Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
19:14

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
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Do you struggle to make your chords sound good when composing or arranging for piano? Perhaps you wonder why chords in published sheet music seem to sound better than the ones that you come up with for your own original songs. In today’s Quick Tip, Piano Chord Secrets—11 Mistakes to Avoid, Jonny May shares the chord secrets that every songwriter needs to know when writing for piano. You’ll discover important arranging concepts including:

  • Piano Registers
  • Chord Spacing
  • Doubling Notes
  • Chord Inversions
  • Chord Extensions
  • Chord Voicings
  • Alternative Shapes
  • Slash Chords

If you feel like you’ve been left in the dark when it comes to great sounding piano chords, then you’ll find plenty of “ah-ha moments” in today’s lesson.

Intro to Piano Chord Secrets

When piano students encounter problems with the sound of their chords, usually it’s because they are making one of 11 common chord mistakes. Some of these mistakes are subtle and result in a bland or lackluster sound. However, other chord mistakes are more significant will sound quite problematic.

The following list includes all 11 common piano chord mistakes that we’ll discuss in today’s lesson. You can click on a particular chord mistake to navigate directly to that topic and quickly find its solution.

If you are PWJ member, you can download the lesson sheet PDF for this lesson from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, members can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

11 Piano Chord Mistakes and the Secrets to Fix Them

Before we get into the specific chord secrets for fixing the 11 common chord mistakes, we want to stress that these guidelines are general principles, not absolute rules. Even so, these principles present a reliable approach for getting better sounding chords, especially for less experienced students and amateur songwriters.

As we explore each piano chord secret, we’ll first present a specific chord mistake, which will be outlined in pink. As such, many of the demonstrations that feature pink player controls will sound wrong. However, others will sound more tolerable and simply represent a less ideal approach. Afterward, you’ll find one or more “fixes” outlined in green, with demonstrations that feature green player controls. These examples illustrate the secret for fixing the given mistake.

Alright, let’s jump into the first common mistake.

#1: Chords Too Low

This first mistake is fairly obvious and happens when a pianist plays their chords too low on the instrument. Notice in the example below that both hands are written in the bass clef. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #1 - Mistake

Do you hear how dark and muddy these chords sound? In this case, the problem mainly involves the right-hand chords. Of course, the term “chord” represents the composite sound that the piano produces when the hands play together. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s think of the left hand as the bass voicing and the right hand as the chord. In general, low bass notes or bass voicings are not problematic, within reason. However, playing a right-hand chord below C3 creates a muddy sound. The secret to fixing this example is keep the right-hand chords above C3. The following diagram illustrates that C3 is the C directly below Middle C.

The Fix: Keep Chords Above C3

Piano Chord Secrets #1 - The Fix

Piano Keyboard with C Markers

For our fix, we’ve ensured that all of the notes in our right hand are above C3. In addition, we’ve also brought the left hand up a bit higher too because it was extremely low in the previous example. Let’s take a listen now…

Piano Chord Secrets #1 - Example of the Fix

The Exception: Open 5ths

Now, let’s consider an exception that involves a bit of nuance. Remember, our general principle stated that our right-hand chords should be above C3. However, sometimes you may find an example that appears to have chords in the left hand that are below C3. In the following example, notice that the left hand does not contain complete chords. Instead, the left hand is only playing the root and 5th of each chord, with the root doubled in octaves. When we play the root and 5th only in the left hand, we call this open fifths (also open 5ths). The exception is that open fifths, with or without the root doubled in octaves, sound fine below C3 and are used to create a fuller chord sound. Check it out…

Piano Chord Secrets #1 - Exception

The example above works for two reasons: (1) the right-hand chords are above C3, and (2) the left hand “chords” are actually just open fifths.

Let’s move on to the next common chord mistake.


