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Ultimate Guide To Piano Chords: Part 1

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

Table of Contents

  1. What Are Chords?

  2. Why Learn About Piano Chords?

  3. Constructing Chords In Tertian Harmony

  4. Two Basic Chords

  5. Major Triad

  6. Minor Triad

  7. What's Next?


What Are Chords?


In music, a chord is simply two or more notes played together to produce a pleasing sound, or a sense of musical harmony. There are many kinds of chords, each having its own musical character. And in this blog series, we will teaching you everything you need to know about chords..


Why Learn About Piano Chords?


Chords are an integral part of most of the music that you might hear, be it Classical music, Pop music, and Jazz; one might even say that chords are the backbone of much of the music that we hear. And knowing that, it shouldn't be hard to understand that knowing your chords well puts you in a much better position to understand other topics in music, such as, music composition, improvisation, accompaniment, and more. Knowing your chords well could also possibly improve your sight reading, as you would be able to make sense of the underlying harmony of the passage that you are reading, and able to read notes in 'groups' of notes, rather than reading each note as its own isolated event without understanding the rationale behind the note choices. And without further ado, let's move on to the how to construct chords on the piano, and what kinds of chords there are.


Constructing Chords In Tertian Harmony


To start with, we generally construct chords by stacking third intervals on top of a given root note. This concept of creating harmony by stacking third intervals is referred to as 'Tertian' harmony. Below is an example of how a chord may be constructed by stacking thirds upon a root note:


Two Basic Chords


At this point, you might have noticed that in constructing the chord shown above, there were two different types of third intervals that were used when stacking the third intervals above the given root note: in the interval from the root note (C) to the E note above it, a major 3rd interval is used, whereas if you consider the interval between that E note and the G note above it, it is a minor 3rd interval.




The next natural step would then be to ask, in constructing a chord, how would one know which kind of third interval to stack on top of a given root note? The thing is, different combinations of varying types of 3rd intervals would produce chords of differing emotional characteristics. Now, let's explore some of these combinations, starting with the two most basic of chords: the major and minor triads


Major Triad




A major triad is constructed by

  • stacking a major 3rd interval from the root note

  • stacking a perfect 5th interval from the root note (also the same as stacking a minor 3rd interval on top of the initial major 3rd interval)

If you are generally not familiar with intervals, you can also think of constructing major triad by

  • going up 4 semitones from the root to get the next chord tone of the triad

  • and going up another 3 semitones to get the next chord tone of the triad


If you are familiar with your scales, another way of thinking about constructing a major chord, is to take the 1st, 3rd and 5th of the major scale formed from the root note.


It is important to note that, in a major chord, and all other chords that are constructed by stacking in thirds, we refer to the lowest chord tone as being the root note or the 1st, the next chord tone above that as being the 3rd, and the next chord tone above that as being the 5th.


As you have may have already noticed by now in the illustrations above, the chord symbol for a major chord would simply be its root note. For example a C major chord's chord symbol is simply 'C'.


Minor Triad


A minor triad is constructed by

  • stacking a minor 3rd interval from the root note

  • stacking a perfect 5th interval from the root note (also the same as stacking a major 3rd interval on top of the initial minor 3rd interval)

Once again, for those who are not familiar with intervals, you can also think of constructing minor triad by

  • going up 3 semitones from the root to get the next chord tone of the triad

  • and going up another 4 semitones to get the next chord tone of the triad



For those who are familiar with your scales, you can think of constructing a minor chord in the following scale degrees: 1, b3, 5.


It may also serve you well to notice that the minor triad only differs from the major triad by its lowered 3rd. Hence, if you already are familiar with the major chord formed from the same root note, this would be a faster way in figuring our the chord tones of the minor chord formed from the same root note.


The chord symbol for a minor chord is simply 'Xm' or 'X-' whereby X is the root note. For example, the chord symbol for a C minor triad is 'Cm' or 'C-'




What's Next?


With that, we conclude our first part of our piano chords complete guide. In the next part, we will be talking about four more triads, followed by all the seventh chords you need to know, inversions, tensions, and more! Stay tuned


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