Piano Chord Theory – The Definitive Resource

Would you like to learn some practical piano chord theory.

If so, you’ve come to the right place.

In this lesson, you’re going to learn some piano chord theory principles that you can use to make better music.

Let’s get started.

How To Learn Practical Piano Chord Theory Basics

With piano chord theory, you can start to play really cool jazz piano chords as shown by Steve below:

To build practical piano chord theory skills like these, you need to learn some fundamentals.

We’re going to build you up from the ground up.

Before we begin, keep in mind that chords are a combination of two or more notes.

To start, let’s take a brief look at two scales, the chromatic and major scales. These scales will help you build all kinds of interesting chords:

A. Before We Talk About Scales…

While the piano keyboard has a total of 88 keys, they are only a repetitive set of 7 white keys and 5 black keys.

piano chord theory

To begin with, the 7 white keys are what we call “naturals” and are named starting with A all the way up to G. This repeats over and over.

The 5 black keys are called “accidentals”. These are named according to the nearest natural.

If it’s a black key to the right, it’s called a sharp (#). For example, the black key to the right of A is called A#.

Consequently, a black key to the left is called a flat (b). A black key to the left of B is called Bb.

Because of this, all black keys have two names. These are called enharmonic names.

For example, Bb is the enharmonic name of A#.

If we put all of these notes together, we get what’s called a chromatic scale.

This is the first scale you should learn.

B. Why Do We Start With The Chromatic Scale In Chord Theory?

This sequence of 12 keys is what we call the chromatic scale:

Now, why should you start learning the chromatic scale?

It’s because we want to understand:

  1. All 12 basic notes in music that we hear every day.
  2. The smallest interval we recognize in most music.

The interval between each note of the chromatic scale is called a half step or semitone.

Now, while we occasionally use these chromatic notes in music, you’ll rarely hear a tune built off of it.

And so, you should learn a more universal and practical scale for music and understand piano chord theory.

Therefore, it’s time to learn your do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do below:

C. What Is The Major Scale?

In western music theory, the major scale is the backbone of music theory.

As a matter of fact, it’s one of the most important jazz scales.

If you understand the major scale, it’s easy to know how chords are built.

Therefore, learning it will help you play and put your spin onto any song.

Now, the major scale is simply:

  1. An array of seven notes.
  2. It starts on a note we call a “root”.
  3. Starting from the root and between each other note, it follows a definite sequence of whole (W) and half (h) steps:W-W-h-W-W-W-h

Now, here’s what it looks like on the piano keyboard:

And so, by simply following the sequence of intervals, you can always build a major scale starting on any note.

Now that you know the rudiments of the major scale, let’s get to know bigger intervals.

D. One Key To Understanding Chord Theory (Or Any Other Music Theory Concept)

Another key to understanding piano chord theory (ear training, or many music concepts in general), is knowing your intervals.

The order of intervals determines the sound of chords and everything else in music (pitch-wise).

Therefore, learning your intervals also improves your music ear, enabling you to learn chords and songs faster.

Now, intervals in music are named after the major scale’s order of tones.

Since we have 7 major scale tones, we can name intervals according to their order in the sequence:

Simply put, an interval is just the distance from one note to the next.

And so, here are our 7 basic intervals:

Given their numerical names, the basic intervals are:

  1. Unison (a.k.a. root in certain uses) – No half steps in between. A good example is two pianos both playing middle C.
  2. Major second – 2 half steps distance (C to D)
  3. Major third – 4 half steps distance (C to E)
  4. Perfect fourth – 5 half steps (C to F)
  5. Perfect fifth – 7 half steps (C to G)
  6. Major sixth – 9 half steps (C to A)
  7. Major seventh – 11 half steps (C to B)
  8. Octave – 12 half steps (C to “high” C)

However, things don’t stop from there. From your knowledge of eight basic intervals, learn these other important intervals:

  1. Minor second – 1 half step
  2. Minor third – 3 half steps
  3. Diminished fifth a.k.a. tritone or b5 – 6 half steps
  4. Minor 6th (augmented 5th or b6) – 8 half steps
  5. Minor 7th (b7) – 10 half steps

4 Tips To Get These Intervals Under Your Fingers And In Your Mind’s “Ear”:

  • First, practice them on the piano melodically (one note at a time).
  • Next, play the intervals harmonically (together)
  • Sing the intervals melodically (you can do this with the piano as a guide).
  • Lastly, quiz yourself by listening to the intervals.

Now that you know your basic intervals, it’s time to take a look at the basic major triad.

E. One Fundamental Theory Shape: Major Triads

The most basic of all jazz piano chords is a major triad.