#2: Closed Chord Gaps

Another mistake that less experienced students often make is to place too much space between the hands. Jonny describes this as “closed chord gaps.” To understand what this means, you must first understand the term closed chord. A closed chord describes a chord in which the chord tones are as close together as possible. In other words, a closed chord can be configured as follows (from bottom up):

  • Root-3rd-5th (root position triad)
  • 3rd-5th-Root (first inversion triad)
  • 5th-Root-3rd (second inversion triad)

Another way to describe closed chords is that span from the lowest note to the highest note is less than an octave. Therefore, “closed chord gaps” describes a situation in which each hand is playing a closed chord, but the gap between them is significantly large. As a result, the composite sound is a bit shrill or brittle. Take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #2 - Mistake

Even though there are no wrong notes in the example above, it just doesn’t sound ideal because of the gaps between the hands. Sometimes, this error is also described as poor spacing.

The Fix: Keep Chords Within 2 Octaves

The chord secret to fix closed chord gaps is to ensure that the span from the lowest note to the highest note does not exceed two octaves. Listen to how much better the following example sounds…

Piano Chord Secrets #2 - The Fix

The Exception: Open Chords

This principle does not mean that your chords should never exceed a span of two octaves. Remember, the previous examples deal specifically with closed chords. If you use open chords instead, this will allow you to increase the total span from the lowest note to the highest note. The term open chord describes a chord that is arranged in such a manner that there is a least one chord tone skipped between adjacent notes. For instance, in the following example, the left hand begins by arpeggiating an open position C major chord:  C…(skip E)…G…(skip C)…E. Moreover, the right-hand harmonies also skip one chord tone between the upper and lower notes. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #2 - Exception

As you can hear, not only is this acceptable—it is sounds great!

Let’s continue by examining another piano chord secret.


#3: Playing In One Zone

Another chord mistake that amateur players often make is to restrict their playing to one zone only. There is nothing actually wrong with the following example, but if you were to play in this register for an entire song, it would quickly become repetitive and monotonous. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #3 - Mistake

Jonny describes the range of the example above as the “driving zone,” which spans from approximately C2 to G4. In pop music, the driving zone is often used for the chorus or bridge section. Next, we’ll explore some addition registers to create some variety for the intro and verse sections.

Fix #1: Play in the Warm Zone

Just above the driving zone is what Jonny calls the “warm zone,” which spans from approximately C3 to G5. The warm zone works great for piano intros, a first verse, or any time you want to lighten up your accompaniment. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #3 - Fix 1

Do you hear how this example sounds so much lighter than the heavy driving zone? Now, let’s consider another zone.

Fix #2: Play in the Tender/Delicate Zone

Sometimes, a section of a song may call for an even lighter piano sound. For these moments, consider using the “tender/delicate zone,” which spans from approximately F4 to G6. This zone works well for song intros and outros. In addition, the tender/delicate zone is the perfect choice for when you want to dial back your accompaniment before coming in strong for that final chorus in the driving zone. Let’s take a listen to the tender/delicate zone…

Piano Chord Secrets #3 - Fix 2

🔎 If you want to discover how to craft the perfect pop piano accompaniment for any occasion, be sure to check out our courses on Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment Patterns (Beg/Int, Int/Adv). This course covers dozens of right-hand and left-hand patterns, including how to obtain the signature piano sound of artists like Elton John, Billy Joel and Coldplay.

Are you ready for some more piano chord secrets? Then let’s continue on to the next topic.


#4: Too Many 3rds

The next chord mistake we’ll discuss is less obvious, but it involves the concept of “doubling.” When we discussing doubling in music theory, we are referring to chord tones that appear in more than one octave in the same chord voicing. Doubling is a common practice, especially when dealing with triads, which only contain 3-notes. For example, if you are writing with triads in an SATB choral texture (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), then it is necessary to double at least one note in every chord. However, there are specific principles that govern this practice.

One of the principles that arrangers try to avoid is doubling the 3rd of the chord. This is because the root and 5th of a chord are more stable tones (assuming that you’re dealing with a chord containing a perfect 5th). Often times, doubling the 3rd creates a chord that sounds too bright or unbalanced. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #4 - Avoid Mistake of Too Many 3rds

The Fix: Play 3rd in One Hand Only

The piano chord secret to fix the mistake of too many 3rds is to use the 3rd only once. Consider the following examples. In the first solution, the 3rd appears in the left hand only. By contrast, the second solution places the 3rd in the right hand only.

