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chord_shapes

This is a diagram I drew for my own use, to help remember the shapes of the major chords on the piano. As you can see, there are just a few basic shapes:

  1. Straight (C, F, G, F#)
  2. Up wedge (D, E, A)
  3. Down wedge (Db, Eb, Ab)
  4. L shaped (B and Bb)

In addition, some chords are mirror images of the others – that is, black keys become white keys and white keys become blacks. For example:

  1. F and F# (all white keys vs all black keys)
  2. D and Db (and all the wedge shapes)
  3. B and Bb (the two L-shaped chords)

Also note that similar chord shapes are neighbors on the Circle of Fifths (C, F and G for example).

After I worked these patterns out on my own, I saw that a number of piano instruction books use them to introduce chords, for example, Marvin Kahn’s Complete Guidelines for Improvisation for Piano Vol 1-3.

After you play around with the major chord patterns, you can do the same things for the other chords – minors, augmented, diminished, etc. There are patterns there, and by discovering them yourself, you tend to learn them better.

Caveat: People approach music in different ways. And knowing the chord patterns is only the very beginning. I do find that it has helped me make sense of the other aspects of music.

If you like this pattern-oriented approach, there are other books you might enjoy. For example:
Ed Roseman’s Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People
Ward Cannel and Fred Marx’s How to Play the Piano Despite Years of Lessons.

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A friend got a reaction from his father to my post on learning piano chords:

Thanks, but all that does is confuse me and I couldn’t play if I had to analyze it all that way! I know what I want to hear and I find the chord that I know will fit. 90% of them now come to me “automatically” and with a little work, I usually find the correct ones for the other 10%. I know when I’m hitting a correct chord and when the chord is wrong. I guess that’s what playing “by ear” means.

My friend’s dad has been playing jazz, so he’s doing pretty well with his own system.

I’ll admit my explanation was rather condensed. It really needs figures and some more explanation. I’ve found similar explanations in a couple of older piano books. The approach makes things so clear — I’m surprised it isn’t more widely known.

Learning chords this way is easier than learning the multiplication tables.

A realization ….

As I said, it is easiest to learn major and minor chords in groups:

  • White keys (C, F, G)
  • White keys with sharps (D, E, A)
  • Black keys with naturals (D-flat, E-flat, A-flat)
  • The two B’s (B and B-flat)
  • Black keys (F-sharp)

I would also recommend using the same groups for learning the other chords (dominant 7, inversions, augmented, etc.). For example, white keys C, F and G all have the same hand position for their inversions.

Perhaps I’ll draw a chart to show how logical the grouping is.

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Memorizing piano chords

Last year a friend loaned me a digital piano. This inspired me to take up music again, and this time to do it Right!

As strange as it may seem to experienced piano players, I was intimidated by the keyboard. I was comfortable with guitar chords, though I only knew a fraction of those possible. But on the piano? There seemed so many chords, and lead sheets were quite free with chords like

C Maj 7 / G

And all those black keys! I was terrified of moving outside the white keys.

Needless to say, one can’t make much progress on the piano with these fears and confusions.

On the other hand, I had studied harmony and knew that rules and patterns were underneath the many musical forms. I reviewed basic harmony and chord usage in a light-hearted primer: Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People.

Thus armed, I decided to memorize all the chords on the piano.

This is much easier than it seems at first. If you memorize the chords for one octave, you automatically know the chords for all the other octaves on the piano, since the layout of the keys is the same. In contrast, chords on the guitar take many different shapes depending on where they occur.

Unfortunately, the two main approaches to the piano don’t explain how easy it is to learn the chords.

The classical approach under-emphasizes chords, instead focusing on reading notation. Some of the beginning textbooks do mention chords, but more in passing, than as a subject worthy of attention.

The popular music approach, as exemplified by The Piano Guy does put chords at the center. But instead of showing how to memorize the chords, Scott Houston just says to “look them up” in a reference book. Eventually you will pick them up, he assures us.

The truth is that it is fairly easy to memorize the important piano chords. Once memorized, they lose their fear factor and you can concentrate on other aspects of the music.

Here’s how:

  1. Memorize the Major Chord for each of the 12 different notes in the scale.
  2. Learn the simple rules for forming Inversions of the chords.
  3. Learn the rules for forming variations of the chords (Minor, Diminished, Sevenths, etc.)

Learning the Major Chords

The first step is to learn the Major chord for each of the 12 notes in the scale. Once you learn this chord, you can follow simple rules to generate all the variations of the chord. For example, once you learn C Major, you can form C Minor, C diminished, C Major 7, etc.

There are 12 notes to work on:

White keys: C, D, E, F, G, A and B
Black keys: D flat, E flat, G flat, A flat and B flat
(also known as: C sharp, D sharp, F sharp, G sharp and B sharp).

It’s tempting to ignore the black notes, but don’t do it!

The secret to learning the chords is to approach them in patterns. You don’t have to memorize 12 wildly different chords. The chords are all related, and once you see the relationships, you’ll realize that it’s much easier to learn all the chords at once.

