I am doing a piano course and my feeling is that they try spoon feed you every step of the way by making things very VERY simple. One example is when learning chords you are taught to recognize the letter of the chord (so for example C or Cm) and not to look at the notes on the stave. They do show you the chord notated on the stave but say you should just read C above to know what chord to play. Shouldnt the course be teaching you how to recognize the chord by looking at the intervals on the stave instead of just the chord letters/symbols on top? Is this just the lazy way to learn to play chords on the piano?

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    They're trying to teach you simple association - it's up to you to make the effort to learn that association. Presumably 'stage 2' will remove the letters.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 10, 2020 at 15:46
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    I was never taught to look at the letters. I just look at the notes. I'm sure that knowing the chord you're in helps you make mental shortcuts though so you can just look at the note spacings of the chord and not the individual notes themselves.
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 10, 2020 at 16:00
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    You can play a C or Cm in lots of ways, e. g. in different inversions, different octaves, or you can even add additional notes like the octave, which is something guitarists do all the time. So just looking at the chord symbol doesn't give you the full set of information, but it may be useful as a reminder for a piece you already have played where you are familiar with the chord voicings.
    – user70370
    Aug 10, 2020 at 17:00
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    There are beginners who are able to play exactly the written notes but have no understanding of chords and harmony. The chord theory is an abstraction that you should learn right from the beginning. I used to simplify the piano accompaniment when working with singing classes or choirs. But during the rehearsals I learnt to play the written accompaniment. Aug 10, 2020 at 19:31
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    I can only speak for very mediocre (and basically musically illiterate) guitar players, but if the fingering for a phrase matches a popular chord shape, then I find it immensely useful to know that. When I'm learning a new piece, I'll annotate it with the shapes/names as appropriate.
    – Strawberry
    Aug 11, 2020 at 12:05

9 Answers 9


Do pianists look at the chord letter or notes on the stave to tell what chord to play?


As a general rule, the more improvisatory the music, the greater the tendency toward chord symbols. So reading early classical, jazz, or popular music will tend toward chord symbols (though early classical is a different system1 than the one you're currently learning); whereas, common-practice classical music (approx. 1600 - 1900) will rely on exact note-reading.

Shouldn't the course be teaching you how to recognize the chord by looking at the intervals on the stave instead of just the chord letters/symbols on top?

Most, if not all, modern piano methods teach both. A student leaning toward classical music will likely focus more on notation; a jazz/pop student might lean toward chord symbols.

Often the method will also include Roman numeral notation as well (I chords, IV and V7 chords, etc.) as a way of introducing notation, chord names/symbols, and theory simultaneously.

Is this just the lazy way to learn to play chords on the piano?

No. In fact, in some ways it's more demanding, because at more advanced stages it requires the pianist to understand how to orchestrate interesting voicings rather than having them given on the page.

1 "Figured bass" was a system used in early music. It's a system of specifying which intervals above a bass note should be played ("realized") by the performer — in effect, a system of chord notation, but see also Did continuo players consider figured bass as "interval symbols" or "chord symbols"?.

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    Wouldn't early classical music be more likely to use figured bass rather than chord symbols?
    – gidds
    Aug 11, 2020 at 8:23
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    Yes. That's what I had in mind in referring to "a different system." But you bring up a good question. Technically figured bass is "interval symbols" not "chord symbols", so I suppose there's an interesting debate there. Did keyboard continuo players understand figured bass as "simply intervals" or as complete chords. But I'm definitely stretching the term "chord symbols" in trying to make the larger point that there are systems of harmony that don't involve fixed notation.
    – Aaron
    Aug 11, 2020 at 8:31
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    @gidds (Please see also previous comment. Forgot to @ you.) The Wikipedia article on Figured Bass (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figured_bass) indicates that the system was understood as chord notation.
    – Aaron
    Aug 11, 2020 at 8:39
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    another example is guitars have tablature
    – Emobe
    Aug 11, 2020 at 15:27
  • @Aaron certainly, figured bass is a form of chord notation, although it arose as a method of specifying chords by indicating certain key intervals defining them. It is not perfectly analogous to modern chord notation, because it requires both the figures above the staff and a (bass) note on the staff to specify a chord. Furthermore, the meaning of the figures depends on the key signature, unlike modern chord notation, and many figures are implied, even to the point that it is common for figured bass parts to be partly unfigured (or entirely so).
    – phoog
    Aug 12, 2020 at 17:01

It depends on what you're trying to achieve.

If you want to get a quick understanding of a piece, reading the chord symbols + the melody notes can give you a rough impression.

If you want to improvise, you would also look at chord symbols + melody.

If you want to faithfully play a piece as written, you would use the chord symbols (if present) as a contextual hint. The symbol can help understand the notes quicker and even help spot printing errors.

If you don't have chord symbols, a professional musician will still read "chords" by looking at the notes in the staff. It's the same phenomenon that let's you read "words" even if there are only a bunch of letters ;). And by understanding music theory, you can even read entire progressions in one go – similar to how you can read a sentence by not having to read every single word. This makes sight-reading possible and allows you to see the bigger picture of a composition.

In essence, chord symbols are not necessary but help in reading a piece, because they abstract away the details of voicings, voice leading and rhythm.

