As a beginner, learning how to play the chords on a piano or keyboard should be one of the first steps when your goal is to eventually play your favorite songs and other musical works for either yourself or to impress friends and family!
Being able to quickly recognize and play chords and chord symbols on sheet music will make you play music more confidently and opens the doors for you to play almost all famous songs as they are often very simply structured, with the most basic chord progressions.
In this post let’s have a look how to learn piano chords fast!
The Structure Of A Chord
There are a lot of chords, containing three, four, five and even more notes.
To learn the chords fast we will focus on the most basic structure of a chord as that is all you’ll need for the beginning.
Depending on your preference, the two most common ways on how to learn piano chords fast are:
- memorizing the chords on the piano (memorizing the keys that you need to press down for a particular chord)
- learning the theory behind it so you can build chords on any note, without memorizing it
The latter one will be more important if your goal is to not only learn some chords as fast as possible but actually want to learn how chords are built so you can start building them on any given note.
The former will be your choice if you are A) very good at memorizing your hand position on keys and B) just want to learn the basic chords that you need to play songs as quick as possible.
Both approaches can deliver the same result if you keep learning and memorizing the chords and their structure.
Let’s go over both of them so you will know exactly how to learn the chords with either approach!
Method 1: Memorizing
This method is the easier one as it doesn’t require you to actually learn any theory but just hand and finger positions on the keyboard so you can follow the chord symbols on sheet music. There are in total 24 different chords but you’ll only need to memorize 12 of them, either the major or the minor version:
Above you see the keys that you need to play colorized.
There are 88 keys on the piano but to learn chords we only need to look at 12 keys that are in an octave since these 12 keys just repeat multiple times (and sound higher resp. lower the more up and down you go on the keyboard).
So why do you only need to learn either minor or major?
The reason for this is simple: The only difference between the two is the note in the middle!
If you memorize all major chords, then you can get to the minor chords by just playing the middle note one key lower.
That’s how you get the minor version of that particular chord.
Let’s have a look at it together:
In the image above you can see in the top left corner the C-major chord.
If you now look at the C-minor chord at the right, you will notice that the note in the middle is exactly one key lower placed than in its major version.
In this case, the middle note E goes down a so-called “half step” to the note E♭, which is the black key to the left of the note E.
In sheet music, a chord symbol for C-major might be written as simply C or C-major.
Minor chords, on the contrary, are usually named like Cm (for C-minor).
A Little Side Note on Sharps and Flats
Regarding the pronunciation of ♯ and ♭, whenever you see a ♯ symbol behind a letter it is pronounced ‘sharp’.
So C♯ is pronounced: ‘C-sharp’. And whenever you see a ♭, it is pronounced ‘flat’.
So E♭ is pronounced: ‘E-flat’.
Summing Up Method1
If you learn the 12 major chords (or the 12 minor chords) you are ready to play 24 different chords, all in their basic structure, containing 3 notes each.
This is already sufficient to play almost 95% of pop songs.
So when it comes to how to learn piano chords fast, memorizing these would be your best bet.
But now let’s have a look at the second method of learning these chords!
METHOD 2: Learning Chords By Applying The Theory Behind It
For this method, we will have to take a look at how chords are actually built, so we don’t have to memorize them and instead can just build them based on our root note.
What’s a root note?
The root note is the bottom note of the chord, so in a C-major chord, note C will be the root note and the whole chord is built upon that note.
It definitively helps if you already know how to build scales.
But let’s have a look and see how the C-major chord is structured and then apply the knowledge onto all the other chords.
The C-major chord consists of the three notes C, E, and G. On the keyboard it is these three notes:
If we count the keys that follow after the root note C all the way to the E, we get to the number 4, because we have C♯, D, D♯ and E.
So in order to find the middle note, we just have to count 4 keys up and that’s our middle note.
