Learn the theory behind chords

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Major, minor & other scales

Piano chords – an introduction

In this article, it is explained what a chord is and which the most common categories of chords are. Pianoscales.org does not primarily focus on chords, and therefore there are no diagrams here for particular chords. In that case Pianochord.org could be recommended.

What is a chord?

A chord is several notes played together. There are three-note chords (triads), four-note chords (also called four-part chords) and five-note chords (also called five-part chords). There are even chords with six or seven notes, but in this case some notes are usually skipped when playing. It does exist chords with two notes (dyads), which are less common on piano. Chords are also related to scales, read about how chords are built from scales.

. And what are they good for?

Chords can, for example, tribute with harmony and structure. By harmony means that a chord adds bass notes to a melody and make it more full-flavored. By structure means that chords can add rhythm and variation to a melody. To create harmony a chord is often played simultaneously as a melody note, and to create structure a chord is often played between melody notes.

Different chords

Major: a major triad is commonly written only by the name of the root of the chord.
For example C , including the notes C – E – G.

Minor: the minor triad is commonly written with the name followed by “m” (short for minor).
For example Cm , including C – Eb – G.

7: when the number seven is following the name of the note it is a dominant seventh chord. A minor seventh in the scale is added and make it a four-note chord.
For example C7 , including C – E – G – Bb.

m7: this is a minor seventh chord (m is an abbreviation for minor). A minor seventh is added to a minor triad.
For example Cm7 , including C – Eb – G – Bb.

maj7: this is a major (maj is an abbreviation for major) seventh chord. A major seventh is added to a major triad.
For example Cmaj7 , including C – E – G – B.

7-5: this is a dominant seventh chord with a flattened fifth. This chord can also be written like 7b5.
For example C7-5 or C7b5 , including C – E – Gb – Bb.

7+5: this is a dominant seventh chord with a sharpened fifth. This chord can also be written like 7#5.
For example C7+5 or C7#5 , including C – E – G# – Bb.

6: this type is constructed from a major triad with the sixth note in the scale being added.
For example C6 , including C – E – G – A.

m6: this type is constructed from a minor triad with the sixth note added.
For example Cm6 , including C – Eb – G – A.

9: here the ninth note in the scale is added to a dominant seventh chord.
For example C9 , including C – E – G – Bb – D.

m9: here the ninth note in the scale is added to a minor seventh chord.
For example Cm9 , including C – Eb – G – Bb – D.

maj9: here the ninth note in the scale is added to a major seventh chord.
For example Cmaj9 , including C – E – G – B – D.

dim: is an abbreviation for diminished and the chord is diminished in the way the third and the fifth notes are flattened. There is also diminished 7th with a flattened seventh note.
For example Cdim , including C – Eb – Gb or Cdim7 , including C – Eb – Gb – A.

aug: is an abbreviation for augmented and the chord is augmented in the way the fifth note is sharpened.
For example Caug , including C – E – G#.

sus: is an abbreviation for suspension. Here the third is replaced by either the fourth note (sus4) or the second note (sus2) in the scale.
For example Csus4 , including C – F – G or Csus2 , including C – D – G.

With the knowledge about the categories of chords explained above, you will be familiar with the most chords you could stumble upon. There are however even more categories and some less common chords are:

  • Dominant, minor and major eleventh (for example C11, Cm11 and Cmaj11)
  • Dominant, minor and major thirteenth (for example C13, Cm13 and Cmaj13)
  • Half-diminished (for example Cm7b5)
  • Augmented seventh (for example Caug7)
  • Add9 and Add2 (for example Cadd9 and Cadd2)

Inverted chords

Inverted chords are very common and means that the notes in a chord shifts their positions. If we take a major triad as an example, there are two inversions possible. The first inversion uses the second note as bass note and the second inversion uses the third note as bass note.
The original chord, C Major is constructed C – E – G.
The first inversion, C/E is constructed E – G – C.
The second inversion, C/G is constructed G – C – E.

Chords in practice

Exactly how you play chords will depend on several factors: are you playing solo, together with a singer or in a full band? If you play solo, you will probably play chords with your left hand and the melody with your right. If you are accompanying a singer, you would focus less on the melody notes and perhaps split up the chords on both your hands. And finally, if you play with a band, you would probably need to play fewer notes.

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