 notes in the left hand are D's.

But I don't understand the right hand here. As you can see on the sheet, I should play CFA, so it's some kind of an inversion of DFAC (with D removed).

How the hell should I know what the inversion really is? To be super clear, I don't understand if I should play the right hand:

  • By looking at the chord (Dm7) and build some kind of intuition?
  • Or just look at the notes and count: Ok so here's C, 3 up is F, 2 up is A and completely ignore the Dm7 information?

I just find this Dm7 information helpful for the left hand, but not so helpful for the right hand. Could you guys explain a little bit of how I should read this properly?

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Inversion really only defines what the very lowest note should be. So regardless of how you permute the notes in the right hand, the chord is always actually root position as long as you play a D in the left hand.

Of course, what exactly you do in the right hand also has an influence at the sound, but as long as you keep in a sensible range then for pop songs it is indeed almost completely up to you how you place the notes, just make sure you include all the ones that aren't covered by the left hand yet. Bonus points for smooth voice leading, but this isn't as critical as in classical music. Basically just finding the right-hand-inversion that's nearest to the previous chord is a good default.

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About the meaning of chord symbols:

it means that all the notes in that section will be from Dm7 chord.

That's not really correct. Chord symbols are used in songs like this as harmonic approximations for those who cannot or don't want to read the notes on the staves. Particularly, chord symbols are almost never a complete harmonic analysis, or a promise that all notes will be from that chord. They're an overall summary of the harmony for accompaniment purposes. Guitar and bass players, and why not keyboard players as well, look at the chord symbols and make up their own accompaniment patterns, following the general harmonic "changes" implied by the chord symbols. Players of wind instruments etc. can improvise lines from the chord symbols, knowing which notes will be chord tones.

You could look at chord symbols and the overall shape of the notes and "cheat" a bit by guessing the correct voicing even if you can't see all the notes on the lines completely accurately quickly enough. If you can identify an interval of a fifth on the lower staff and a chord symbol Dm, the notes are probably D and A.

The Dm7 could be voiced in many ways, for example like this:

Dm7 open voicing

And not all notes have to be from Dm7. This is completely legitimately written as just Dm7 and Am7 chord symbols, even though the harmonized melody line contains many notes that don't belong to those chords, and the final chord in the second bar doesn't have an E note even though there "should" be an E in an Am7:

Dm7 Am7

To answer the question in the subject line "Should I recognize notes combinations by chords, or just by counting": you can do either, and use all information available to you for playing the way you want to play. As you get better at sight-reading, you start to recognize note pitches, intervals and chord shapes faster and faster. If you want to play the exact notes written in the sheet music, then do that. But you can also look at the chord symbols and improvise your own voicings, rhythm patterns, voice leading, embellishments and counter-melodies. If you're a guitarist, it will be impossible to play the exact same notes meant for the piano anyway.

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The 'Dm7' on top of the stave isn't particularly for the piano player. It's there for guitarists basically, as it tells what chord is played in the bar. They may well play one of several different voicings of Dm7, mainly because they can.

As a guitarist and keyboard player, I often use those chord symbols as well as/instead of the dots themselves. Sometimes because one or other is inaccurate!

You are correct in that Dm7 consists of D F A and C. The C is where the '7' comes from - probably a more accurate way than 'it's one below the root'. And as such, left hand will often (but not always) play the root, D. By the way, that Dm7 does NOT mean every note in that bar will have to be D F A or C.

So, with a root D in l.h., there's a chouce of what gets played r.h. That choice uses D F A C as its pool. Any or all can be played r.h. It's sometimes fine to omit D - it's already there - and also A. The A often gets left out as it's the least important note. Root needs to be there - how could it be D anything without it F needs to be there - it wouldn't be minor without it. C needs to be there - how could it be DM7 without it? And, anyway, the A sound is heard in a harmonic of the D.

Recognition? Practice helps. Eventually, you'll see a cluster of dots and recognise what they represent. If there are three on consecutive lines or spaces, you'll think 'triad'. It's like a lot of reading. When we see the word 'wheelbarrow' there's a unique shape to it that is easier to recognise and say that just sounding out the phonemes - which may not work well with that word anyhow! (bar - row?)

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