To find the top note, we again count the keys, this time starting at the middle note E, all the way to G and we see that it’s exactly 3 keys higher: F, F♯, and G.
So to find the middle and top note we first add 4 keys, then another 3 keys. 4 and 3. These numbers are applicable to any chord!
That’s why you only need to remember this instead of memorizing the keys that need to be played that we talked about in Method 1.
It is a different approach on how to learn piano chords fast, but usually preferred by teachers!
Let’s try it out and see if it really works on any chord.
First a rather simple one; F-major.
From the root note F, we go four keys higher (F♯, G, G♯, and A), so we land on A.
From A we go three keys higher (A♯, B and C) and we land on C.
That makes it: F-A-C which is the F-major chord.
Now let’s try a ‘difficult’ chord; E♭-major.
The root note is E♭, so we count up E, F, F♯, and G, which is our middle note.
From G we count up G♯, A, and A♯ which is our top note.
And, so we have E♭-G-A# which is E♭-major…..or is it?
When We Have Two Names For The One Note
The notes C♯ and D♭ sound the same as they are the same key.
The same applies to D♯ and E♭, F♯ and G♭, G♯ and A♭, and last but not least A♯ and B♭.
The reason they have different names is simply because of their function in a chord or scale.
So in our case of E♭-major, the top note is the key that is A♯ and B♭, but only one of these note names belongs to the E♭-major chord and that is B♭.
So E♭-major is actually E♭-G-B♭.
The reason behind this name change is to do with intervals.
Chords are built by adding thirds on top of each other. A third is an interval (distance between two notes) that consists of three or four keys (halftone steps).
Let me explain!
Let’s use C-major chord as an example.
The interval from the root note to the middle note is four keys (halftones/ half steps).
Each key represents a halftone.
The interval of four half steps is called a ‘major third’.
From the middle note to the top note we have 3 half steps. This interval is called a ‘minor third’.
EVERY major chord is built by having a major third at the bottom and a minor third on top of it!
As the name ‘third’ already implies, we are always going three steps up: From C to E, from E to G.
Attention: Please don’t confuse the terms “minor third” and “minor chord”. When it comes to intervals, the word “minor” only refers to the kind of the interval and how many half steps it has.
For minor chords the order of the thirds is vice versa: At the bottom, we have the minor third and at the top, we have the major third:
C-minor has the notes C-E♭-G and as you can see on the keyboard it is indeed a minor third, so three halftones from C to get to the E♭, and a major third (four half steps) to get from E♭ to G. Again, this applies to ALL 12 chords.
For the more advanced students who know the scales: In the scale of C-major we have the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B In order to find out the thirds we just have to count three letters to the right, including the note we start at. So for C-major, it would be C-D-E, so C-E would be the third. We already learned that in major chords the major third is at the bottom and then we go from E to G via E, F, G, and the chord is complete.
In our example of the E♭-major chord we have the major third from E♭ to G and then the minor third from G to B♭.
E♭ is based on E, so let’s go three letters to the right and we get G. Since we are playing a major chord, we need four half steps.
From E♭, it would be G. So that’s the middle note. To get to the top note we build another third on top of it.
If we look at our scale, we see that after G comes A and after A comes B. So G-B would be the interval for the upper third.
Since we need a minor third for the top part that has three half steps, we get to B♭ instead of B.
That’s why E♭-major consists of the notes E♭-G-B♭ instead of an A♯ at the top despite sounding the same.
Summing Up Method 2
To play basic chords, we just have to play a major third interval and a minor third interval on top of it if we want to play the major chord of the root.
For the minor chord, it is vice versa with the minor third at the bottom and the major third at the top.
So now we have learned about the two approaches of how to learn piano chords fast.
But these were just the chords in their basic ‘formation’, with the root note always at the bottom of the chord.
When playing a song where you have multiple chord switches (a chord progression) it might quickly get boring-sounding when playing the chords like this.
So what performers usually do is to play so-called inversions of the chord.
