Let’s say you’re sitting at your piano or keyboard, looking at an unfamiliar piece of sheet music, or maybe a lead sheet you found online, and you come across a piano chord you haven’t seen before.
If you have my free visual piano chord chart, you would have a 98% chance of simply finding a visual representation of the chord, and you would play the highlighted keys to create the chord.
But let’s say, for the sake of this blog post, that you don’t have my guide or, if you do have a chord guide, it’s all the way across the room and you’re just not in the mood to retrieve it.
Is there a way to figure out how to build and play the piano chord from scratch, just by looking at the chord symbol?
The answer is YES!
(Fair warning: this post may get a bit long, so you might want to digest it in bite-size pieces!)
But before I show you how to put the puzzle pieces together, we need to learn/review some basic rules and structures at the piano.
Half Steps, Whole Steps and Scales – The Building Blocks of All Piano Chords
Just to be clear, let’s review the most basic intervals on the piano – the half step and whole step.
A half step is the distance between ANY two keys on the piano – white to black key, black key to white key, or white key to white key (there are no black-to-black half steps on the piano).
A whole step is simply two half steps.
A picture is probably worth 1000 words here…
First, we need to learn how major scales are built, and they are all built with exactly the same structure, which my logical mind finds amazing!
Here’s the structure:
- Start with any note on the piano.
- Play notes up the keyboard in this sequence of intervals:
- Whole step
- Whole step
- Half step
- Whole step
- Whole step
- Whole step
- Half step
For example, a C major scale looks like this:
and an Ab major scale looks like this:
Take a moment to verify that the structure is the same for both scales. This works for any starting note on the piano – in all 12 keys!
The Four Basic Piano Chord Triads
Before we get into more advanced piano chords, alterations, and their notation, we need to know the four basic triads and how to build them with the scales we just created.
The four basic piano chords are major, minor, diminished and augmented.
They are notated like this:
Major: C, CΔ, CMaj, Cmaj
Minor: C-, Cmin, Cm
Diminished: Cdim, Co
Augmented: Caug, C+
and similarly for all the other keys.
Major triads are written with a single note – e.g., C, F, Bb, Eb, F#, etc. – and are built using the root (1st), third and fifth notes of the major scale. So, using the C major and Ab major scales from above, a C major chord – written simply as ‘C’ – is C-E-G, and an Ab major chord – written as ‘Ab’ – is Ab-C-Eb.
Here’s C major:
and Ab major:
You can also think of chords as being built in terms of half and whole steps. Any major chord starts with the root note. The next note up (the third) is always 4 half steps above the root, and the top of the triad (the fifth) is 3 half steps above the third.
It may be easier for you to think of chords in terms of half and whole steps, to save you the extra step of having to think about the major scale first.
Minor chords start with the root, then add the note 3 half steps above, then the note 4 half steps above that. Or, just lower the third from the major chord one half step.
Here’s C minor, written as Cmin, Cm, or C-:
and Ab minor, written as Abmin, Abm, or Ab-:
To create a diminished chord, start with a minor chord and lower the FIFTH a half step as well, creating a chord that starts with the root, adds the note 3 half steps above, then the note 3 half steps above the third.
So, C diminished, written as Cdim or Co is:
and Ab diminished, written as Abdim or Abo is:
Finally, to build an augmented chord, start with the major chord and raise the fifth one half step, giving you a chord that starts with the root, then adds the note 4 half steps above that, then the note 4 half steps above the third.
C augmented, written as Caug or C+ is then:
and Ab augmented, written as Abaug or Ab+ is:
When you see a 7 in a chord symbol, it doesn’t always mean the same thing – confusing, right?! Well, not once you know the rules.
First, let’s talk about the case where the root note is followed by just the number 7 – e.g., C7 or Ab7. This is called a dominant 7th chord.
Although it’s not a triad (3 notes), I still think of the dominant 7th chord as one of the fundamental chords, just because it has such a unique sound. To build a dominant 7th chord, start with a major chord, then add the note 3 half steps above the 5th, which also happens to be one whole step below the chord root – but an octave higher. This is called the minor or dominant 7th interval.
So, here’s C7:
Dominant 7th chords USUALLY resolve to the major chord a fourth (4th major scale tone) above their root. So, G7 resolves to C, C7 resolves to F, Bb7 resolves to Eb, etc.
Now, for minor and augmented chords, you play exactly the same thing when you see a 7.
HOWEVER, if you see a diminished 7 symbol – like Cdim7 or Co7, you actually need to lower the 7 ANOTHER half step.
So, Abdim7 is:
Diminished 7th chords are often used to move between chords. For example, to move up the piano keyboard in chords, you could play C, C#dim7, Dm, Ebdim7, Em, F, F#dim7, G, Abdim7, Am, Bbdim7, Bdim7, C.
