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I've been learning the piano for about a year now and I'm familiar with the concept of the standard 3-note chord (a triad), eg. C major is CEG. I've also learnt about inversions, eg. C major can be played as CEG, EGC or GEC.

All good so far. The we can add accidentals, eg. we can have C#, Cb (and even C##, Cbb). Then there's major and minor. And augmented and diminished. All of which have inversions it seems. This adds up to a large number of chords.

For a beginner such as myself, is there a (agreed) subset of these chords that I should be familiar with? (I'm assuming some are fairly esoteric and I can get by without them for a few years :)

Once I have this subset, is there a good rule of thumb for recognising them when they appear in a score? Or is it a case of memorising them as a "whole word" and I'll get to the point where I can just read them?

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    What style or genre? – endorph Dec 4 '16 at 21:35
  • Is that yet another factor to my question? I've been learning a mix of what I'd call (possibly incorrectly) classical, eg. Beethoven, Haydn, plus some standards like Greensleaves, Scarborough Fair, plus some modern stuff by my favourite bands, eg. One by U2. – dave Dec 4 '16 at 22:28
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    It matters because the chords that are idiomatic to one genre can be quite rare in another. For example, dominant 7s are really common in blues, but rather exceptional in modern pop. For the classical stuff, you probably don't need to read chord symbols at all, although recognising them can be helpful. – endorph Dec 4 '16 at 22:33
  • OK, that makes sense. I'm not doing much Blues and my ultimate goal is to be able to play my favourite modern / pop music. Does that help? – dave Dec 4 '16 at 23:06
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To play modern pop/rock/indie styles, you'll need:

Major and Minor triads:

Basic stuff here. I'm not going to elaborate.

Augmented and Diminished triads:

These are rare in the stated genres, and can pretty much be ignored.

Altered Bass Notes (slash chords)

You'll need to be able to interpret slash chords, like C/E, C/D, C/Bb, etcetera. To play these chords, play the upper chord in your right hand, and the lower note (not chord) in your left. So, to play C/D, I'd play C, E and G in my right hand, and D in my left. As you get more experienced, you can distribute the notes differently, but the D should always be the bass note.

Suspended triads:

  • Suspended Fourth (sus4) - replace the third of the chord with the fourth. A Csus4 consists of C, F and G.
  • Suspended Second (sus2) - replace the third of the chord with the second. A Csus2 consists of C, D, and G.
  • Added Ninth (add9, 2, add2) - add the second to the chord, to produce a four-note chord. A Cadd9 consists of C, D, E and G. You'll also see this chord written as Cadd2 and C2.

Sevenths:

  • Minor seventh (min7, m7) - add the seventh to a minor chord. A Cm7 consists of C, Eb, G and Bb. Note the similarity to Eb/C. You can use this as a shortcut.
  • Major seventh (maj7, rarely M7) - add the seventh to a major chord. A Cmaj7 consists of C, E, G and B. Note the similarity to an Em/C. You can use this as a shortcut.
  • Dominant seventh (7) - add a flat seventh to a major chord. A C7 consists of C, E, G and Bb. This chord is comparatively rare in the mentioned styles. It's similar to an Edim/C.

Other Stuff:

You will occasionally run into other chords (C6/Cm6, Cadd11/C4, possibly /Cm7b5, etc), but they're much rarer. I would concentrate on the ones above initially, and explore other possibilities later on.

  • Cm7b5 is Cø. It's not a minor chord, it's diminished thus the notation should reflect that. – Dom Dec 5 '16 at 2:57
  • @Dom Rightly or wrongly, I have seen m7b5 much more often than the half-diminished symbol. I'll stick it in as well. – endorph Dec 5 '16 at 3:00
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To endorph's list I would add Major and minor 6ths. For example in C, this would be C E G A and in Cm: C Eb G A. Once you play them you'll hear their characteristic sound. Beatles use them sometimes.

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When you learn these chords, it's also worth observing which notes are essential for its sound and which ones aren't. When you're in a band situation, you can many times eliminate playing the root and 5th. The bass usually plays the root, the 5th doesn't necessarily add much soundwise.

One complaint that other musicians have about pianists and keyboardists is playing too many notes. If you're in a solo situation, that's different since only you are there to supply the accompaniment and melody. When we're in a band with 10 fingers that can hit 10 and even more notes, we need to step back and figure out which notes really matter and which we can discard especially to not step on other band members.

At first we need to think about this a lot, yet with practice and repetition it'll become as natural as other languages. You'll spot a chord symbol and already know by instinct how you'll position your hands, whether you'll go for an open or closed voicing.

You can also experiment with the different inversions of the chords and see how they feel and sound for you. And sometimes you'll discover the inversion of one chord works in place of another chord because both chords have the same notes, just different "spellings."

It's definitely worth getting to know inversions for several reasons. First, there's a big temptation to always play things in root position when we look at notation. Yet the music needs to sound smooth. That's achieved nicer when chords go from one to another without jumping around. (Look into the concept of "voice leading.") Second, it makes fingering easier. It's necessary to do this when playing keyboard instruments.

One other thing that is extremely helpful worth trying. If you find a piece of music you like that does NOT have chord symbols on it, write them in. See how the chord symbols you came up with match up with the song. Does it sound sensible? One piece I saw this with was the 1st movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. It was really interesting to see that C#m then C#m/B as well as the rest.

Many times when I want to understand what's going on with a piece, I write my own chord chart. You can also do this for songs on the radio like the modern pop things you're speaking about. See how close you get. What chords are those songwriters using? (Sometimes you'll absolutely have to do this if the composer has not released any sheet music.)

  • "the 5th doesn't necessarily add much soundwise." - there may be situations where this is subjectively true but it seems too bold as a general statement. – topo morto Dec 7 '16 at 8:48

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