Each major and minor chord that consists of three notes, has two possible inversions that can be played.
An inversion contains the same notes but the order is different now:
The first inversion simply means taking the root note and playing it an octave higher. So instead of C-E-G you now play E-G-C.
The second and third notes just stay the same, but the bottom note is now an octave higher.
For the second inversion, we go a step further and additionally take the second note and put that one also an octave higher.
Now the order of the notes from the bottom to the top is G-C-E.
Both inversions are still considered a C-major chord.
To visualize this on the C-major chord take a look at this illustration:
This applies to minor chords as well.
A C-minor chord (C-E♭-G) would be played E♭-G-C in its 1st inversion and G-C- E♭ in the 2nd one.
The more notes you add in a chord (chords consisting of 4 or 5 notes) the more inversions are possible.
But that is advanced music theory and beyond the scope of this article.
So when should you play the inversion.
The answer is very simple: It depends on the chord you played prior to it.
Always try to move as little as possible on the keys when going over to the next chord, as this sounds more pleasing to the human ear.
For example, going from G-major to E-minor we see that we have two notes in both chords, that are the same; the G and the B note.
G-major has the D note as third note and E-minor has the E note.
These notes are next to each other so it is recommended to just repeat the B and G notes and go from D to E, instead of playing G-B-E and then all the way up to E-G-B.
G-major would be in its root position, but E-minor would be in its 2nd inversion in this case.
So we use inversions to make the smallest possible jumps in keys when playing a chord progression.
When it comes to how to learn piano chords fast, knowing inversions is key!
Learning something fast also requires the regular practice of the acquired knowledge of chords, their structure, their appearance on the keyboard.
If you decide to memorize the keys, our first method in this article, then playing the memorized chords on the piano regularly will tremendously benefit your memory so it will not only stay in your short-term memory but instead get into your long-term memory.
It is also important to not always play the chords in the same order, but really try to randomly pick chords and play them so your fingers don’t get used to one chord progression but are flexible (It’s called finger memory, when the fingers automatically move to certain keys without your brain consciously controlling them).
If you decide to learn chords with the second method, you can learn it faster when sitting at the keyboard, picking a random root note and then counting the keys as described above, so you build your major and minor thirds.
After a while, you will play them quicker because you already know better and better how a certain chord looks like and which keys are involved, so you subconsciously will play the right keys without actually having to count the half-steps to get there.
In general, you will learn everything regarding chords and notes faster when you just spend the time at your keyboard/piano.
It will especially be helpful to see the intervals with your own eyes rather than just “calculating” on paper.
You will develop a good sense of the intervals and eventually play them naturally without thinking about minor and major thirds.
This all contributes to your initial goal on how to learn piano chords fast.
This is for more advanced players who want to learn chords.
Instead of playing a basic chord consisting of 3 notes you can also play the very same chord with 4 notes, by adding the seventh.
The seventh is another minor third interval on top of the (previous) top note, so in C-major it would be C-E-G-B♭.
This creates more tension in the chord and the resolution into the next chord has a greater impact.
With the 7th chord, you also can and should play inversions!
Since we have 4 notes in this chord, you will not have just two inversions but three in total.
In our C-major example (C7 or C-maj7 are the most common chord symbols that you will find in sheet music) it would be:
- 1st inversion: E-G-B♭-C
- 2nd inversion: G-B♭-C-E
- 3rd inversion: B♭-C-E-G
If you go from a C7 (in its root position) to an F major chord, the C in the root stays where it is, the E goes up to the F, the G goes up to the A, and the B♭ can go either down to the A as well or up to the C.
Your F-major chord will now be in its 2nd inversion (C-F-A), because it requires the least movement to get to this inversion rather than the root position.
It’s, of course, not forbidden to go back to the root position of the C-major chord instead of the 2nd inversion, it simply depends on the context of the music you are playing and also what sounds good in your ears.