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Piano chords 101: learn chords by shape

Piano chords 101: learn chords by shape

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Once you can play chords using formulas (see our Piano chords 101: play any major or minor chord article) you’ll be able to figure out any major or minor chord you might come across. But this will only get you so far - if you’re trying to play or produce a song and you are constantly counting semitones and recalling formulas, you will find yourself moving very slowly and falling behind quite quickly.

What you’ll ideally need to do is learn the chords that you’ve figured out well enough to be able to move smoothly between them. To do this you will have to start recognizing the different chord shapes - that is, which chords have got white or black keys only, and which have a mixture.


Luckily, many chords look exactly the same, and they are usually chords that are related in some way. Have a look at these groups of chords:


  1. All white keys
    Two groups of chords that can be linked together are C-F-G, and A-D-E.

    C, F and G major all look the same, and Am, Dm and Em look the same. These are the easiest chords, and they all belong to the C major scale.

    C major F.png G.png
    C, F and G major

    Am.png Dm.png Em.png
    Am, Dm and Em

  2. One black key on the inside
    Now, using the same two groups as mentioned before, we find a series of chords with a single black note in the middle.

    Cm.png Fm.png Gm.png
    Cm, Fm and Gm

    A.png D.png E.png
    A, D and E major


  1. Two black keys on the outside, one white key on the inside
    Now, using the same two groups as mentioned before, we find a series of chords with a single black note in the middle.

    Once again we will see the C-F-G group, this time in the form of C#m, F#m and G#m.

    C#m.png F#m.png G#m.png
    C#m, F#m and G#m

    We also find the A-D-E group shows up again, this time with Ab, Db and Eb major.

    Ab.png Db.png Eb.png
    Ab, Db and Eb major

  2. All black keys
    Only 2 chords fit into this group: F# major and D#m.

    F#.png D#m.png
    F# major and D#m

  3. Rule-breakers
    The 4 chords starting with the letter B are the rules breakers. B, Bm, Bb and Bbm are all unique looking chords.

    B.png Bm.png
    B major, Bm

    Bb.png Bbm.png
    Bb major, Bbm


Getting to know these chords by their shape can go a long way in helping you move more quickly between them.

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