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I rarely see people playing chords on the piano the way I learned in school, but they more often play chords with an octave in them.

For example, instead of playing C major as C E G, they play it something like C G C.

Can someone explain the reason for this?

I can't find those chords when checking chord inversions.

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  • Well, the main reason to play chords like that, at least in music without chord symbols, is that the sheet music literally has those chords on it (e.g. Bar 1, Beat 1.0 actually has C-G-C in quarter notes sharing a stem in the left hand). Somehow, I don't think this is what you're looking for.
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 22 at 12:49
  • Can't believe it's a true statement. Maybe left hand, but generally, piano players will omit the G out of CEG in favour of CE (or maybe CEC). Main reason is that doubling something always makes a chord sound fuller.
    – Tim
    Oct 22 at 13:42
  • @Tim but people commonly play CEGC, which could be a source of confusion.
    – phoog
    Oct 22 at 16:17
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    @phoog - yes, l.h. I quite often play C-G-E, but that's maybe a different story than playing just C-G-C - at least there's an M3 in there.
    – Tim
    Oct 22 at 16:59
  • @Tim Are you thinking of certain genres of piano playing? Classical and romantic piano works are replete with octaves on the left hand and four note chords on the right hand where the top note is an octave above the lowest right-hand note. I'm not able right now to think of a classical or romantic piano work that I've worked on in years that doesn't have a lot of octaves. Oct 23 at 1:19

4 Answers 4

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Chords on the piano are frequently distributed between both hands. While one hand is playing C-G-C, the expected E is played by the other hand.

C chord with LH C-G-C and RH E

Complicating matters, the E in the "other" hand might not occur simultaneously with the rest of the chord; nevertheless, it's still considered part of the chord.

LH C-G-C; RH D#-E-F-E

With piano music, always remember to consider both hands when analyzing/interpreting chord.

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I can't find those chords when checking chord inversions.

Theoretically speaking, the inversion is determined by the bass note played by the left hand or by a bass instrument. So if you have C/E on a lead sheet, it doesn't much matter how you play the pitches with your right hand. The term for the various possibilities in the right hand is usually voicing rather than inversion.

And in fact, in the classical style, a major triad in the first inversion, such as C/E on a lead sheet, usually falls under the rule that you don't double the third. This means that only the bass instruments (or the keyboard player's left hand or the organist's feet) play E. Everyone else, including keyboard players' right hands, plays only C and G. This is one possible explanation for the phenomenon you have observed, though it's a more likely explanation for some musical styles than for others.

Just to drive the point home a bit, as long as you're playing C in the bass, your C major chord is in root position regardless of where the right hand is playing E and G and, optionally, doubling the C. (As Tim notes in a comment, it's fairly unexceptional to omit the fifth as well.)

X: 1
M: C
L: 1/2
K: C
%%staves {1 2}
V:1 clef=treble
[EG] [Ge] |[CGe] [CEG] |[CEGc] [EGce] |[Gceg] [Gce] |[E2G2c2]|]
V:2 clef=bass
C, C, |C, C, |C, C, |C, C, |C,2|]
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The "great" composers of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras frequently wrote such chords into their piano compositions. One excellent example is the "Promenade" from Pictures at an Exhibition, by Modest Mussorgsky (public domain excerpt):

enter image description here

Right on the first line, we see the left hand is playing mostly in octaves. By the third line, both hands are almost entirely playing either octaves or chords containing octaves.

The reason for writing and playing chords like this is for the sound and sonority of these chord voicings (a voicing is a particular selection of which notes of a chord to play and which notes to double and which octaves to play the notes in).

In the first line of this excerpt, we can see that the melody starts as single notes and then the melody is repeated, but in the repetition, the melody is accompanied by right hand chords and a left hand bass line. This makes the difference between chords and single notes completely obvious. What is less obvious, but becomes clear if you listen to the piece, is that the more notes we add to a piano chord, the "bigger" it sounds. So we can take our music from small and quiet single notes all the way to large and majestic four (or five!) note chords in both hands.

The piano composers of the last four hundred years knew this and used variations in chord voicings constantly throughout their works. Today, piano players in pop, rock, and jazz also understand this and often use "big" chord voicings.

The reasons why big voicings are almost always bracketed by octaves is twofold. First, octaves are a comfortable distance apart on the piano to be played by the thumb and fifth finger of almost every pianist. Second, octaves have a sound that effectively accentuates either the top melody notes or the bass line without sounding muddy or unclear. Some musical theatre piano parts have baselines that are entirely or almost entirely octaves. It's a very effective and popular sound.

If you prefer a non-classical example, "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton has a gradual change from chords without octaves, to octave bassline, to chords with octaves and octave bassline for the big ending.

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In textbooks, chords tend to look like this.

enter image description here

It's a bit of an exaggeration to say they're rarely voiced like that in real music, but there are certainly lots of other possibilities!

What you (hopefully) won't find too much is this sort of 'melody in the right hand, block chords in the left hand' thing. It might be a simple way of indicating the harmonies in a textbook, but it sounds muddy.

enter image description here

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