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Piano basics: how to play piano chords

By Scott Houston
A piano is a great instrument to start learning how to play. You don’t need knowledge of complex music theory or any fancy pieces of equipment—all you need is a piano and your hands! The fastest way to start playing and having fun on the keys is by using a simple formula to figure out the notes of any type of chord

Watch the video below to see how I use the formula to figure out the notes of C major and A flat minor, then keep reading to get music term definitions and a chart to help you figure out other types of chords!
So as you saw in the video, the formula to find the notes of C major (or any major chord) is R(root chord) – 4 – 3. You start on the root chord, then go up four half-steps to find the second note to play. Finally, go up three half-steps to find the third note to play! 

The other example I gave was to find the notes for an A flat minor chord, which starts with a black key and follows a little bit of a different formula of R – 3 – 4 for root chord, up three half-steps, then up four half-steps. It’s as easy as that!  

Music terms you need to know

Learning music is kind of like learning a new language… only easier! (Not to mention more fun, but of course, I’m a little biased as a music teacher.) Here are some more detailed definitions for the musical terms I mentioned in the video.

Chords: A group of three or more notes played together that produces harmony, often in conjunction with a melodic line. 

Half-step: The next immediate note on the keyboard. The closest distance between any two notes on a keyboard. Usually from a white note to a black note or a black note to a white note, but there are obviously a couple of occasions where a half-step is between two notes.

Root chord: The first note in a chord (usually the lowest) that is represented in the name of the chord and establishes the key. For example, the C note is the root of a C major chord. 

Major chords are groups of notes that sound stable and happy. The chord formula again is R – 4 – 3. 

Minor chords are groups of notes that often sound sad or serious. Conversely, the chord formula R – 3 – 4. 

More chord types and formulas

Dominant seventh chords are groups of notes that sound bold, compelling, and complex. They are often found in blues, jazz, and R&B. Their formula is R – 4 – 3 – 3.

Major seventh chords are groups of notes that are smooth and thoughtful sounding. They are often associated with jazz. Their formula is R – 4 – 3 – 4.

Minor seventh chords are groups of notes that sound brooding and ambiguous. They are often thought to represent the middle ground between happy and sad. Their formula is R – 3 – 4 – 3.

Augmented chords are groups of notes that sound mysterious and nervous. Their formula isR – 4 – 4. 

Diminished chords are groups of notes that sound uncomfortable and tense. Their formula is R – 3 – 3.

I encourage you to play around with these different chord types on your own to see just how easy and fun learning piano can be! Interested in going to the next level? I teach adults how to get the hang of different chord constructions and combinations by immersing them in real tunes right from the very beginning of their learning. Check out my intro course below to learn your first song using the chord-based method! It’s absolutely free and only takes 45 minutes.