# Beginner question about how to understand chords in musical notation

I have a question about how to interpret musical notation involving chords. In the first picture, I can see D minor chord but do I play it with right or left hand? And what notes do I play with the other hand?

If someone is able to clarify this, I'd be very grateful, as it's been confusing me a lot! Thanks!

And similarly, do I play F major with my left hand? What do I do with my right hand?

• In addition to what the others have said here -- anyone could use this as a glorified "chart" to improvise from. – aparente001 Feb 2 at 8:29
• when I started, I used the chord symbols (like Dm) in your example and I learned the left hand shapes for them. As I became comfortable reading music sheets, I could then start to see all the details that make the Dm chord: some notes are inverted, some are doubled, etc and very quickly, you also learn to recognize what chord it is because the notes shapes tend to repeat a lot. Ultimately, I always use both: the symbol tells me what's up instantly and then when I read the notes I can recognize the shapes and which inversions to play, etc without spending much time decoding it. – Thomas Feb 3 at 10:34

## 7 Answers

The notes and chord symbols are two separate complementary things.

The Dm chord symbol is a short summary, abstraction, description, simplification of the overall harmony which continues until the next chord symbol, and the notes ("dots") are a concrete realization written out as notes. You could ignore the chord symbols and just play the notes, even blindly like a machine, without having to know that what you play could be described or categorized as a "Dm" chord. Or you could ignore the notes and play some improvised chordal accompaniment from the chord symbols. There's any number of ways to realize a "Dm" chord symbol as notes.

Here are some examples of music that can be labelled with a Dm chord symbol. Often in song books the chord symbols are simplifications and approximations of the notes, to make it easier to play, or because the exact notes aren't deemed that important.

In the last example, one might argue that the chords are really Dm, Dmmaj7/A, Dm7, ... etc. But it works just as well if a guitarist plays any Dm chord there, and the "maj7" additions would be just awkward to read. Good guitarists can read the notation and play the more complicated things.

Chord symbols are used in at least the following situations

• If you cannot read music ("dots") well enough
• If the written-out notes aren't suitable for the performance, for some reason, you could make up your own accompaniment.
• If you play a different instrument which isn't suitable for playing the written-out notes
• If you just want to create additional instrument parts. For example guitar, bass, synth pad.
• If you want to play variations, for example a different rhythm pattern or different harmonies, maybe differently in the second verse. Or if you just want to do a grind core version of the tune, but the written-out notation is a bossa nova.
• If you want to improvise a solo over the song, you use the chord symbols as a rough map of what happens in the harmony.

The dots are used:

• For writing and playing melodies and other specific musical ideas that have to be described note-for-note
• For describing specific voicings, i.e. ways to spread out and double chord tones in different octaves.
• If you want to play the specific accompaniment pattern.
• If you want to play specific melodic or rhythmic lines that are an essential part of the song. Instrument lines, riffs, etc.
• If you can't think of better things to play, the written-out notes contain at least some kind of an idea to play.
• If you can't read chord symbols fast enough.
• You could ignore it - but I wouldn't! In opposite I would read more additional information about chords, chord progression and the chord functions. You have written the names F,A, but you could as well write D,F,A (Dm-chord) and F,A,C (F-chord). – Albrecht Hügli Feb 2 at 11:16
• @AlbrechtHügli - "in opposite" does not work in English. You want "in contrast" or "rather." ...*but I wouldn't. Rather, I would read etc.* – aparente001 Feb 3 at 3:50
• @aparente001:thank you so much. As you may know I am here for an English course, no joke! – Albrecht Hügli Feb 3 at 9:11
• Worth noting chords are also added to aid guitar or other instruments (e.g.) bass who don't need the full score, so the player doesn't need to be able to analyse this from the sheet music. – Mr. Boy Feb 3 at 10:11
• @LeeC. Interesting! I know some people like that - they play anything from dots with no effort, but with chord symbols it gets slower or just awkward. But I think there are much more people who can operate with chord symbols at least a little bit, but have no idea what to do with the dots. :) I edited the list to add your point of view. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 3 at 22:23

Play what is notated. The chord symbols describe the harmonic basis of what you WILL be playing.

Sometimes you'll see music that has just a melody line and chord symbols. In that case you'd be expected to make up a LH part similar to what is written.

But in this case, if you're playing this keyboard arrangement ON a keyboard, you play what it says. Treat the chord symbols as just for information.

