Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
12:03

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
Music Style
  • Contemporary
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
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Have you ever been handed some sheet music as a piano accompanist but the chords were just too plain? Or maybe you like to create your own solo piano cover versions of popular songs. In either case, learning which notes can be added to major and minor chords is essential for creating breathtaking piano arrangements. Pop musicians often use the term color chords to describe chords that include additional notes for warmth and depth. In today’s Quick Tip, Piano Color Chords: 3 Levels from Beginner to Pro, Jonny breaks down how students of all levels can play color chords on piano. You’ll learn:

When it comes to playing color chords on piano, you’ll find that tiny details make a huge difference!

Intro to Color Chords for Piano

No matter what style of music you play, you want to be able to make connections. If you play piano for personal enjoyment, then you are primarily interested in being able to connect with your instrument. On the other hand, if you perform in public, then you want to be able to connect with your listeners. In both cases, understanding how to build chords with more than three notes enables you to make a more personal connection.

What are color chords?

Color chords is a “catch all” term for chord constructions other than basic major and minor triads. Examples of color chords include sus4 chords, add2 chords, major 7th chords, minor 11th chords and major 6th and minor 6th chords, just to name a few.

For many piano students, the music theory terminology used to describe these beautiful sounds comes across as intimidating. As a result, they just sort of “opt out” of the discussion. However, even if music theory is not your thing, you can still learn how to play beautiful color chords by simply making small tweaks to familiar chords.

Today’s lesson focuses specifically on adding extra notes to major and minor chords. If you want to explore additional chord types, then be sure to check out Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide.

2 Basic Chord Progressions

Today’s lesson is organized into three levels to accommodate beginner, intermediate and advanced piano students. In each level, we’ll present two different chord progressions—one in C major and another in C minor. In addition, today’s lesson includes 6 backing tracks. You can download the complete lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key of your choice using our Smart Sheet Music.

Now, let’s listen to the sound of our 2 basic piano progressions before we transform them into color chords.

Sample Major Progression

Our progression in C major features movement from the tonic chord of C major to the subdominant chord of F major. The following example shows these chords in root position.

Major Chord Progression for Color Chords
Sample chord movement from tonic to subdominant in C major.

Sample Minor Progression

Our minor progression also features movement from the tonic chord to the subdominant chord. However, in C minor, these chords are C minor and F minor, as shown below.

Minor Progression in C minor
Sample chord movement from tonic to subdominant in C minor.

Are you ready for level 1? Here we go!

Level 1 Piano Color Chords for Beginners

We can convert major and minor triads into color chords by adding just 1 note—the 7th. However, often times beginners assume that this means that all 4 chord tones (root, 3rd, 5th and 7th) have to been in the same hand, or even both hands! In reality, it is much more common to play different triadic structures in each hand which come together to form a more colorful chord. Let’s look at a few examples.

Major Chords – Beginner→Add 7th

Many players find it easier to approach color chords by thinking of the right hand as a separate chord that is a sort of “accessory” to the main chord. For example, to play a C△7, you can think of the left hand as a C major triad (C–E–G) and the right hand as an E minor triad (E–G–B). Since these notes will be sounded simultaneously, the net result is a C△7 (pronounced “C major 7”).

Level 1 Trick for Major Chords
A trick for major color chords for beginners is to play a minor triad in the right hand built on the 3rd of the chord.

The right hand “accessory chord,” which is E minor in this example, can be played in any inversion.

Now, let’s apply this trick to the IV chord in our I→IV progression. Since the IV chord is F major, we need to play a minor triad in the right hand on the 3rd of F major—the note A. Therefore, our right hand “accessory chord” is an A minor triad (A–C–E). Since the left hand will include the notes F–A–C, the composite chord is an F△7 (F–A–C–E).

The following example represents a beginner piano accompaniment texture with color chords over a I→IV progression. For each chord, the left hand plays a broken chord pattern using the root, 5th and 3rd. However, the right hand plays the “accessory chord,” a minor triad built on the 3rd. Notice that the right hand triad shapes use inversions to allow for close voice leading.

C Major Progression—Level 1

Beginner Piano Color Chords-Major
Level 1 – Major: an easy step to add color to major chords for beginner piano students is to include the major 7th.

