Piano Chords – The Definitive Guide
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Can you recall a film or novel that begins somewhere in the middle of the storyline and then fills in the exposition through dialogue or flashbacks? This is a timeless narrative technique known as in media res (Latin for “in the midst of things.”) Many master storytellers have used this non-linear writing technique, including William Shakespeare, George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino. While in medias res makes for great drama, too many piano students have started “in the midst of things” when it comes to learning piano chords. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny presents a clear, linear presentation for understanding piano chords with this definitive guide that begins, well, “in the beginning.” You’ll learn:
- 4 Triads
- 2 Sus Chords
- 6 Seventh Chords
- 3 Chord Extensions
- 4 Chord Alterations
- 6 Uncommon Chords
In fact, this lesson is not just for pianists! This definitive guide to piano chords covers music theory foundations that are relevant to every musician.
Let’s dive in!
Triads are the most basic building block of music. A triad contains 3 notes and is built by playing every-other-note of a scale. There are 4 types (or qualities) of triads: major, minor, diminished and augmented. Each type of triad has different internal intervals as shown below. Triads are named by their root (the bottom note) and quality. The image below show each type of triad starting on C.
Chord symbols are used to label chords in music notation directly above the staff. A chord symbol generally includes two components—the root and a chord suffix indicating the chord quality. For example, the 2nd chord symbol above, Cm, represents “C minor.” You may also see C− to indicate “C minor.” The 3rd example above, C°, indicates C diminished. Another way to indicate this chord is with the suffix “dim,” as in “Cdim.” The 4th example, C+, indicates “C Augmented” and can also be notated as “C aug.” However, major triads most often appear without a suffix. Therefore, a chord symbol “C” always implies “C Major.”
Since there are 12 notes on the piano and 4 types of triads, there are exactly 48 different triads you must know. You can master all your triads by visiting our Piano Triads–Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented Chords.
It’s not always obvious which note is the root of a chord. The is particularly true of big chords that are spread across both hands, like this:
You can use the following 2 steps to determine the root of a chord.
1. Remove any note doublings – Removing notes that appear more than once allows you see the chord more clearly. For example, when removing doubled notes from the example above, you are left with 3 chord tones.
2. Stack the remaining notes in 3rds – Keep in mind that the lowest not is not necessarily the root. Try repositioning the notes until they are arranged in 3rds. One the chord tones are spaced in 3rds, the bottom note is the root.
Sometimes, you many not be able to arrange the 3 notes in 3rds, no matter how you arrange them. Consider F – G – C, for example? In this case, you are not dealing with a triad. You are likely either dealing with a sus chord or a chord cluster. That brings us to the next topic!
Piano Sus Chords Made Simple
Students frequent ask questions regarding sus chords. Chances are, these chords don’t appear in your piano method book. That’s because traditional piano methods draw more from classical music. While sus chords can be found in classical music, they are much more common in pop music. Even though basic sus chords have only 3 notes, but they are not considered triads because the notes cannot be arranged in 3rds.
What is a sus chord?
A sus chord contains a slight dissonance that is created by replacing the 3rd of the chord with either the 4th or the 2nd instead. Often times, the dissonant note is carried over or “suspended” from the previous chord and eventually resolves to the 3rd. However, in contemporary music, sus chords frequently appear without the conventional resolution to the 3rd.
Adding Color with Add2 Piano Chords
Add2 chords are similar to sus2 chords except that an add2 chord contains the 2nd and the 3rd simultaneously.
Uncommon Piano Chords
Occasionally, you may encounter a chord that cannot be classified into any of the previous categories. In this case, you can use the chord suffix to indicate the relationship of the chord tones to the root. Here are some examples.
Once you have mastered all your triads, learning 7th chords is a great way to expand your sound, particularly if you want to play jazz piano. Like triads, 7th chords are also built in 3rds and contain an additional note that is a 3rd above the 5th of the chord. This additional note is a 7th above the root, hence the name, “7th chords.” There are six 7th chords that you must learn.
Keep in mind that each 7th chord contains two internal triads, one on bottom (Root–3rd–5th) and one on top (3rd–5th–7th). Memorizing these internal relationships will assist you in voicing your 7th chords more effectively. This is why is it so important to know all of your triads. Fortunately, you can use our Smart Sheet Music to easily transpose today’s lesson into any key with a single click. You can also download today’s lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
The first seventh chord you’ll want to learn is the major 7th chord. This chord comes directly from the major scale and contains a major triad on bottom with the addition of a major 7th. There are two diatonic major 7th chords in a major key—the 1-chord and the 4-chord. An important practical observation is that the major 7th is also a ½ step below the root.
Dominant 7th chords feature a major triad on bottom with a minor 7th above the root. In the major scale, a dominant 7th chord only occurs on the 5-chord, hence its name, “dominant 7th” (the term dominant refers to the 5th tone of a scale). The C7 below is native to the key of F major, which supplies the lowered 7th (B♭). Note that the 7th of a dominant 7th chord is a whole-step below the root.
An important characteristic of dominant 7th chords is that the interval between the 3rd (E) and 7th (B♭) is a tritone (three whole-steps), generally considered the most dissonant interval in western music.
Minor 7th chord have a beautiful sound that finds a suitable home in many genres of music. These chords feature a minor triad with a minor 7th.
