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Piano chords 101: learn chords by shape

Once you can play chords using formulas you’ll be able to figure out any major or minor chord you might come across.

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:

 

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, F and G major

Am, Dm and Em

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, Fm and Gm

A, D and E major


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.

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

All black keys

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

  1. 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 major, Bm
    Bb major, Bbm

 

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