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    +1 for noting that professional musicians still extract "chords" from staff notes. It's not an either/or. If you want to embellish/improvise around a piece without chord symbols, it's a pretty essential skill.
    – Athanasius
    Aug 12, 2020 at 13:24

It's probably much easier for a beginner to look at the chord symbol, and play a triad that's appropriate. It's teaching what notes are appropriate for each chord.

Yes, looking at the cluster of dots and recognising which chord they make, and being able to play it exactly, is still important, but a slower process. Most people just want to be able to play something sooner rather than later and this way is much quicker. Maybe it slows the learning process somewhat, as sight-reading dots isn't an immediate 'I'll play it now', but both are great skills to have.

I swing between the two, sometimes using the exact music, sometimes voicing my own chords from the chord symbol, it deepends which I think more effective for the situation. And sometimes, the two don't align, due to misprints, etc. So at least I get a second check of what should be there!


Ask the course creators what they meant. If something feels too easy, it's certainly a good idea to challenge yourself more. Maybe the course is not suited well for you. Or maybe you're missing a point.

There are several distinct skills:

  • ability to sight-read score
  • ability to understand what are the chord names of the notes you play
  • ability to understand what are the chord functions in the context of other chords
  • ability to hear the two above
  • ability to read chord symbols and play them on the spot
  • ability to select good sounding voicing and inversions
  • ability to arrange harmony for several instruments, or for your instrument when other instruments are present: should you play the same chord inversions if a bass is already playing roots of the chords? how to support the melody the best? how to avoid clashing with another chord instrument? etc. etc.

All these are useful skills. If you already feel confident in some of them, work on the other ones.


I am doing a piano course...

First, you really should address these questions to the person running the course, and review the content of the course before you decide to take it!

It all depends on the goal of the course... and whether that is the same as your goal.

If you want to read staff notation, then "yes" you need to learn to read staff, and the course sounds like it isn't oriented toward that goal.

But the course could be oriented to playing from a lead sheet - melody line with jazz chord symbols give above. Chords are not staff notated in a lead sheet.

I have an old "pop" method book John W Shaum, Pop Piano Course which gives examples of how to play chord accompaniment patterns in the left hand on pages separate from the main song tunes, most of which are presented in lead sheet format with just melody and chord symbols above.

Methods like that encourage learning to ad-lib the accompaniment in the left hand. From the perspective of ad-lib you really don't want the chord parts written out. Otherwise you will never learn how to ad-lib.

  • Good point about lead sheets. Bet they weren't mentioned in the course, though.
    – Tim
    Aug 11, 2020 at 6:09

If they taught you to look only at the chord letters this course was not good.

At the beginning of the course they had to tell you the goals of the lessons.

The goal must be:

a) ability to read the written chords

b) to play a musical interesting harmonization of a melody.

Both abilities imply that you are able to play from chord letters and perform an adequate accompaniment by chord reading.

To achieve this goal you need to progress both approaches! Especially you should be able to analyze a written chord and define its function. Write the chord letters above all your sheet music and try to play the pieces only by the lead sheet with the chords and the melody in your mind. So you will be able to play only by chords.

Just playing block chords from letters as a piano reduction may be a start for a bloody beginner is a simplification but this has certainly little to do with the intention of the composer


Mostly it will depend on genre. Jazz pianists are expected to be able to play from lead sheets (melody and chord symbols only) by sight to accompany other instrumentalists or singers. The chord symbols are representative of the required harmonic changes, which the performer interprets with their own style: one or two handed, with different inversions and different colour tones (eg., 9ths, 11ths, 13ths etc) on top of the chords.

Pop music will generally use chord symbols which are relatively simple to read and play.

Classical music doesn’t use chord symbols and requires good sight reading for complex pieces to be able to work through a piece -- even slowly with errors on the first attempt.

So it sounds like the course is catering to both which is no bad thing.


While the fingering patterns on a piano are quite more general, guitar tablature often is additionally "spiked" with chord symbols. Those chord symbols are not relevant in any regard concerning what notes will be played in what order on what string: all that information is in the tablature numbers. However, they are quite helpful in sorting the left hand operation into fingering patterns and thus, in spite of not actually prescribing any note to be played, make sightreading run smoother.

Now a piano score differs in several respects: for one thing you don't need to cram your hand into patterns like on a guitar fretboard. For another, there isn't the duality between fingering and plucking a note which means that you can "prepare" a note before it is being played and facilitate a harmony ringing on (though the latter is a bit more seminal with a piano when letting fingers rest, but it tends to be more explicitly written into notes than for a guitar).

But still, I'd expect that kind of information to be helpful. I would be very wary, however, of taking the chord symbol over the actually written notes: that seems like a mistake. It may help if you have to accompany someone while sightreading and would not be able to decode the notes fast enough: working with the chord symbols might make it easier to create a simplification on the fly that still works well enough. But it's not the main skill to aim for.


Let‘s jump into the future and review your question from there: then it doesn‘t matter, where you started.


You x-rayed the piece in parts or all of it, „see“ all the voices, chords, neighbor notes, nuances, progressions, all the errors left in print and so on. You „saw“ its inner construction, mechanics, ideas, intentions, explorations and so on.

It‘s not different from talking. E.g. you no longer ask for the characters (notes) to know the word (chord) to get the meaning of many notes (the music).

From that future perspective it makes no difference any more, as you need both and more.

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