I've sang in choir for 50 years, played Trombone in high school, and am a Church Choir Director. I can read music (both clefs).

I mostly play hymns on keyboard/organ. I can play both right hand parts, and both left hand parts, but I can't play all four parts together.

I want to be able to play both notes with right hand and a chord with my left. I cannot read both staffs at the same time and want to know which note in either clef I can base my chord on. How can I determine which chord to play?

  • 1
    @Gordon I've made an edit to try and incorporate your comments, and make the question clearer. Please do edit it if I've changed your question too much.
    – endorph
    Mar 30, 2017 at 23:01

5 Answers 5


It has to be said. Find a teacher! Yes, even at your tender years. After all the experience you say you have, an awful lot of what you think you don't know is probably in there, hiding, at the moment. A teacher will, in a very short time, re-align all the information you've been using for many years, and make it all blindingly obvious to you. You'll probably end up kicking yourself! But not too hard...

  • I think this is the correct approach. You appear to have lots of experience and knowledge but you are not applying it appropriately. A teacher will fix this.
    – JimM
    May 11, 2018 at 19:47
  • @JimM - not sure who the intended recipient of your comment is!
    – Tim
    May 12, 2018 at 14:31

I think the easiest way for you to proceed is to obtain a hymnal that has chord symbols. I have a few, so I know they exist. Then you can just read the right hand and the chord symbols.

The next easiest way is to write out chord symbols yourself. I don't know how comfortable you are here, but with your experience, it shouldn't be too difficult to learn.

Finally, it is possible to recognize chords on the fly, but I feel that it's probably a harder skill than just playing both written parts.

Oh, and teachers are great at helping you, as long as you find one who knows what you are aiming to do. Are there some more chordally-inclined players that you know who can help you here?


How can you determine which chord to play? Only by reading the music, I'm afraid. There may be several harmonic possibilities for each note, but only one will be the RIGHT one, the one your choir members will be reading and singing! Is 'I cannot' about reading or about playing? I agree, the tenor part of a hymnal in particular doesn't always fall well under the fingers. An organist might use his feet for the bass line, leaving just SAT to the hands.

See if you can manage the top and bottom lines, Soprano and Bass. That will sound pretty good. Then I'm sure some Alto could creep in? It's often in thirds with the Soprano. Don't worry too much about the Tenor line.


The trick is to look at the bass note which is usually strongly related to the chord you want and read upwards. Then you need to learn to recognise the intervals to the other notes which will tell you the inversion of the chord and the type of chord or just relate them to the intervals on the keyboard without knowing their names. If there is a major third its most likely a major chord for example. Put the two together and you get the chord name. So its essential to recognise the gaps between the notes on each stave and between them. Writing out each chord and its inversions across the whole double stave is a way to learn what each chord looks like. You soon start to recognise patterns in the stacks of notes.


Wow ... Ok. So it sounds like you can read notes and also play some chords. This is kind of the problem with standard music education, they don't teach how to break out of the notes on the page. You just need to experiment with the chords you are given. Learn what the third sounds like, and the fifth, and the seventh ... etc. It's not as hard as it sounds and given your experience it seems like something that you could pick up quite easily. Maybe try just picking up a book that only shows the melody and chord then try to learn how to make music from that.

  • This does not answer the question. The question is about how to negotiate through a hymnal when the player has difficulty playing all the designated parts. experiment with the chords you are given.... picking up a book that only shows the melody and chord then try to learn how to make music from that... Is not answer to this question. Note the approach the other answers have taken.
    – Vector
    Nov 26, 2017 at 1:57

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