Minor 7th chords occur diatonically as the 2-chord, the 3-chord and the 6-chord in a major key. For example, Cm7 is the ii7 of B♭ major, the iii7 of A♭ major, and the vi7 of E♭ major. In addition, a natural minor scale produces a minor 7th chord as a 1-chord, a 4-chord and a 5-chord. Therefore, Cm7 can also function as a i7 in C minor, a iv7 in G minor, or a v7 in F minor. However, in general, usage of a minor 7th chord as a 5-chord is less common. Since minor 7th chords have so many different functions, composers often use them as a pivot chord in preparing a modulation. (A pivot chord is diatonic to both the original key and the new key.)
Half-Diminished 7th chords contain a diminished triad with a minor 7th. Another common name for this chord is minor 7(♭5) because the only difference between this chord a minor 7th chord is the ♭5.
A half-diminished 7th chord occurs in a major scale on the 7th degree. For example, the Cø7 above is the viiø7 in D♭ major. In addition, both the natural minor scale and the harmonic minor scale yield a half-diminished 2-chord. The iiø7 function is the most common usage of half-diminished chords in jazz music. As a 2-chord, the Cø7 above belongs to the key of B♭ minor.
Diminished 7th chords, also called fully diminished 7th chords, contain a diminished triad with a double-flat 7th. This double-flat 7th is enharmonically equivalent to a major 6th. Fully-diminished 7th chords are built on the 7th tone of the harmonic minor scale.
A unique characteristic of fully-diminished 7th chords is that all of the chord tones are the same distance apart. In other words, each note is a minor 3rd above and a minor 3rd below the adjacent chord tones. Because of this unique characteristic, diminished 7th chord are said to be a symmetrical chord.
Fully-diminished 7th chords often resolve up by ½ step. In this context, the root of the fully-diminished 7th chord is the leading tone to the resolution chord. Many jazz pianists also use fully-diminished 7th chords to approach a target chord from a ½ step above.
Minor-Major 7th Chords
The dark and haunting color of a minor-major 7th chord results from building a 7th chord on the first tone of the melodic minor scale (harmonic minor also). Sometimes more simply referred to as “minor-major,” these chords contains a minor triad with a major 7th.
Minor-major chords sound great on the 1-chord in a minor 2–5–1 progression.
For a deep dive on 7th chords, check out our Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track (Level 2).
Another important category of four-note chords is 6th chords. These chords come in two varieties—major 6th and minor 6th. In this case, the terms “major” or “minor” refer to the bottom triad as each of these chords feature a major 6th above the root.
Major 6th can be substituted for Major 7th chords and make an especially good solution when the root the chord is in the melody. Similar to minor-major 7th chords, the minor 6th chord comes from the first degree of the melodic minor scale and makes a fitting tonic minor resolution.
Piano Chords with Extensions
The study of chord extensions offers pianists the ability to add an additional range of warmth and richness to their piano sound. Chord extensions are the notes that result when stacking additional 3rds above a 7th chord. In all, there are three chord extensions—the 9th, the 11th and the 13th.
The 9th tone above the root is equivalent to a 2nd plus an octave. However, these chords are different than “add2” chords. An add2 chord is essentially a triad with a “color note.” By contrast, the designation of a chord as a 9th chord indicates the presence of the 7th tone also. The image below shows three types of 9th chords—major, dominant and minor.
The 11th tone above the root is equivalent to a 4th plus an octave. The diagram below shows major, dominant and minor chords with chord extensions up to the 11th tone. However, it is important to note that the simultaneous combination of a major 3rd with an 11th (or 4th) results in an unpleasant dissonance. As a result, major 11th and dominant 11th chords are more theoretical than practical. On the other hand, the lowered 3rd of a minor chord eliminates this dissonance. In fact, minor 11th chords have a particularly appealing sound that Jonny appropriately describes as “sorrowful” or “longing.”
The final chord extension, the 13th, is equivalent to a 6th plus an octave. Just like 9th and 11th chords, the designation of a chord as a 13th chord implies the inclusion of 7th and in many cases, the 9th also. However, the 11th is uncommon on major 13 and dominant 13 chords for reasons discussed in the previous section. A minor 13 chord is usable with all three extensions and is particularly common when the 13th appears in the melody over a minor chord.
To master piano chords with extensions, visit our full-length course on Piano Chord Extensions for Jonny’s favorite voicings, chord extension exercises and examples of how to use extensions in tunes.
Piano Chords with Alterations
A final significant category of chords involves the uses of chord alterations. In simplest terms, alterations are chord extensions that feature an accidental. In all, there are 4 alterations—♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13. Jazz pianists frequently combine several alterations and extensions together to create a rich and complex sense of harmonic expression. Chord alterations are particularly common on dominant chords. The example below shows each chord alteration over a C7 chord.
To explore chord alterations further, including great voicings, exercises and examples in jazz repertoire, check out our full-length Piano Chord Alterations course.
Hopefully, this definitive guide has helped fill-in some gaps in the story on piano chords for you. You can use the following links to gain further insight into any particular chord type and usage.
- Piano Triads–Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented Chords (Level 2)
- Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Major 7th Chord Theory and Application (Level 2)
- Dominant 7th Chord Theory and Application (Level 2)
- Minor 7th Chord Theory and Application (Level 2)
- Diminished & Half Dim 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Alterations (Level 2)
- Rootless Voicings–Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application (Level 3)
- Rootless Voicings–Chord Types on Minor 2-5-1 (Level 3)
- Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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