The ability to read chord symbols is a huge advantage to musicians of any level or genre. Every musician can benefit from being able to play harmony on the piano, both as a way to develop your ear training and to deepen your understanding of theory. In this short tutorial, I will give you a simple and thorough lesson on how to read chord symbols.
The Basics of How to Read Chord Symbols
You can think of chords as being stacks of thirds. This means that you will be playing the root, third, fifth, seventh, etc. of the key.
Your first step to learning chords should be to learn major and minor triads in all 12 keys. Once you have these mastered, it will be much easier to play the more complex chords.
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Major and Minor Chords
Major and Minor Chords
As we get started working on learning our chord symbols, it is important to have complete mastery of your major and minor chords. These simple triads are the building blocks of all chords. The better you can play them, the easier this whole process will be!
Major 7th chord
Major triad + major 7th (HALF step lower than the root)
Dominant 7th chord
Major triad + lowered 7th (WHOLE step lower than the root)
Major 6th chord
Major triad + natural 6th
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How to Play Minor Chords
Minor major 7th Chord
Minor triad + major 7th (HALF step lower than the root)
Minor 6th chord
Minor triad + major 6th (WHOLE step higher than the 5th)
Minor 7th chord
Minor triad + minor 7th (WHOLE step lower than the root)
Made up of minor 3rds.
Half Diminished Chord (also known as Minor 7 Flat 5)
Diminished triad + minor 7th (WHOLE step lower than the root)
OR Minor 7th chord with a flattened fifth.
Diminished 7th Chord
Diminished triad + bb7 (bb7 is the same as the 6th)
OR Minor 7 chord with a lowered 5th and double lowered 7th
OR a chord with all minor thirds.
How to Practice Your Chords On Piano
- Right Hand alone
- Left Hand alone
- Chord in the Right Hand, Left hand playing a bass note
The best way to practice your chords, is to work on them a few at a time until you are confident. Make sure to master your major and minor triads first, since they are the building blocks of all of the rest of the chords.
Practice your chords in 12 keys, organized in four different ways:
- Counterclockwise via the circle of 5ths: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E, A, D, G.
- Clockwise via the circle of 5ths: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F.
3. Up by 1/2 steps: C, C#, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C.
4. Down by 1/2 steps: C, B, Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db.
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