What’s also interesting about diminished 7th chords is that there are really only three groups of notes that cover ALL diminished 7th chords. If you play Cdim7, then C#dim7, then Ddim7, those are all unique, but once you get to Ebdim7, it contains the same notes as Cdim7! And so on… Interesting!
Alright, so we have one more variation for the 7th. I know, it can be a little confusing, but I’ll summarize the 7th rules below.
IF you see a ‘M’ or ‘maj’ or ‘Δ’ just before the 7, then you play the 7 from the major scale – in other words, one half step below the root of the chord.
For example, CM7 is:
and DM7 (changing it up a little!) is:
Guess what? You can even have a MINOR chord with a MAJOR 7th!
It’s a pretty cool sounding chord, too, especially if you like Halloween or hang around with a guy in a mask in the basement of an opera hall.
Check out (and play!) this C minor major 7th chord – written as CmM7:
Pretty neat, huh?
Now, here are the basic…
Rules for 7ths
- For dominant 7th, minor 7th, or augmented 7th – e.g., C7, Cm7 or C+7 – play the minor 7th – one half step below the 7th from the major scale – two half steps below the root of the chord.
- For diminished 7th – e.g., Cdim7 – lower the minor 7th another half step – so, 3 half steps below the root of the chord.
- For major 7th – e.g., CM7 or CmM7 – use the 7th from the major scale – one half step below the chord root.
Now take a breath, because that’s 70-80% of what you need to know to build piano chords from scratch!
But we do have more work to do, so let’s move on, shall we?
These chords will look like this:
C6, Ab6, F#6, Bm6, Em6, etc.
And these are easy – just add the 6th note from the major scale to the major or minor chord. That’s the note a whole step above the fifth (top) of the major triad. We don’t really use augmented 6th or diminished 6th chords.
See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?
6 chords are “static” chords – they sound perfectly fine on their own, without moving to any other chords. You can hear a good example of 6 chords at the beginning of the verse in the Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill.”
Suspended 2nd and 4th Chords
Suspended 2nd and 4th chords will look like this:
Suspended chords simply move the 3rd of a major or minor chord to the 2nd or 4th note in the major scale. At that point, there is no more major or minor, since the 3rd is the note that determines that. So, you may see sus2 or sus4 chords in both major and minor keys.
sus4 chords are much more common than sus2 chords, by the way.
Now here’s Csus4:
Usually, the “tension” of a suspended chord is “resolved” in a song by playing the major or minor chord with the same root. For example, in the classic rock tune, “Cold As Ice,” by Foreigner, the entire song is based on that initial piano riff, which moves from a minor sus4 chord to the minor chord.
Alright, it’s time to take things up a notch now, but we’ll ease into it 🙂
The add2 chord is very similar to a sus2 chord, except the third STAYS in the chord.
So, here’s Cadd2:
I like to use this chord at the end of songs. Instead of just playing a plain ol’ major chord, the add2 chord creates a sort of modern, smooth, peaceful ending to the song.
Jazz Sus Chords
The jazz suspended chord can be thought of as a combination of both the sus2 and sus4 chords. (It can also be thought of as the combination of the ii7 and V7 chords of a ii7-V7-IM7 chord progression, but that’s something for a different blog post!)
To build a jazz sus chord, written simply as ‘sus’ –
Csus, Fsus, Bbsus, etc.
simply play the chord root, then play the minor 7th chord starting on the 5th of the root chord. So, a Csus has a C in the bass and a Gm7 chord above it (since G is the 5th note of the C major scale and also the top of the C major chord).
Here’s Csus (C bass with Gm7 on top):
And here’s Gsus (G bass with Dm7 on top):
9th chords have a very rich, “jazzy” sound to them, so you really have to be careful when playing them, especially in popular tunes. They can sometimes create a sound that is “too jazzy.”
However, the rules for building them are very straightforward, since, when no other numbers are present in the chord symbol, they mean you should automatically play the 7th AND 9th in the chord, whether it’s a major, minor or dominant chord. The 7th stays exactly the same as it would be played if the 9 was not present.
They are written like this:
C9, FM9, Abm9, G+9
You may have figured this out already, but a 9th chord simply adds the note one octave and one whole step above the root of the chord.
So, C9 (C7 with the 9th added) is:
FM9 (FM7 with the 9th added) is:
and Abm9 (Abm7 with the 9th added) is:
Finally, G+9 (G+7 with the 9th added) is:
And, yes, you will probably need two hands to play 9th chords, unless you’re related to Sergei Rachmaninoff (who reportedly had gigantic hands).
Although they aren’t used very often, you will sometimes run across an 11th chord, usually a minor 11th. Just like we do with 9th chords, the 11th chord automatically means we also play both the 7th AND 9th in the chord.
Just like 9th chords, 11th chords are written as:
C11, FM11, Abm11
Once again, you’ll need two hands, and even that may not be enough, unless you change the voicing (relative position of the chord tones).
Here’s the strange C11 (kind of like Csus, isn’t it?):
The even stranger FM11:
If you just played these, you’ll understand why I recommend you stick with the minor 11th chords!
