Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Intermediate
16:55

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
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Would you like to be able to play rich, full piano chords like a seasoned studio musician? If you’ve assumed that the ability to play lush and elegant piano voicings requires years of music theory, think again! In today’s Quick Tip, Play Rich, Full Piano Chords in 5 Steps, Jonny May shares how you can easily level-up your piano chords instantly! You’ll learn:

If you are an accompanist, piano-vocalist or singer-songwriter, then you’ll especially love this lesson.

Intro to Rich, Full Chords

Today’s lesson is all about how to play breathtaking piano chords. The chords sounds that we’ll be exploring have a lush sound that is especially at home in contemporary pop, folk and worship music. If you play any of these styles, you’ll be amazed at how the simple approach that Jonny presents in this lesson can instantly upgrade your sound.

Our lesson sheet is in the key of F major. If you are a PWJ member, you can download the PDF from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, PWJ members can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music. (The Smartsheet link appears in the blue bar at the top of this page when you are logged in.)

2 Rich Chord Shapes

Rather than focusing on lots of music theory minutia, this lesson examines two versatile chord shapes that can be layered over ordinary chords in a major key to produce an ethereal and sublime harmonic character.

Let’s begin by simply listening to each of the following 5-note chord shapes:

Shape 1

Two Rich, Full Chord Shapes for Piano - Shape 1

Shape 2

Two Rich, Full Chord Shapes for Piano - Shape 2

You’ll notice that each of these shapes contains two pairs of adjacent notes. We use the term clusters to describe adjacent notes in a chord that are either a half step or whole step apart. In contemporary piano music, clusters are the key to obtaining a rich, full chord sound.

Rich, Full Chord Shapes in Context

Now, let’s preview how the clustery chord shapes that we just examined can enhance the sound of ordinary piano chords. To do so, we’ll listen to two accompaniment excerpts of “Amazing Grace.” The first example uses basic 3-note chords (aka triads), whereas the second example draws on our cluster chord shapes.

Here is the first example:

“Amazing Grace” with Basic Chords
Amazing Grace with Basic Piano Chords

“Amazing Grace” accompaniment in F major with ordinary piano chords.

And now the second example…

“Amazing Grace” with Rich, Full Chords
Amazing Grace with Rich, Full Piano Chords

“Amazing Grace” accompaniment in F major with rich, full piano chords.

As you can hear, these chord shapes make the entire accompaniment sound richer, fuller and much more modern. In fact, you can master this sound in just 5 steps!

5 Steps to Playing Rich Piano Chords

Now that we’ve illustrated our lesson objective and you’ve had the opportunity to hear these beautiful piano chords for yourself, let’s breakdown how to play them one step at a time.

#1. Learn the Shapes

The first step to play rich, full piano chords is to master two essential right-hand shapes. Therefore, let’s take a closer look at the notes that are included in each shape.

Shape 1 contains the notes G–A–C–E–F (from the bottom up). In the key of F major, these notes are scale tones 2–3–5–7–1, and that’s precisely how we’ll think of them. We don’t need to analyze these notes as if they are a particular chord. If fact, depending on what we play in the left hand, this shape can be used to form several different chords.

Now, let’s examine Shape 2 in a similar manner. Shape 2 contains the notes A–B♭–C–D–F. In the key of F major, these notes are scale tones 3–4–5–6–1.

Shape 1: 2-3-5-7-1

Step 1 - Rich Piano Chord Shape 1

Shape 2: 3-4-5-6-1

Step 1 - Rich Piano Chord Shape 2

At first, it will probably feel uncomfortable to play these shapes because they are most likely unfamiliar to your hand. Therefore, before going on to Step 2, spend some time now alternating back and forth between these two shapes. The more repetitions you invest, the more familiar these shapes will become. A good goal is to see if you can become so familiar with these shapes that you can find them using muscle memory only, without looking.

#2. Apply to Primary Chords

On you are familiar with the two essential shapes, the second step is to apply these shapes to the primary chords in F major. (Note: In classical music theory, the term primary chords refers specifically to the Ⅰ, Ⅳ and Ⅴ chords. However, here we are using “primary chords” more broadly to refer to the basic or most commonly used chords in F major, which is essentially all of the diatonic chords except for the ⅶº chord.).

