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Luke Powell

Luke Powell

Luke Powell

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.

When you’re just starting out, the keyboard can look quite daunting. All those keys - how will you ever remember which are which? And all those different chord shapes - how can you get to know them well enough?

Luckily, there are a few usable formulas for working out chords on the piano. This is where some people find learning piano to be a little easier than learning guitar - chord shapes can be figured out fairly easily on the piano, whereas the CAGED system of guitar chords contains a lot of different shapes.

 

Learning semitones

Before we get started, it is vital for you to understand the concept of semitones. A semitone is simply a step from any key on the piano to the next key on its right or left. A semitone could be:

  • White key to white key: ie B-C, E-F

  • White key to black key: ie C-C#, D-D# etc

  • Or black key to white key: F#-G, G#-A etc

 

Major chords

Every major chord has got 3 notes, the root, third and fifth. Once you understand semitones, you can work out those three notes with ease, using this formula:

R+4+3
(Root + 4 semitones + 3 semitones).

Here’s how the formula works for an A major chord:

  1. Put your thumb on the root note (for A major, thumb goes on A).


  2. To find the third, count up 4 semitones from the root. For A major, the third is C#.
    Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 8.36.46 AM.png

  3. To find the fifth, count up 3 semitones from the third. For A major, the third is E.
    Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 8.38.23 AM.png

 

And so the formula has given us the notes in an A major chord: A, C# and E.

Minor chords

Minor chords also have 3 notes, a root, third and fifth. The formula for minor chords is very slightly different to major chords:

R+3+4
(Root + 3 semitones + 4 semitones).

Now let’s work out an A minor chord (Am) using the formula:

 

  1. Again, put your thumb on the root note (for Am, the root is A).


  2. Now count up 3 semitones to find the minor third (for Am, this will be C).
    Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 9.00.06 AM.png

  3. To find the fifth, count up 4 semitones from the third (this will be an E for Am).
    Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 9.01.39 AM.png

 

And so the formula has given us the notes in an A minor chord: A, C and E.

Hints

Keep these extra tips in mind when figuring these out:

  1. Not all major chords look the same, and not all minor minor chords look the same. Although the formula is the same each time, the results might look different - some chords will have only white notes, a few will have all black notes, and some will have a mixture.

  2. Looking at the two chords we just figured out, you may have noticed that they share the same root note and fifth, and that only the third changed. This is a good rule to remember - that a minor chord is essentially just a major chord with a lowered third.

 

Of course, as you keep improving you will find it beneficial to learn the chord shapes, instead of using the formula each time. But while you are starting out, these formulas can go a long way to help you figure out any major or minor chord quickly and easily.

If you’ve been playing or creating music for longer than 5 minutes, chances are strong that chord progressions with any variation of the I, V, vi and IV chords are starting to irritate you.

 

Somehow, over the years, these four chords have become the go-to chords for contemporary songwriters. If you’ve never seen Axis of Awesome’s “4 Chords” video, go watch it now, to get some idea of how many songs use the exact same progression. Of course, the melodies are all different, and the chords change in different places, and so there is still room for creativity even while using an overused progression. In some sense, that is why people are still using these four chords in songs today - because the melodic and rhythmic possibilities are almost endless when writing to them.

 

HookTheory.com wrote an excellent article on the most commonly used chords in popular music, and their research showed that it is these four chords - I, V, vi and IV - that are used most often. From 1950s doo-wop to clasic rock anthems to modern pop Youtube hits, these chords just show up everywhere.

So how can you make your diatonic chords sound more engaging? More specifically, how can you take boring, overused progressions and make them come alive? Here are some ideas:

  1. Use major sevenths
    Major seventh chords are great secret weapons for subtly changing the sound of a diatonic chord. They have a dreamy or melancholy quality to them, and work particularly well with I and IV - because the added 7th note still stays in the key you are in.

    These are easy to figure out on a piano - simply play the major chord, and then move the root note down a semitone on the right hand, while keeping the root note in the bass. The root and the major seventh played together create tension.


    C major

    C major7 chord.png
    Cmaj7 - the C on the right hand drops down a semitone


    F major.png
    F major (second inversion on the right hand)

    F major7.png
    Fmaj7 - the F on the right hand drops down a semitone

    Watch Billy Joel talk about playing major 7th chords here.


  2. Use add9s
    Add9 chords are some of my favourites - they also create tension by using the 9th and the 3rd (essentially a 2nd and a 3rd) at the same time. These tend to work well on I, vi and IV.

    Add9s are also easy to figure out - this time, move the root of the chord up a tone, while keeping the root note in the bass. Note: these are different to sus2 chords, because sus2s get rid of the third, whereas add9s don’t.


    C major

    Cadd9.png
    Cadd9 - the C on the right hand moves up a tone
    Am.png
    A minor

    Amadd9.png
    Am add9 - the A on the right hand moves up a tone

    A common technique is to introduce tension using an add9, and then resolve it by going back to the original major or minor chord.


  3. Use sus4 chords
    Sus4 chords are commonly used to create and resolve tension. They can be used to great effect on the V chord, particularly when it is leading you back to the I chord and creating a perfect cadence.

    To play a sus4 chord, simply change the 3rd of the chord to a 4th.

    G major.png
    G major

    Gsus4.png
    Gsus4 - the B on the right hand moves up to C

    Again, these are often resolved back to the normal triad to bring about a sense of release before changing to the next chord.


Applying these techniques
Now let’s try apply these techniques to a “boring” progression, using the chords we spoke about earlier. We'll use a I - IV - vi - V progression in C major, giving us the chords C - F - Am - G.
In the first clip, the standard triads are played. Notice how plain and generic the piece sounds:

In the second clip, the same progression has some slight tweaks to make it sound more interesting.

Here are the changes that were made:

  • Instead of C, we have a Cadd9. 
  • The F is changed to an Fmaj7.
  • Then Am gets an add9 for two counts, and then resolves back to the triad for the next two counts.
  • G major becomes Gsus4, and also resolves after two counts.

All we did was change a single note in each chord, and the progression seems to come to life!


Try this in your own songs/productions. Stick to diatonic chords, and then tweak them slightly to create far more interesting sounding progressions.

Scales.

We love to hate them! We all know that it's important for us to know and practise our scales, so that we know what notes to play, what will and won't work, and of course for general finger exercises.

But somehow when we have a few spare moments it's much easier to find something else to keep us busy. Anything else!

But what if playing scales didn't have to be as boring?

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