Piano theory dictates that a major triad starts at the root followed by a major 3rd and a perfect 5th:

In terms of half steps, the major 3rd is 4 half steps away from the root and the perfect 5th is 3 half steps away from the 3rd.

Given the pattern above, you can also think of it as a major 3rd stacked with a minor 3rd on top:

Using the given formulas above, practice forming major triads starting on any root note.

Remember, practice until you can form major triads on all 12 keys.

As far as quality goes, major triads kind of sound bright and happy.

Similarly, they also sound consonant, resolved, or stable.

Let’s look at the next kind of triad.

F. How To Play Minor Triads

Now, minor triads are in ways the opposite of major triads.

And so, you can a minor triad by playing the root, minor 3rd, and a perfect 5th:

From the root, count 3 half steps for the minor 3rd and then 4 half steps from the minor 3rd to get the perfect 5th.

Now, you can also think of it as a minor 3rd stacked with a major 3rd on top.

Minor chords sound kind of dark, sad, serious.

In spite of that, these chords sound consonant, resolved, and stable.

Now it’s time to learn the basics of getting tense.

G. Tense Triad #1: Diminished Triads

A diminished triad starts with a root then a minor 3rd and a diminished 5th:

Now, we can also see it as a stack of two minor 3rds.

As a result, these triads sound kind of “disturbed”, “evil”, and “scary” on their own.

Because of their peculiar quality, we usually hear diminished chords in classic horror soundtracks.

A diminished triad is a tense, unstable, and dissonant chord.

Because of the tension diminished triads produce, it’s natural for anyone to want it to resolve to a stable triad.

Let’s look at another kind of tense, dissonant sounding triad.

H. Tense Triad #2: Augmented Triads

The augmented triad starts with a root then a major 3rd and an augmented 5th.

Therefore, it is essentially a stack of two major 3rds.

Because of its intervals, this kind of triad has the dreamy, floating, yet unsettled kind of sound.

More often than not, sequences of augmented triads are used in dream-like sequences.

Interestingly, these triads are tense, dissonant, and unstable.

Now that you have your basic triads in order, let’s figure out how chords work.

How Do You Find All Chords In A Key?

One important aspect of piano chord theory is to learn how every kind of triad works in a scale or key.

If you know how to find all chords in a key, you can limit the guesswork.

Therefore, you can learn how to play songs faster.

Major Key Piano Chord Theory

In a major scale, since we have 7 notes, we also have 7 triads that form naturally.

Like intervals, we can name each chord according to their ordinal position in the scale.

Because they belong to one key naturally, some people like to call them “family chords.

To make things easier, we give these chords Roman numeral names:

  • For triads with a major 3rd from the root, we use uppercase.
  • Subsequently, we use lowercase ones for triads with a minor 3rd from the root.

Consequently, here’s what you’ll immediately notice:

  • First, I, IV, and V are major triads
  • Second, ii, iii, vi are minor
  • Lastly, vii° is a diminished triad

Minor Key Piano Chord Theory

In a minor key, chords are based on the harmonic minor scale, so chords look a bit different:

  • i and iv are minor triads.
  • ii° and vii° are diminished.
  • III+ is augmented.
  • V and VI are major.

And so, these are the chords that you can expect in both major and minor keys.

Therefore, knowing what chords to expect effectively shortens any learning curve for any song.

More importantly, you should learn about how chords function in any song.

So, let’s talk about it in the next section.

How Chords Function In A Key

The 7 Diatonic Functions In Traditional Music Theory

Traditionally, classical music theory gives us 7 diatonic functions (how notes or chords function in a key):

  • 1st note/chord – Tonic
  • 2nd – Supertonic
  • 3rd – Mediant
  • 4th – Subdominant
  • 5th – Dominant
  • 6th – Submediant
  • 7th – Leading Tone (called subtonic if it’s a b7)

The 3 Practical Functions In Contemporary Piano Chord Theory

However, in contemporary “practical” music theory, there are three important chord functions:

  • Tonic – The “home” chord. For example, in the key of C, C is the tonic chord. Understandably, this is the I in a major key and the i in a minor key. Therefore. it is a “stable” chord. In major keys, the I, iii, and vi are tonic functioning chords.
  • Subdominant – This is an intermediate chord that resolves to a dominant chord. In traditional harmony, this is the IV chord. A ii chord can also function this way. Matter of fact, the ii chord is the fundamental “subdominant” chord in jazz.
  • Dominant – The chord that resolves to the tonic chord. In any given key, it is usually the V chord. Dominant chords have that “hanging” quality. The famous film composer, John Williams, even said that dominant chords work like an “and” in the English language.