Wow, that was easy, and it sounds great too! For a deep dive on major 7th chords, check out our course entitled Major 7th Chord Theory and Application (Level 2).

Now, let’s learn how beginner pianists can create beautiful minor color chords just as easily.

Minor Chords – Beginner→Add 7th

To play beginner minor color chords, we simply need to take our minor triad and add the minor 7th. However, when it comes to voicing the chord, the trick is to think of the right hand as playing a major triad built on the 3rd of the chord. The example below illustrates this process for C minor, in which the 3rd is E♭. Therefore, the right hand plays an E♭ major triad (E♭–G–B♭). The resulting chord is a Cm7 (C–E♭–G–B♭).

Level 1 Trick for Minor Chords
A trick for minor color chords for beginners is to play a major triad in the right hand built on the 3rd of the chord.

Next, let’s apply this trick to the iv chord in our i→iv progression. Since the iv chord is F minor, we need to play a major triad in the right hand on the 3rd of F minor—the note A♭. Therefore, our right hand shape is an A♭ major triad (A♭–C–E♭). Since the left hand will include the notes F–A♭–C, the composite chord is an Fm7 (F–A♭–C–E♭).

Here is our beginner piano accompaniment texture with color chords over a i→iv progression in C minor.

C Minor Progression—Level 1

Beginner Piano Color Chords-Minor
Level 1 – Minor: an easy step to add color to minor chords for beginner piano students is to include the minor 7th.

Great job! To learn more about how to use minor 7th chords, check out our course Minor 7th Chord Theory and Application (Level 2).

Are you ready to take it to the next level?

Level 2 Piano Color Chords for Intermediate Students

In the previous section, we created major and minor color chords by adding just 1 note to each chord. We also examined a simple voicing process in which we conceived of our right hand as playing an “accessory chord” containing the color note. We will use a very similar process for Level 2, except that we will be adding 2 notes to each chord. Therefore, we will also use a different formula to construct our right hand shapes.

Major Chords – Intermediate→Add 7th & 9th

For intermediate level major color chords, we want to add the major 7th and the major 9th to our major triad. As a result, we will have a beautiful five-note color chord. The trick to building these major color chords is to play a major chord in the right hand built on the 5th. Therefore, to convert a C major triad (C–E–G) into a C△9 (pronounced “C major 9”), we will play a G major shape in the right hand.

Level 1 Trick for Major Chords
A trick for intermediate level major color chords is to play a major triad in the right hand built on the 5th of the chord.

When a chord includes an additional note or notes above the 7th (such as a 9th, 11th or 13th) these notes are called chord extensions. For a deep dive on how to play colorful major, minor and dominant chords with extensions, check out our full-length chord on Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2).

Next, let’s think through how to use this trick to convert our IV chord into an intermediate level color chord. We want to play a major triad in the right hand on the 5th of F major (F–A–C). Therefore, our right hand shape is a C major triad (C–E–G). When combined, these notes give us an F△9 (F–A–C–E–G).

At the intermediate level, we will add one additional step. We will double the 3rd of each chord in our right hand, creating a 4-note voicing in the right which contains a beautiful whole-tone cluster. Just to clarify, our right hand will include the 3rd of our primary triad and our “accessory chord” built on the 5th.

Let’s take a look at an example. Here is our intermediate level accompaniment texture with color chords over a I→IV progression.

C Major Progression—Level 2

Intermediate Piano Color Chords-Major
Level 2 – Major: for intermediate piano students, add the major 7th and major 9th to create beautiful major chords with plenty of color.

Another way to think of the right hand voicing is as a minor 7th chord built on the 3rd. For example, for C△9, the right hand plays Em7 shape. Similarly, for F△9, the right hand plays Am7 shape. This right hand construction is actually a classic jazz piano voicing technique called a rootless voicing.

Now, let’s learn how to play intermediate level minor color chords.

Minor Chords – Intermediate→Add 7th & 9th

For level 2 minor color chords, we’ll begin with our minor triad and add the minor 7th and the major 9th. The trick for quickly finding these notes is to play a minor triad on the 5th of the chord. For example, to convert a C minor triad (C–E♭–G) into an intermediate level color chord, we need to play a minor triad in the right hand on the note G. Therefore, our right hand chord is G minor (G–B♭–D). The resulting chord is a Cm9 (C–E♭–G–B♭–D).

