Maestro Maker Pianist Tom Donald reveals all 7 basic piano chords you should know. He explains the structure of these chords and how you can group them in simple but effective chord progressions to understand your favourite music and create your own.
This video features lots of great information that will really make you think about music fundamentally differently. The information is valuable to people of all levels, from beginner to intermediate, and even advanced musicians who haven’t really thought about how chords work in their music.
C Major Scale
Learn the C major scale as this is the starting point. [0:36] Many musicians play scales their entire life and don’t understand why they are playing them.
There’s a magical number in western music and in piano music and that’s the number seven. That’s right, seven, since there are seven chords in western music. Essentially, you can listen to any piece of music and figure it out by ear, using numbers between one and seven.
Every major scale produces seven chords. And each chord consists of 3 notes played simultaneously. Try this with C Major scale.
- C Major – First chord [1:34]
Find it on your piano or keyboard by playing the white key to the left of the 2 black keys. Skipping one white key each time, play the 3 white notes. This creates a nice, comfortable harmonic sound, which we’re very accustomed to hearing in music.
- C Major – Second chord through to seventh chord
Play each consecutive white key combination e.g. repeat the pattern. When you reach the next 2 black keys on your keyboard or piano, you’re at Chord 1 again, since you’re back on C.
The ‘distance’ between the first C and the next C (or any other note) is an octave.
Keys & Scales
You can replicate this exercise in any other scale. Since lots of songs are in other keys and scales. The great thing about the piano tuning system is that you can replicate those scales and produce the same result. So, you can play the same song in different keys. Basically, there are just seven chords in music.
This may sound a bit complicated to start with, but this is the principle that you really need to think about. There are seven chords in music. To figure out any song, you need to listen carefully for which of the seven chords are used in the songs you like to listen to. In the video, I show you precisely how this works.
Major Piano Chords
[3:21] I look at 3 very significant chords out of the seven: Chord 1, Chord 4 and Chord 5.
Out of the seven chords, these are probably the most important. Basically, these are the chords that hold the musical structure together. By the way, this applies to all genres: classical music, jazz and blues, rock, pop or any contemporary soundtrack. Whatever style of music you’re into, these 3 chords are “the universal laws of Western harmony”, and pretty much inescapable.
When you hear these three chords they sound nice, very familiar, happy and bright. They’re what we call Major Chords
12 bar blues [4:52]
And thousands and thousands of songs that use the same chords.
[5:22] Beginners and those who’ve never played piano before, may find it more comfortable to use the first 3 fingers to play a chord. By that I mean, the thumb, index and middle fingers. Remember to keep your wrist relaxed and your remaining fingers resting lightly on the keys.
Ideally though you use your thumb, middle finger and pink to play each chord but you may need to do some finger strengthening exercise before you can effectively do this.
Minor Piano Chords
[6:55] Chords 2,3 & 6 sound fundamentally different to chords 1,4 & 5, you can hear that immediately. That’s because these are Minor Chords which sounds sadder, more nostalgic. The role they play in music is they sound more expansive, they expand on those happy Major Chords. And the magic of music really is the combination of Major and Minor Chords. Jump to [7:28] for examples.
Now, you have the knowledge to compose your own music. Simply use numbers between one and six and mix them around and see what happens. Get a notepad out, get to your piano keyboard and start trying it now. You’ll be amazed at how good you sound straight away.
Never mind playing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ in your first piano lesson. That’s just plain boring when you can compose your own music.
The ‘funny’ chord, the wild card of the scale Chord 7 which sounds a bit odd. Chord 7 is a diminished code. In the olden days, they called it the devil’s code.
Unsurprisingly, this chord is often used in film scores, jazz and classical music when there’s something dramatic or chaotic happening. Similarly, you hear it in Italian opera when someone’s about to die and in old Charlie Chaplin movies.
They really make life a bit complicated when we’re first starting to compose our own music. Therefore you should probably keep away from the 7th chord for the time being and compose some lovely examples just using Chords 1 to 6.
Compose your own Music
To begin with, you can completely randomly put some chords together to produce music since the tuning system on the piano is doing some of the hard work for us. We can use what we already understand about scales to create our own music very effectively.
Listen to me randomly create my own music, without a strategy at [9:10] of the video.
Combine chords in groups of four and loop it around. It’s also a good idea to play each chord 4 times because it gives the music a more rhythmic, melodic sound, a sense of time and rhythm… the sound of music
Finally, another example at [9:48] starting with chord 6, which you’ll remember is one of the minor chords.