I am starting to learn some music theory and improving other things in my piano playing, and I've decided I will begin by learning chords. I've read a bit about them and I know, more or less, how they are built, but I don't know where to go with this knowledge, how to expand it and how to apply it in practice.

My question boils down to these three things:

  1. What constitutes the knowledge of chords?
  2. How to apply this knowledge in everyday playing? (playing from memory/sheet/improvising)
  3. And most important of all: How to learn chords effectively?

4 Answers 4


You need to know the basic concepts of diatonic functional harmony and chord progressions. There is a Wikipedia article on Diatonic function that will get you started.

The next topic is voice leading and the use of chords in inversions. The concept of voice leading comes from Bach's choral music, but there are rules about voice leading that apply to piano.

Here is a quick and simple example of voice-leading on piano.

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In the key of C, the three basic chords are C major, F major, and G major. We call these I, IV and V, because they are the first, fourth and fifth chords derived from the C major scale.

You can play them as in the first phrase, as triads in root position. However, as a pianist, you would want to play them as in the second example: the C chord in root position, the F chord in second inversion (with the C as the bottom note), the C chord in root position, then the G chord in first inversion (with the B as the bottom note) and then back to the C chord in first position. You can play this chord progression without moving your right hand position. As you move through the progression, you'll see that each chord has one common tone with the chord following it (the first through third chords in the progression have the same "C" note, and the third through fifth chords in the progression have the same "G" note in common.) So this is how to play the chord progression smoothly on piano.

  • 1
    Not only is it easer to play, the ear can pick out the different voices more easily when there is a lot of "stepwise motion" in them. In Wheat's second example, you'll notice a nice melodic motion in the middle voice, while the first "jumps around" a great deal.
    – BobRodes
    Apr 3, 2014 at 15:55

I'm going to jump in with a startling admonition ... you've made the wrong choice!

Learn the scale first :-)

And here is WHY ...

Western harmony is scale based and chords are triads, or tertian chords, based on the scales. In addition, the naming of chords generally (but not always) refers to the scale (e.g "C6", "CMaj7", etc.).

Now, this might seem a tad harsh, but really it isn't. And you can MIX the two ... that is, learn your C Major scale, and then learn several of the chords for it --- so you're really learning the scale and the chords at almost the same time :-)

Here's a (possibly) helpful graphic: C Major Scale and Triads

After you know the C Major scale, any "C-based" chord is easily computed based on your knowledge of the scale. (In addition, you're familiar with minor chords and one diminished chord that can serve as gateways to other "keys").

Plus, most or all of the things you learn from C Major will apply to G Major, to D Major, perhaps F Major, and so on. Before long you're not only good at harmony, but you've gained a treasure trove of theoretical knowdled and you have some scalar technique that you can use for melodic playing, solos, etc.

  • I guess I didn't name the "C Major Triads" for the reader; they are as follows: I is C Major, ii is D minor, iii is E minor, IV is F Major, V is G Major, vi is A minor, and vii is B diminished. Note the use of lowercase indicators for minor chords. Most generally in "pop music" or sheet music with chord symbols notated, a diminished chord like "vii" will have a small circle, or in some cases a "minus" sign, indicating that it's diminished. Jan 12, 2016 at 15:11

From how I learned, most easy seems to remember that

  • A three note major chord can be built on any piano key by pressing additionally a key three keys up and then another two keys more up.
  • A three note minor chord can be built with the opposite rule (first two keys up, then three keys more up).

You need to count both black and white keys. The keys that you actually press do not count ("two keys" I mean two keys = half tones in between, making minor third, and "three keys" is getting the major third). To make easier to remember, note that the distance between the two bounding keys is always the same, six keys, as they always make perfect fifth. Only the position of the middle key changes.

You can learn to find 24 important I would say chords this way in ten minutes at most. Then probably makes sense to read somewhere about chord voicing, also easy. 7th chords are not very difficult to understand but without voicing may be tricky to get on the keyboard.

Also, pressing every second white key, three keys in total, near always produces either valid minor or valid major chord, depending from root note (C Dm Em F G Am and only B/Bm must be picked differently, using one or two black keys).

Further is not so easy but I would recommend to try understanding at least some theory behind rather than just learning the positions of the keys to press.

  • Your right in your way of learning chords, but the question was how to apply it to music playing. For that to my opinion it doesn't answer the question.
    – Nachmen
    Jan 12, 2016 at 10:04
  • The question says "most important for all" about learning the chords.
    – h22
    Jan 12, 2016 at 12:06

Best way to learn chords is to pick about 20-30 simple, well known tunes: folk tunes, Christmas carols, children's tunes. Working entirely in the key of C major, work out the melody, and then figure out which of the seven basic chords (in that key) should go under the melody note at any given time. In other words, harmonize the melody by ear. This presupposes you already know the 7 basic triad chords. If you don't, it's a breeze to learn them, the "seven diatonic triad chords in the key of C major."

  • I gave a vote because it helped me. But for the OP I think the learning needs to be more structured.
    – Nachmen
    Jan 12, 2016 at 10:08

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