Since you're playing piano, you would normally ignore the chord symbols. Your right hand plays the notes in the upper staff, and your left hand plays the notes in the lower staff. The practice of printing chord symbols in sheet music was originally for the benefit of people playing guitar or banjo or ukulele or autoharp or the like: chord instruments that can't usually play all the detail present in a written-out piano part. Such an instrument could play along in addition to a piano or instead of the piano.

Alternatively, a pianist who wants to play in a more improvisational way can also ignore the notes in the staves and play the chords. The right hand generally plays the chords indicated above the staff, and the left hand plays the root of the chord unless a different note is indicated with a slash following the chord symbol, for example `Dm/C`, which means "play a D minor chord with a C in the bass."

Piano players using the music will play in one of two ways. The basic way is to play the notes shown on the treble clef with r.h., and those shown on the bass clef with l.h. Very straightforward.

The chord symbols shown are there for guitar as much as any, as a guitarist would probably play chords and read those letter names.

A piano player might use the chord symbols to embellish what he's playing - it says Dm, so he could play notes D F and A - in any order, with one or both hands, depending on style - his and that of the music, as well as considering what other instruments or vocals are around it all.

In the top example, there's F and A held as a 'chord' with r.h., and the l.h. plays a Dm arpeggio for the bar. A good pianist would know, from reading the dots, that that's what it is. Others may decide to read the 'Dm' above, and play a D and A together, l.h., and F A D r.h., for instance.

When playing sheet music as written, you play the notes that are shown. At the start of the passage you showed, the F and A above middle C are written, and the D below middle C is written. Therefore you should be playing those three notes at the start of that measure.

How you play the notes is your business. I would play (and hold) the two notes in the upper staff with my right hand and play the sequence of notes in the lower staff with my left hand.

But you could decide to play the two notes in the upper staff with your left hand and play the notes in the lower staff with your right hand. Notice that you still play the F and A above middle C and the D below middle C, so if you decide to play the D with your right hand you have to cross one arm over the other in order to reach the notes.

In the edition of the Gershwin preludes I play from, part of the second prelude consists of chord-like notes in the upper staff and melody-like notes in the lower staff, somewhat like the music you have shown. (In the Gershwin prelude, however, the chords are repeated several times a measure rather than held.) There is a note printed over this passage that says, "Optional Version: Reverse Hands". Here the written sheet music itself is suggesting you could choose to cross your arms one over the other to play the lower notes with your right hand.

I play that passage using my left hand for the lower notes and my right hand for the upper notes. I decided I would rather try to become good at playing a melody with my left hand than to play with my arms crossed over. But that was a choice I made, not something dictated by the written music.

how to interpret musical notation involving chords

You'll have to understand that sheet music of Pop songs never can represent the original performance. They can give you the idea of the notation of the tune (the pitch will be correct but the rhythm is hard to notate) and also the notation of the chords is mostly an idea what a piano reduction could look like. So you are free to play exactly the written notes or to embellish them with additional chord tones or arpeggios or rhythmic patterns just as you like. The chord letters will help you to analyze what chords are used - maybe by the original version or any other interpretation. And you even can search for other fitting chords. As a beginner like you it will be sensible to play first as written and then to try out other chord riffs that will also fit. These chord signs are very useful and helpful to understand the harmony of other new songs you plan to play, so it is always beneficial to pay attention and not ignore them. You will be also able to play the song just from a lead sheet with only lyrics and chord notation (chord letters) and make you free to improvise and play without sheet music.

So you can play the chord in the left hand and in the right hand only the melody, or with the left hand only the bass line (or bass tones) and with the r.h. the tune and the chord tones, or mix and interchange everything: This would be a good practice.

I was going to suggest something slightly opposite of Lee C. I've found chords provide something of a shorthand which enables the dot information to actually be consumed faster, particularly when sight reading. When Dm appears above the staves, one doesn't have to read each individual dot but only recognize the particular pattern in which the D minor dots are assembled. For example, seeing an A as the lowest note in the bass clef, it would be natural to play it with the little finger of the left hand, but the chord would influence how the other fingers of the hand would instinctively be aligned above other notes, i.e., above D-F-A in Dm, C#-E-A in A major, C#-F#-A in F#m, and so on.Especially when sight reading at fast tempi, chords provide a very useful guide to quickly grasp the structure and articulation of the dots.