Piano Chord Secrets #4 - The Fix

Alright, let’s learn some more piano chord secrets.


#5: Same Chord Shape in Both Hands

Another mistake that beginner pianists often make is using the same chord shape in each hand. This results in a piano texture that sounds uninspired. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #5 - Mistake

The Fix: Use Inverted Chord Shapes

The fix for this mistake is to use inverted chord shapes so that each hand contains a unique chord shape most of the time. For instance, in the following example, both hands start on a root position A minor chord shape. Afterward, however, the hands begin to diverge, with each hand playing a unique shape. This results in a more musical and interesting piano texture. Check it out…

Piano Chord Secrets #5 - Use Inverted Chord Shapes

Let’s continue to check out another common chord mistake and how to fix it.


#6: Always Putting Root On Bottom

Chord mistake #6 happens when a pianist makes exclusive use of root position chords. Always putting the root on bottom tends to sound “boxy” or rigid. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #6 - Mistake

The example above doesn’t sound terrible, but we can make this chord progression sound more interesting by smoothing out the bass line.

The Fix: Use Inversions to Create Stepwise Bass Line

Instead of always putting the root on bottom, we can use chord inversions to create stepwise motion in the bass line. For instance, in the following example, both the E minor chord and the C major chord are now in first inversion. As a result, we have a bass line that descends with stepwise motion on the strong beats: A→G→F→E. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #6 - The Fix

Pretty cool, huh? Let’s continue to see what’s next!


#7: Never Using Pedal Shapes

The next chord mistake we want to examine is when a pianist never uses pedal shapes. What is a pedal shape? In music theory, we use the word “pedal” to describe something that is persistent or unchanging, such a dominant pedal tone in the bass voice. However, here we’re applying the pedal concept in a broader context to refer to an entire chord shape.

First, we’ll look at an example that does not include pedal shapes. Rather, the example below uses ordinary triads and follows standard doubling guidelines. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #7 - Mistake

There is actually nothing inherently wrong with the example above. However, it’s important to understand that there is another completely different way to approach this progression using a pedal shape.

The Fix: Secret “One Chord Wonder” Shape

Instead of using traditional triads, we can get a more contemporary pop piano sound by using a pedal chord shape over each chord. This will create a sense of continuity as the chords change. For example, in the right hand, we’ll use the notes of Csus2 (C–D–G) on each chord. Jonny calls this the “One Chord Wonder” shape. Notice, the One Chord Wonder shape is the sus2 chord built on the tonic note—in this case, Csus2.

Using the One Chord Wonder as a pedal shape will change the chord symbols because now the chords are voiced with different color notes. However, the harmonic function remains unchanged. In other words, the chord progression is still Ⅰ→Ⅳ→Ⅵ→Ⅴ, but it now has a more modern sound. In the following example, the One Chord Wonder shape has been arpeggiated to create a more animated piano accompaniment. Let’s check it out…

Piano Chord Secrets #7 - The One Chord Wonder

🔎 For a deep dive on the One Chord Wonder, check out our full-length course on Pop Piano Accompaniment: The One Chord Wonder (Int).

🔎 To learn additional right-hand pop accompaniment patterns with pedal shapes, check out our course on Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: Popstinatos (Int/Adv).


#8: Not Using Chord Extensions

Now let’s examine chord mistake #8—not using chord extensions. Often times, the harmonic vocabulary of beginner pianists is limited to triads. As such, they play 3-note chords that have a basic or elementary sound. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #8 - Mistake

The chords in the example above are not necessarily incorrect, but they are more typical of music from the baroque and classical eras. Unless you’re going for a 17th–18th century vibe, there’s a better way to play these chords.

The Fix: Use Chord Extensions

Professional pianists use additional color notes called chord extensions to give warmth, richness and complexity to their harmonies. By definition, chord extensions are the notes that are a 9th, 11th, and 13th above the root. Let’s take a listen to the same chord progression with the addition of chord extensions

Piano Chord Secrets #8 - The Fix

🔎 For a deep dive on how to use chord extensions, including which extensions work best for each chord type, check out our course on Piano Chord Extensions (Int).