Instead of 12 different notes, think of 4 different patterns. Each group forms its chords in the same way.

  • Group One: C, F and G.
  • Group Two: D, E, A
  • Group Three: D flat, E flat, A flat
  • Group Four: B and B flat, plus the orphan F sharp

Group One: C, F and G – The Straight Line

The three notes in these chords are formed “straight across”, all on the white notes:

C Major: C, E and G.
F Major: F, A and C.
G Major: G, B and D.

Play these chords on the piano. With the right hand, you’ll use the Thumb, Middle Finger and Pinky. Start by playing C Major with the Thumb on C. Then move your hand to the right, keeping the fingers frozen in that position. Play F Major and then G Major.

Thus with this one hand position, you can play three Major Chords.

Note that C, F and G chords are harmonically related and often appear in the same piece.

Group Two: D, E, A – The Up Arrow

In these chords, the middle note is one of the black keys. The chord shape that results is an Up Arrow.

D Major: D, F# and A
E Major: D, G# and B
A Major: A, C# and E

Play these chords on the piano, and note again that you can use the same hand position for all of them. Not surprisingly, the D, E and A chords are harmonically related and often appear in the same piece.

Group Three: D flat, E flat, A flat – The Down Arrow

The notes in this group are the same as in Group 2 — except that they are flatted. D flat instead of D, for example. Note that the chord shapes are exactly the opposite as in Group 2 – whites are blacks and blacks are whites. The fingers form a Downward Arrow instead of an Upward One.

D flat Major: D flat, F and A flat
E flat Major: E flat, G and B flat
A flat Major: A flat, C and E flat

The middle note goes down to the white keys, while the 1st and the 3rd are black keys.

With one hand position, you can play each of these chords.  They are harmonically related to each other.

Group Four: B and B flat – The Hockey Stick
F Sharp – The Orphan

B Major and B Flat Major are exactly the opposite of each other. The shape is that of a hockey stick.

B starts on a white note, then goes to black notes for the 3rd and 5th.
B flat starts on a black note, then goes to white notes for the 3rd and 5th:

B Major: B, D sharp, F sharp
B flat Major: B flat, D, F

The chords aren’t related harmonically.

The F sharp chord is an orphan. Fortunately, it’s easy to remember. It’s all black keys straight across. In a way, it is the opposite of the F Chord: all blacks instead of all whites.

F Sharp Major: F#, A# and C#.

Mastering the Majors

There you have it. Just learn the chords in groups. Practice them. Meditate on the underlying patterns.

Inversions

The concept of chord inversions is simple. We have defined Major Chords as three chord tones, going up from the root. However, musically it is not vital that the notes be played in that order. Instead of :

C – E – G

We could play the C Major chord as

E – G – C (first inversion)

or

G – C – E (second inversion)

The different inversions will have characteristic shapes. Approaching the chords in groups will make them easier to learn. For example, in Group One (C, F and G), the hand position for the 1st Inversion will be the same for all three chords.

Chord Variations

The Major Chord is just the beginning. Contemporary music makes full use of the many chord qualities and extensions.

C Major, for example, has the following chords in its family:
C Minor
C Diminished
C Augmented
C Dominant 7
C Major 7
and more ….

Once you’ve learned the basic patterns for the Major chords, you can build the rest of the chords by following simple rules. The rules for forming the different variations are not particularly hard.

To see how the process works, let’s consider Minor Chords.

To make a Minor Chord, you take a Major Chord and flatten the 3rd (lower it a half step). For C Major, you lower the E to an E flat.

To memorize the shapes, learn the Minor Chords in terms of the four groups we’ve mention:

Group 1: C, F and G — the Minor Chords all have the shape of an Up Arrow.
Group 2: D, E and A — the Minor Chords are all “straight across”
Group 3: D flat, E flat and A flat — 2 of the minor chords are Down Arrows, one is “straight across”
Group 4: B and B flat – the Minor Chords are again hockey sticks, this time of a different shape. The F Sharp Minor Chord is a Down Arrow.

Patterns, patterns, patterns

I confess that I love the patterns in music. The underlying relationship bespeaks an underlying harmony.

Not only are they beautiful, but the patterns can reduce the effort of learning basic piano.

Theory

In this article I emphasized patterns – shapes – hand positions. You do not need to know musical theory to learn them.

However, musical theory does explain what’s going on beneath the surface and can be very useful. I’ll just mention the ideas here

You form a Major Chord by taking the root note (C in the case of C Major), adding a third and a fifth. The third is the note three notes up in the scale: C, D, E.. The fifth is the note five notes up in the scale: C, D, E, F, G. Thus, the chord of C Major contains C, E and G.

You can also think of chords in terms of steps and half-steps. To form a Major Chord, you start at the root (e.g., C), go up two whole steps (e.g,. E), and up one and a half-steps (e.g. G).

Or you can think in terms of stacking Thirds. Start with a Major Third (C – E) and add a Minor Third on top (E – G).

Other Chord Qualities (Minor, Diminished, Augmented) and Variations can be described using similar terms.

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