Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
Advanced
19:50

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
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Would you like to play better sounding piano chords starting today? Then you’ve come to the right place. In today’s Quick Tip, The Top 10 Chord Hacks for Piano, Jonny May shares 10 piano chord tricks that will allow any piano student to easily play professional sounding chords. You’ll learn:

These chord hacks are so easy to use that you’ll find yourself coming back to them over and over!

Intro to Chord Hacks for Piano

What exactly is a chord hack? Well, it’s just like a life hack—those simple and clever techniques that introduce ease and efficiency into everyday life. You know, like tossing a dryer sheet under your car seat as a fast and inexpensive air freshener. Or using different colors of nail polish to color-code your keys. How about holding a nail with a clothespin so you don’t smash your fingers with the hammer. We could go on and on, and so could you. In fact, people love sharing their favorite life hacks because they tend to be incredibly simple and profoundly effective! Well, a chord hack works the same way. These fun little harmonic shortcuts are incredibly simple and profoundly effective.

How do piano chord hacks work?

Piano chord hacks usually involve playing a simple but unique chord shape in each hand. Since each hand includes some different notes, the composite sound is of a more complex harmonic structure. However, the appeal of chord hacks is that they are easy to memorize because each hand uses a familiar chord shape.

Most of the color notes that result from using chord hacks are called chord extensions in music theory. These notes are identified as either the 9th, 11th or 13th above the root. Some chord hacks also include the 7th, which is also a colorful note, although it is technically not a chord extensionYou can learn more about the music theory behind chord hacks in our Quick Tip on Chord Extensions – The Complete Guide (Int).

All of the piano chord hacks in today’s lesson are presented with “before” and “after” examples in the context of a simple chord progression. This allows you easily hear the difference that the hack makes in the overall chord sound. After these demonstrations, you’ll find the chord hack formula stated in a concise, easy to remember manner. You’ll also find an interactive keyboard diagram that illustrates the chord shape for each hand with different colors. You can even press the play button to hear the sound of the keyboard diagram.

Today’s lesson also includes a downloadable PDF lesson that contains all 10 chord hacks. In fact, PWJ members can download the lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with their membership. In addition, members can also easily transpose these chord hacks to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Alright, let’s dive into our first chord hack category: major chords.

Chord Hacks for Major Chords

Major chords are found in virtually every style of music. However, basic major triads, like C–E–G, have a somewhat dated sound. So if you want to play contemporary musical styles like jazz, pop and R&B, then you’ll need to learn how to play major chords that include additional color notes. In this section, you’ll learn 4 chord hacks to help you quickly build beautiful major chord with a more modern sound.

Alright, let’s check out chord hack #1…

Chord Hack #1

Before

Piano Chord Hack #1 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #1 - After

Wow, you can hear the difference right away! Obviously, the “after” example contains more notes. These are called major 9th chords. But don’t let that intimidate you. If we look closely at the hack formula below, we can see that there is an easy way to arrive at which notes to add. Simply add a major triad in the right hand built on the 5th of the chord. For example, you can get a Cmaj9 chord by playing a C major triad (C–E-G) in the left hand simultaneously with a G major triad (G-B-D) in the right hand.

Piano Chord Hack #1

Keep in mind: The hack formula shows the most basic and memorable arrangement of notes that will produce the desired sound. However, when it comes to the arrangement of the notes within the chord, you are encouraged to experiment by reordering them in different ways. For example, the hack formula for chord hack #1 shows all the notes spaced at least a 3rd apart. However, you can see that Jonny has reordered the notes in such a manner that they deliberately include some internal clusters—two or more adjacent notes. That’s because clusters are a common characteristic of contemporary chords in modern music.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind. The hack formula is not intended to prescribe any particular note doublings. For example, chord hack #1 inherently shows the 5th of the chord doubled simply because it appears in each hand. This is not to say that you should or must include two Gs in Cmaj9. However, you can double any note you want to so long as you are satisfied with the sound that results.

For helpful tips about note spacing and doubling, check out Piano Chord Secrets—11 Mistakes to Avoid (Beg/Int).

Alright, let’s check out chord hack #2…


Chord Hack #2

Before

Piano Chord Hack #2 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #2 - After

As you can hear, chord hack #2 results in a slightly different major chord sound, which is called a major 13th chord. As you can see from the hack formula below, the easiest way to build a major 13th chord is to play a “sus2” chord on the 6th. For example, to construct a Cmaj13, simply play C major (C–E–G) in the left hand and Asus2 (A–B–E) in the right hand.

