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).

  • 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, 2014 at 12:34
  • 1
    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. Jan 1, 2016 at 21:20

10 Answers 10


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.

  • 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? Oct 19, 2011 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.
    – user28
    Oct 19, 2011 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.

  • 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"? Jan 1, 2016 at 14:56
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    @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. Jan 4, 2016 at 9:51
  • Ah, get it. That's exactly the kind of exercises I've been looking for. Thanks for your explanations. Jan 4, 2016 at 11:56
  • @ReinHenrichs I have no intuition on playing inversion chords. Can you explain what's the motivation behind the technique you suggest? To play a 2nd inversion for example, I visualize the chord in its root position, then put my 5th on the 3rd node in the chord, and then play the rest of notes moving up the lower ones by an octave. That's methodical but awfully slow. What goes in your mind when you use your technique?
    – Lolo
    Feb 28, 2019 at 16:37

http://www.pianotools.com/piano_visualization_tools/chords.html 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) (pianotools.com 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).


I agree with the plus-voted answers above, but I'd like to suggest a couple of additional techniques.

First, simplify your chord voicings. Start with "shell" or "Bud Powell" chord voicings. Then add color notes: flatted fifths, 11ths, 13ths, etc. Honestly, this is what most jazz piano players do. George Shearing the Block Chord King is dead.

Second, try playing all melodies as chord-melodies, that is, matching every single note of the melody with a chord inversion. Do this in free tempo, at first, taking as much time as you need to voice each chord. Then start playing against a metronome, at first verrrry slowly, then gradually speeding up until you can play andante or lento.

Third, go through chord melodies but start reharmonizing all your chords.

Finally, comp along with the solos on your favorite jazz records.

When you get to this point you're playing jazz chords at a professional level.

Go forth and do good.


I play the bass guitar, but I learned this way of practicing seventh chords and inversions from a saxophone player. Say I am working C Maj 7... I start at the bottom of my instrument and head towards the top of the range: up CEGBC, down ECBGE, up GECBG, down BGECB. Once I reach the top, I come back down again alternating up and down. I do this for each degree of the scale, i.e.: I, ii, iii, IV, V7,vi, and vii(b5). Might be cool to do the seventh chords for ii, V, I (or) I, iii, V7, vii(b5),ii,IV,vi (or) pick the progression of a tune you like.

When major/minor gets old, I do the seventh chords and inversions for Harmonic Minor and Ascending Melodic Minor. When straight arpeggios gets old, I try to come up with scale sequences off the notes of the seventh chords.

For me, there are movable shapes, but there are generally 4 different shapes for each seventh chord and inversion. A lot to practice!! The more times I touch the patterns, hear the notes, think the notes, think the intervals, I just sort of internalize them, and I can play them off of any note, starting on any finger.

And when I go to the jam they yell at me unless I play root/five. Practicing keeps me out of trouble though.

I draw fingerboard maps too which seems to aid in memory.

---Oh shoot, sorry to ramble on, but check out Dominic O'Brien The World Memory Champion. He builds imaginary palaces to memorize incredible amounts of information like the Ancient Greeks.


I still think the best way to memorize chords is by their sound. To do this you would first need to be familiar with the pitch of every key on the keyboard and their relative pitches. This might seem really basic but is very important, and also fairly easy to accomplish on the keyboard because there are really just 12 keys repeating themselves.

Then try to memorize how the different types of chords sound like (in your case, major seventh, minor seventh, dominant seventh, diminished seventh, etc.) and associate the overall sound of the chord as well as the relative pitch of each note within the chord with the shape on the keyboard. Start with the chords in C major only and all other keys would just be a shift from this.

This might seem more challenging than just memorizing the shapes mechanically at first, but it will prove to be very beneficial in the long run and would make inversions effortless.


For practical purpose like improvisation and accompaniment, memorizing the notes of each chords is useful.

That means, you can play whatever texture and inversion you want with any of these chords. Let's say the C7. If you remember the note position on the keyboard of it are C, E, G and B-flat, you know automatically how to combine them either into compact texture or open texture. i.e., you can play a bass note on G and a compact chord an octave above it of B-flat, C and E.

The key is that you visually memorize the notes in a chord. Then when you want to play this chord, you "see" all the notes of that chord in at least 2 or 3 adjacent octaves in your mind. Imagine how easy it would be to randomly pick some notes from a chord if every notes of that chord is marked red on keyboard.

And familiarity, or instinct is the key, and the method mentioned above is just a tool. Use what every means to get familiar with these chords, the shape of your hand, the relationship with other chords, the imaginary shape of related notes on a keyboard. Your final goal is to intuitively play whatever 7th chords in whatever texture and inversion.


Before you start adding in fancier chords like ninths and augmented chords, I would get familiar with basic chord progressions and what inversions work best to provide good voicing. Good voicing basically means selecting inversions that prevent jumping around too much.

A good place to get started is the I-IV64-I-V65-I chord progression. (64 means first inversion triad, 65 means first inversion 7th chord.) So, for example in C, play CEG, CFA, CEG, B(D)FG, CEG. (In a 7th chord, the fifth is optional.) Try that in several of the keys with a few sharps or flats. Also, do minor keys with a sharped 7th, for example in a minor, play ACE, ADF, ACE, G#(B)DE, ACE. Try that with a few minor keys.

This is probably the most basic chord progression there is. You'll find it in most genres of music. Getting familiar with this progression to the point where it's automatic will teach you a lot of the things that you want to know, and also give you a framework to start applying those things.

Once you have that down in several keys, start working with the I chord in first inversion. Moving from I6 (first inversion), what inversions of IV and V require the least movement? Use those. Then experiment with I64. Try for stepwise movement of each note in each chord change. Look at I64 to IV6, and see that one note remains the same, and the other two move up by step.

You can apply these nuts and bolts directly to your desired repertoire, and from there you can begin branching out to other types of chords.


Hi the issue with the original question is that when forming the standard triad one uses the 1,3,5 fingers on the right hand and 5,3,1 on the left hand. However when forming sevenths one brings in the second finger on both hands. 1,2,3,4 on the right and 5,4,3,2 on the left. This gives the dominant seventh of F as C-1,E-2,G-3 and Bb-4 with the 5 of the right hand available to finalise an arpeggio run with the next C or cross the thumb under to continue an arpeggio with the next C. Just ignore the pinky if playing a full blocked chord


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-B♭.

If you have this chord in root position it would be

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

So we notate the root seventh chord as F:V 7/5/3 or just as F:V7

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

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

E > B♭ is five E(1)f(2)g(3)a(4)B♭(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 F:V 6/5/3 or just F:V 6/5

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

G > B♭ is three G(1)a(2)B♭(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 F:V 6/4/3 but not 6/4 (That is triads in second inversion) Also notated as F:V 4/3

Third Inversion we have the notes. G E C B♭

B♭ > C is two B♭(1)c(2)

B♭ > E is four B♭(1)c(2)d(3)E(4)

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

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


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