Level 2 trick for Minor Color Chords
A trick for intermediate minor color chords is to play a minor triad in the right hand built on the 5th of the chord.

Next, for the iv chord, we need to play a minor triad on the 5th of F minor (F–A♭–C). That triad is C minor (C–E♭–G). When we combine the hands, we have a Fm9 (F–A♭–C–E♭–G).

Don’t forget, on the intermediate level, we want to double the 3rd of the chord in the right hand to get that beautiful cluster sound.

Here is an example of our piano accompaniment texture with intermediate level color chords over a i→iv progression in C minor.

C Minor Progression—Level 2

Intermediate Piano Color Chords-Minor
Level 2 – Minor: for intermediate piano students, add the minor 7th and major 9th to create minor chords with beautiful colors.

What a beautiful sound. If it helps, you can also think of the right hand voicing is as a major 7th chord built on the 3rd. For example, on Cm9, the right hand plays a E♭△7 shape. Similarly, on Fm9, the right hand plays an A♭△7 shape. This also is a classic jazz piano rootless voicing technique for minor chords.

Now, let’s explore how to take our color chords up another level!

Level 3 Piano Color Chords for Advanced Students

For level 3 advanced color chords, we will be adding 3 notes to our basic major and minor triads. The resulting chords will have a beautiful, complex sound with multiple clusters.

Major Chords – Advanced→Add 7th, 9th & 13th

For advanced level major color chords, we’ll start with a major triad and add the major 7th, major 9th and major 13th. The trick for this construction is to play a sus2/4 chord in the right hand on the 6th. For example, for a C major chord, the 6th is the note A. The regular major triad on this note is A major (A–C♯–E). However, instead of that chord, we want to play a shape than contains the notes of A(sus4) and A(sus2). Those notes are A–B–D–E…which we call A(sus2/4). When we combine these notes over a C major triad (C–E–G) in the left hand, we get a C△13 chord (C–E–G-B–D–A).

Level 3 trick for major color chords
A trick for advanced major color chords is to play a sus2/4 chord in the right hand built on the 6th.

Next, let’s think through this construction for F major. The 6th of F major is the note D. Therefore, our right hand shape for F△13 is a D(sus2/4), which is D–E–G–A. Notice that in the example below, these clusters are inverted to improve the voicing leading (G–A–D–E). In addition, Jonny chooses to double one note from the left hand for each chord. For example, on C△13, Jonny doubles the 5th and on F△13 he doubles the 3rd.

C Major Progression—Level 3

Advanced Piano Color Chords-Major
Level 3 – Major: for advanced piano students, add the major 7th, major 9th and major 13 to major chords for maximum color.

Great job! Now, let’s learn some advanced minor color chords.

Minor Chords – Advanced→Add 7th, 9th & 11th

To create advanced minor color chords, we’ll begin with our minor triad and add the minor 7th, the major 9th and the major 11th. The shortcut for this construction is to play a major triad in the right hand on the ♭7. For example, to create an advanced C minor color chord, we need to built a major triad in our right hand on the note B♭. Therefore, our right hand shape is B♭ major (B♭–D–F). This chord is called Cm11 (C–E♭–G–B♭–D–F).

Level 3 trick for minor color chords
A trick for advanced minor color chords is to play a major chord in the right hand on the ♭7.

How about for the iv chord, F minor? What shape would you play in the right hand? Since the ♭7 of F minor is E♭, the right hand shape is E♭ major (E♭–G–B♭).

Notice, however, that without any doublings, these minor 11 chord voicings don’t contain any clusters. To get that rich, clustery sound, you can double the 3rd and/or the 5th in the right hand. Check out the following example:

C Minor Progression—Level 3

Advanced Piano Color Chords-Minor
Level 3 – Minor: for advanced piano students, add the minor 7th, major 9th and major 11th for minor chords with a beautiful and complex color spectrum.

Wow, what an incredible sound!

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve complete today’s lesson on Piano Color Chords: 3 Levels from Beginner to Pro. Regardless of your current playing level, you’ve learned how to use major and minor color chords to create personalized piano accompaniment textures.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following 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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