Piano Chord Hack #2

If you’re new to “sus chords,” don’t worry. It’s actually a pretty simple concept. Basically, the 3rd is replaced by either the note above it or below it. In fact, the number after the “sus” tells you which note is replacing the 3rd. So in Asus2, the 3rd (C♯) is replaced by the 2nd (B). To explore this topic further, check out 3 Incredible Techniques with Piano Sus Chords (Int).

Let’s learn our next piano chord hack for major chords…


Chord Hack #3

Before

Piano Chord Hack #3 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #3 - After

Chord hack #3 is similar to hack #2 in that it results in a major13th chord. However, hack #3 features a denser or thicker texture. That’s because hack #3 includes the 9th of the chord, whereas the 9th was omitted in #2.

As the hack formula below shows, the easiest way to build a major 13th chord with the 9th included is to play a sus-2-and-4 chord on the 6th. In order words, for Cmaj13, you would play C major (C–E–G) in the left hand and Asus2&4 (A–B-D-E) in the right hand.

Piano Chord Hack #3

Alright, let’s check out one last chord hack for major chords on piano…


Chord Hack #4

Before

Piano Chord Hack #4 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #4 - After

Wow, what a beautiful sound! These magical major chords are called major 13th(♯11) chords. Although these chords are less common than the previous major chords we’ve explored, they sound amazing in the right context.

The hack formula for major 13(♯11) chords is to play a minor 7th chord on the 7th tone of the major scale. For example, to play Cmaj13(♯11), find the 7th tone above C, which is B♮. Then, play a Bm7 chord (B–D–F♯–A) in your right hand over a C major chord (C–E–G) in your left hand.

Piano Chord Hack #4

You probably noticed that Cmaj13(♯11) contains an accidental in the key of C major (the note F♯). However, did you notice that Fmaj13(♯11) does not require an accidental in the key of C major? In other words, a Ⅳ chord can be voiced as a major 13(♯11) with all diatonic notes. Therefore, the Ⅳ chord is the most common harmonic function for major 13(♯11) chords. Another instance in which this sound is particularly common is on the final tonic chord at the end of a piece in a major key. Additionally, major 13(♯11) chords are also fairly common on ♭Ⅶ chords.

Alright, you’re ready to move on to the next section which covers chord hacks for minor chords!


Chord Hacks for Minor Chords

Just like major chords, minor chords are also extremely common in just about every musical style imaginable. Therefore, you’ll want to have some ready-to-use chord hacks in your back pocket for minor chords. This section features 3 chord hacks that will help you easily create rich and gorgeous minor chords on piano.

Let’s take a listen to our first example, which is chord hack #5…

Chord Hack #5

Before

Piano Chord Hack #5 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #5 - After

Wow, what a fantastically rich and complex minor chord sound! This jazzy minor chord quality is called a minor 6/9 chord. The hack formula for minor 6/9 chords is to start with a minor triad and then to add an open 5th on the 2nd. Therefore, to construct Cm6/9, play Cm (C–E♭–G) in the left hand and then play an open 5th in the right hand on D, which is simply the notes D and A. (In notation form, we use the chord symbol D⁵ to represent an open 5th on D.)

Piano Chord Hack #5

Minor 6/9 chords are often used to voice the tonic chord in a minor key. To hear more of these chords in a musical context, check out Minor 2-5-1 Progression – 5 Levels from Beginner to Pro.

Let’s check out our next minor chord hack…


Chord Hack #6

Before

Piano Chord Hack #6 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #6 - After

As you can hear, chord hack #6 gives us another exquisite minor chord sound—the minor 9th chord. These minor chords are commonly used in jazz, funk, contemporary gospel and neo soul music. The hack formula for minor 9th chords is to play a minor triad on the 5th. It’s really that simple. So for Cm9, you’ll play Cm (C–E♭–G) in your left hand and Gm (G–B♭–D) in your right hand.

Remember, the hack formula gives you the quickest way to upgrade an ordinary chord by allowing you to easily visualize additional notes that can be added. Having said that, there are some specific “stock voicings” that are especially common for certain types of chords. When it comes to minor 9th chords, if you like this sound, then be sure to check out the standard Type-A and Type-B rootless voicings that pro pianists often use for these chords.