Let’s start by reviewing the primary triads in F major:

F Major Primary Chords
Step 2 - Primary Chords in F Major

Review of the primary triads in F major that are compatible with our rich, full chord shapes.

Rich, full chord shapes can be applied to any of the major or minor triads in a major key. However, the trick is knowing which shape to use over each chord. Therefore, our next example shows which shape to pair with each chord. Notice that both shapes will work in place of C major and D minor (the Ⅴ chord and the ⅵ chord); however, each shape colors the sound in a slightly different way. Let’s take a listen:

F Major Primary Chords (Reinterpreted)
Step 2 - Rich Piano Chord Shapes Applied to Primary Chords in F Major

F major primary chords reinterpreted with rich, full chord shapes.

Understanding the Added Notes

In Step 2, we’ve essentially added extra notes to each of the primary chords in F major so that they are no longer triads. In most cases, the chord symbol will stay the same and the extra notes are simply indicated as chord extensions, which is basically just a fancy term for “color notes.” However, in some cases, layering these chord shapes actually changes the chord symbol. The following diagram can help you understand the actual chords that result from layering our rich, full chord shapes. For example, when we layer Shape 1 over the note A in the left hand, we get Fmaj9/A rather than an actual A minor chord. In other words, sometimes applying these shapes results in a subtle chord substitution.

Chord Extensions - Understanding the Added Notes in Step 2

🔎 Check out our Mid-Intermediate Piano Foundations—Level 5 Learning Track to master chord extensions in your piano playing.

So far, we’ve learned one way to play each of the primary chords in F major as a rich, full piano chord. In the next step, you’ll learn how to invert our cluster shapes to give you a second option for each chord.

#3. Learn the 2 Essential Inversions

The third step to play rich, full piano chords is to learn an essential inversion for Shape 1 and Shape 2. As you may recall, the tonic (or scale degree 1) was on top of both of our original shapes. We’ll can this this the “lower inversion.” In this step, we’ll learn to play and “upper inversion” of each shape with scale degree 5 on top. In F major, that note is C.

Shape 1 Lower & Upper Inversions
Step 3 - Shape 1 Inversions

Rich, full chord Shape 1 in Lower and Upper inversions.

Now, let’s invert Shape 2 also…

Shape 2 Lower & Upper Inversions
Step 3 - Shape 2 Inversions

Rich, full chord Shape 2 in Lower and Upper inversions.

Perhaps you’re wondering, “What about other inversions of these shapes? Will they work?” That’s a great question! Other inversions of these shapes are also possible. However, for some inversions, it can be difficult to fit all 5 notes in one hand! Therefore, the inversions shown here are Jonny’s “go to” inversions for F major.

Alright, now you’re ready to proceed to the next section where you’ll learn two essential exercises to practice playing rich, full piano chords.

#4. Rich, Full Chords Exercises

Step 4 to playing rich, full piano chords is to practice some exercises that apply our versatile cluster shapes in a musical way. This section contains two exercises—one that uses the lower inversions and another that uses the upper inversions.

Let’s listen to Exercise 1. Afterward, be sure to give it a try yourself…

Exercise 1 (Lower Inversions)
Step 4 - Exercise 1 (Lower Inversions)Step 4 - Note

Rich, full chord Exercise 1 uses the lower inversions of each cluster shape.

Now, let’s play Exercise 2 which features the exact same chord progression as Exercise 1, except with the upper inversions from Step 3.

Exercise 2 (Upper Inversions)
Step 4 - Exercise 2 (Upper Inversions)

Rich, full chord Exercise 2 uses the upper inversions of each cluster shape.

Alright, now you’re ready for the final step!

#5. Apply to Chord Progression

After you can play the Rich, Full Chords Exercises in Step 4, the fifth and final step is to apply these luscious piano chords to an actual song. The example below represents a piano accompaniment for “Amazing Grace” that applies Shape 1 and Shape 2 in both their lower and upper inversions. Let’s check it out:

“Amazing Grace” Accompaniment with Rich, Full Chords
Step 5 - Amazing Grace Accompaniment with Rich, Full Professional Piano Chords

“Amazing Grace” piano accompaniment applying Shape 1 and Shape 2 in both lower and upper inversion.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Play Rich, Full Piano Chords in 5 Steps. Now you’re ready to start adding these elegant chord voicings to some of your favorite songs by applying the 5 steps from today’s lesson.

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

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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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