Ah, now these are some of my favorite chords to play. In fact, when I first started learning to play jazz piano and more advanced chords, and I learned how to play 13th chords, I knew I had finally “arrived” in the world of professional-sounding jazz piano!
Just like 11th and 9th chords, 13th chords mean you should automatically play the 7th, 9th AND 11th tones from the major scale as well. USUALLY, the 11th is left out of a 13th chord, just because it kind of clashes with the other notes.
Also, major 13th and minor 13th chords are rarely, if ever, notated or played, so let’s take a look at the regular ol’ 13th chord.
The 13th is the same note as the 6th, but played one octave higher than the 6th.
So, technically speaking, here’s C13:
Now, since this is rather clumsy to play, even with both hands, and, as I already mentioned, we usually leave the 11th out of 13th chords, two of my favorite ways to play 13th chords are with the 9th or 13th on top in the right hand (but removing some other notes).
Here are two variations for C13, using both hands – left hand in green, right hand in red:
C13 voicing #1:
C13 voicing #2:
Now THAT’S more like it!
The 6/9 chord is another interesting piano chord you may run across in sheet music or lead sheets. Just like major, major 7th, or 6th chords, it’s a “static” chord, meaning it doesn’t need to “resolve” to another chord – it just sounds good on its own and can be used to start or end a song nicely.
All it is is a combination of a 6 and a 9 chord – so, just start with a major or minor chord and add the 6th and 9th notes from the major scale. 6/9 chords can be major or minor and are written as:
C6/9 or C6/9
6/9 chords make particularly nice endings, especially if you play them as ascending or descending arpeggios.
Now it’s time to get into more advanced piano chord alterations – what, there’s MORE?!
In this last group of chords, the chord symbol will indicate modifications to specific chord tones – flat this, sharp that, etc. – so they tend to be a little more dissonant, but also a LOT more interesting.
Might be time to take a break, get something to eat, get some sleep, bookmark this post 🙂
The next two chords often go together…
Half Diminished Chords
Remember (pages ago) the diminished 7th chord, where we lowered the third, fifth AND dominant 7th chords by a half step? So, Cdim7 is C-Eb-F#-A.
WELL, if we were to leave the dominant 7th alone and NOT lower it another half step, we would end up with what’s called a half-diminished chord, which is written as:
Cø7 or Cm7(b5)
Kind of a dark, tension-filled chord, eh?
As I mentioned above, the half-diminished chord is often followed by this chord…
Flat 9 Chords
If you start with a 9th or 13th chord and lower the 9th by a half step, you end up with a flat 9 chord, which you will often find just before either a major, minor, or minor-Major7 chord.
It’s written as
C7(b9) or F13(b9)
and is very simple to play – just lower that 9th in a 9th or 13th chord by a half step.
and here’s F13(b9):
We can also flat the 9th in an augmented 7th chord, like G+7(b9):
Now THAT’S an interesting sounding chord!
Speaking of interesting chords…
Sharp 9 Chords
Just as we can flat the 9th, we can also sharp (sharpen? whatever) the 9th, but I don’t usually do this with 13th chords.
You’ll find these chords written as:
C7(#9) or G7(#9)
and played like this for C7(#9):
and this for G7(#9):
My favorite place to use the flat 9 chord is in blues songs. It adds just the right amount of “edginess” to the chords.
Alright… we’re in the home stretch now with our last chord alteration!
Sharp 11 Chords
As you might have guessed, sharp 11 chords take the 11th and raise it a half step. I rarely use these chords, but I do like to play them occasionally at the end of a song, for the very last chord. In fact, you can find the perfect example of a #11 chord at the end of the classic Vince Guaraldi version of “O Christmas Tree” from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
The #11 can be played with a major 7th or dominant 7th chord, and if you want to sound cool when talking with your musical friends, the major 7#11 chord is called a lydian chord, and the dominant 7#11 chord is called a lydian dominant chord. Sounds fancy!
For me, the easiest way to think of these chords is to think of a major or dominant 7th chord, stacked on top with a major chord whose root is a whole step above the root of the major or dominant.
For example, CM13(#11) would be a CM7 chord with a D major chord stacked on top, and an Ab13(#11) would be an Ab7 chord with a Bb major chord stacked on top, like this…
and here’s EM13(#11):
And guess what?
Well, there certainly are more things to talk about related to piano chords, but this post should give you more than enough to work on for quite a while.
I encourage you to play around with different voicings – moving around the chord tones to different positions to see what it sounds like – and seeing if you can identify some of these chords in your favorite songs.
If you don’t want to spend a bunch of time figuring out all these chords for all 12 keys, I would also encourage you to get a copy of my free visual piano chord guide.
Or, if you want to start with the basics and learn how to start playing chord-style piano, be sure to check out my combination guidebook and video piano course, Professional Piano Chords for Everyday Pianists.