Piano chords 101: play any major or minor chord easily

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?

When you’re just starting out, the keyboard can look quite daunting. 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: B-C, E-F

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

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

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:

(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#.

  3. To find the fifth, count up 3 semitones from the third. For A major, the third is E.

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 from major chords:

(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).

  3. To find the fifth, count up 4 semitones from the third (this will be an E for Am).

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


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.