Alright, let’s check out chord hack #7—our final chord hack for minor chords…


Chord Hack #7

Before

Piano Chord Hack #7 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #7 - After

Chord hack #7 is another amazing minor chord sound: the minor 11th chord. These chords are commonly used in modern jazz, contemporary gospel and R&B. The hack formula for minor 11th chords is to add a major chord on the ♭7. In other words, for Cm11, you’ll play Cm (C–E♭–G) in your left hand and B♭ major (B♭–D–F) in your right hand.

Piano Chord Hack #7

There are some especially tasty minor 11th chord voicings that pro pianists love to use, such as the Kenny Barron quintal voicing and also the sorrow chord…you’ll definitely want to bookmark those topics for future study.

Alright, you’re ready to move on to the next section on chord hacks for dominant chords!


Chord Hacks for Dominant Chords

If you like playing jazz and blues piano, then you’ll definitely want to commit to memory the following chord hacks for dominant chords. These tasty dominant chords combine color notes from two different categories: chord extensions (9th, 11th 13th) and chord alterations (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13).

Let’s check out our first example, which is chord hack #8…

Chord Hack #8

Before

Piano Chord Hack #8 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #8 - After

These bright and bluesy dominant chords are called dominant 13(♯11) chords. The hack formula for dominant 13(♯11) chords is to add a major triad on the 2nd. In addition, we’ve omitted the 5th from the left hand, which is a common practice in jazz arranging for dominant 7th chords. Therefore, to construct C13(♯11), we’ll play a C7 chord shell (C-E-B♭) in the left hand and a D major triad (D–F♯–A) in the right hand.

Piano Chord Hack #8

Alright, let’s learn another dominant chord hack…


Chord Hack #9

Before

Piano Chord Hack #9 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #9 - After

Chord hack #9 gives us a darker, more exotic dominant sound called a dominant 7(♯9♭13) chord. The hack formula for dominant 7(♯9♭13) chords is to add a major triad on the ♭6. For example, to construct a C7(♯9♭13), play a C7 chord shell (C-E-B♭) in the left hand and an A♭ major triad (A♭–C–E♭) in the right hand.

Piano Chord Hack #9

Alright, let’s check out chord hack #10…


Chord Hack #10

Before

Piano Chord Hack #10 - Before

After

Piano Chord Hack #10 - After

Chord hack #10 gives us the sophisticated dominant 13(♭9♯11) chord. In the example above, only the first chord is a dominant 13(♭9♯11) chord. That’s because it’s uncommon for this particular voicing to occur back-to-back on different chords. Instead, this beautiful dominant sound commonly occurs during the intro of a jazz song or at other dramatic cadences. The hack formula for a dominant 13(♭9♯11) chord is to play a minor triad on the ♯4. For example, to create a C13(♭9♯11), simply play a C7 chord shell (C–E–B♭) in the left hand with an F♯ minor triad (F♯–A–C♯) in the right hand.

Piano Chord Hack #10

To learn how to play a beautiful jazz intro run with the dominant 13(♭9♯11) sound like Jonny demonstrates in today’s lesson, check out our course on Jazz Intro and Outro Runs (Int/Adv).

Looking for a jazz piano curriculum? Our Mid Intermediate Piano Foundations Level 5 Learning Track contains sequential courses designed to help PWJ students master the intricacies of jazz harmony with extensions and alterations.

Alright, it’s time for the application section of today’s lesson where we’ll combine several different chord hacks in the context of a longer chord progression.


Application

Alright, let’s have some fun with the chord hacks that we’ve learned today. There are essentially two different ways you can use these chord hacks. First, you could take a pre-existing chord progression and apply these chord hacks to get a more professional sound. That’s basically the approach that you would take if you were playing piano in a band or playing cover songs with a vocalist.

The second way to use these chord hacks is as a source of inspiration for creating your own novel-sounding chord progressions. With the expanded harmonic palette that chord hacks offer, you’re likely to discover some new and unexpected harmonic possibilities. That’s essentially the approach that we’ve taken in the example below. In fact, you’ll notice that the “before” example sounds a bit unusual. That’s because this progression was actually composed from the start using chord hacks. However, let’s first listen to how it would sound with basic chords only…

Before

Piano Chord Hacks Application - Before

And now, here’s the same progressions except with the chord hacks applied…

After

Piano Chord Hacks Application - After

As you can see and hear, chord hacks are a great way to obtain professional chord sounds on piano and discover exciting new worlds of sound.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on The Top 10 Chord Hacks for Piano. Therefore, the next time you come across some sheet music with basic piano chords, why not hack it?

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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