#9: Building Chords Primarily in 3rds

Chord mistake #9 is when a pianist uses chords that are formed primarily with 3rds. In music theory, we call these tertian chords or tertiary chords. This results in chords that sound rather ordinary or basic. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #9 - Mistake

Now, let’s look at two alternatives to voicing chords in 3rds.

Fix #1: Use Primarily 5th Intervals

The first fix for the scenario described above is to try voicing your chords with primarily 5th intervals. In music theory, these are called quintal voicings. For instance, in the following example, notice that the bottom three notes of each chord are spaced a perfect 5th apart. Furthermore, the top two notes are also a perfect 5th apart. Let’s listen to how this sounds…

Piano Chord Secrets #9 - Fix 1

Fix #2: Use Primarily 4th Intervals

Another alternative to tertian chords is quartal chords. Quartal chord voicings are formed primarily with perfect 4ths and evoke a modern jazz sound. For example, each of the chord voicings below contain at least three perfect 4th intervals. Let’s take a listen…

🔎 Learn how to form and apply quartal voicings for all chord types in our Late Advanced Piano Foundations—Level 9 Learning Track.


#10: Playing Slash Chords Wrong

Another common mistake among less experienced pianists is misunderstanding how to interpret slash chords. In the following example, C/E and D/F♯ are considered slash chords.

Understanding Slash Chord Symbols

Beginner pianists often make the mistake of thinking that a slash chord means that they are to play a different chord in each hand. In the example below, C/E is wrongly interpreted as C major in the left hand and E major in the right hand. Similarly, D/F♯ is wrongly interpreted as D major in the left hand and F♯ major in the right hand. As you’ll hear, this sounds pretty bad…

Wrong 1

Incorrect Application of Slash Chords #1

Some beginner pianists make the opposite mistake. For instance, in the example below, C/E is wrongly interpreted as E major in the left hand and C major in the right hand. Similarly, D/F♯ is wrongly interpreted as F♯ major in the left hand and D major in the right hand. This is still incorrect…

Wrong 2

Incorrect Application of Slash Chords #2

The Fix: Left Letter is the Chord…Right Letter is the Bass Note

The proper way to interpret slash chords is to first understand that a slash chord is one chord, not two. Next, you must understand that the first letter represents the overall chord. For example, in C/E, we are dealing with a C major chord. Finally, the letter after the slash represents the bass note. Therefore, C/E is a C major chord with E as the bass note. Similarly, D/F♯ is a D major chord with F♯ in the bass voice. Let’s take a listen…

Correct Application of Slash Chords

Ah, that sounds so much better! Now, let’s continue on to our final chord secret for today’s lesson.


#11: Chording

Our last piano chord secret for today involves how to approach piano accompaniment. Many times, less experienced pianists will resort to “chording,” an amateur technique that essentially just marks the time in quarter notes with basic chords. This approach is more functional that artistic. Let’s listen as Jonny sings “Danny Boy” while chording on piano…

Piano Chord Secrets #11 - Mistake

As you can hear, this accompaniment doesn’t really interact with the melody at all. As such, chording is generally a technique that songwriters use in the early stages of the songwriting process. However, a more intentional piano accompaniment is desired for the final product.

The Fix: Use Melodies in Accompaniment

A more professional accompaniment approach is to think melodically. We do this by looking for opportunities to create rhythmic movement and melodic interest in our accompaniment, especially when the vocal melody is less active. For example, the follow accompaniment contains smaller rhythmic subdivisions in the left hand resulting in a more flowing feel. Moreover, the right hand contains many beautiful countermelodies. Let’s take a listen…

Piano Chord Secrets #11 - The Fix

🔎 To learn how to craft a beautiful piano ballad arrangement of “Danny Boy” from a lead sheet, check out our Danny Boy Challenge (Beg–Adv).


Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Piano Chord Secrets—11 Mistakes to Avoid. As a result, you now have the knowledge and tools to take ordinary piano chords and make them sound extraordinary!

If you enjoyed this lesson, then you’ll love the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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