Key Elements Of Chord Functions In Piano Chord Theory

Now, here are a couple of key elements to understanding how chords behave in songs:

  • First of all, a tonic chord can go to any other chord in the key.
  • Second, subdominant functioning chords go to dominant functioning chords or to the tonic. In a key, subdominant functioning chords are the ii and the IV.
  • Lastly, Dominant chords go to a tonic functioning chord (doesn’t matter if it’s a major, minor, dominant, etc.)

Interestingly, most of the songs you hear every day has this tonic – subdominant – dominant function going on.

For example, we can see this happen in a circle chord progression as shown below:

Now, how do we use this piano chord theory concept to learn songs?

How To Use Piano Chord Theory To Learn Songs By Ear

When we’re learning how to play piano by ear, we try to recognize 2 things:

  1. “Root” movement – the “root” or bottom note of a chord in relation to the key.
  2. Chord quality – major, minor, diminished, dominant, augmented, major 7th, minor 7th, 6/9, etc.

By listening for these things, we can figure out if we have a tonic, subdominant, or dominant functioning chord in a song.

If you understand chord functions, you’ll have an easier time understanding chord progressions as well.

Now you might say, “What are the most common chord progressions”?

I thought you’d never ask.

10 Easy Chord Progressions To Master

You will find these chord progressions handy in learning a majority of jazz, blues, rock, and pop songs.

Here are some important chord progressions for you to master:

  1. I-V
  2. I-IV-V
  3. ii-V-I (Major)
  4. ii(b5)-V-i (Minor)
  5. I-VI-ii-V
  6. i-vi(b5)-ii(b5)-V
  7. I-V-vi-IV

When you learning these chord progressions, you can discover at least 4 jazz turnarounds along the way.

Other than these basic chord progressions above, learn additional useful chord substitutions such as:

  1. bVI-bVII-I or iv-bVII-I  a.k.a backdoor chord progressions
  2. ii-bII-I or II-bII-i or II-bII-I
  3. bVI-V-I

Since looking at these jazz and blues chord progressions, you have now encountered chords that are more than just triads.

In fact, it’s possible that you might want to play more emotional chords.

Let’s go discover the first type called 7th chords.

How To Get Around Seventh Chords In Piano Chord Theory

Seventh chords are like bread and butter for jazz harmony.

So, learning 7th chords enables you to play jazz.

Seventh chords are triads with either a major 7th or a minor 7th (b7).

Also, sevenths add a great degree of character to chords.

So, depending on the kind of 7th chord you have, the chord will have a different flavor.

Chords With Major 7ths

A triad that has an added major 7th receives any of these tags after its symbol: maj7, M7, Ma7, ▵.

Here’s are some examples:

  • C-E-G (C major triad) + B (major 7th away from C) = Cmaj7, C▵, CM7, CMa7
  • C-Eb-G (C minor triad) + B (major 7th away from C) = Cm(maj7), Cm▵, CmM7, CmMa7
  • C-E-G# (C augmented triad) + B = C+maj7, Cmaj7(#5), C+▵, C+Ma7, C+M7

Chords With Minor 7ths

A triad that has an added b7 receives the simple tag “7”

And so, here are chords with a b7:

  • C-E-G (C major triad) + Bb (minor 7th away from C) = C7 (this is what we call a dominant chord)
  • C-Eb-G (C minor triad) + Bb (minor 7th away from C) = Cm7
  • C-E-G# (C augmented triad) + Bb = C+7, C7(#5)

Practice playing with these seventh chord in every key. This is because seventh chords are a staple in jazz and blues.

By this time, you’ll notice that in piano chord theory, the intervals present are everything!

If you mess with the kind of intervals in a chord, you’ll get a distinct sound.

So, let’s talk about a very important seventh chord in all of music.

How To Dominate With Dominant 7th Chords

The dominant 7th chord is what I would call a very powerful chord.

It is the naturally occuring V chord in a key and therefore leads to a major or minor tonic chord.

Interestingly, dominant 7th chords are great because:

  • First, you can shift into virtually any key in a song using them.
    For example, a G7 chord can resolve to Cmaj7, Ebmaj7, Gbmaj7, and Amaj7 as well as their parallel minor, minor b5, and dominant 7th counterparts.
  • Consequently, dominant 7th chords match well with more scales than any other chord.

A dominant 7th chord, as stated earlier, is simply a major triad with a b7.

You can also look at it as a major triad plus a diminished triad starting on the 3rd.

Now, let’s look at C7 as an example:

C7 has the notes C-E-G-Bb.

If you dissect it, you can see that C-E-G is a major triad and E-G-Bb is a diminished triad:

Dominant 7th Chord Possibilities Revealed

What’s apparent here is that this opens up a number of possibilities:

  • First, a diminished triad is a rootless dominant 7th chord.
  • Second, diminished 7th chords formed at the 3rd, 5th, b7, and b9 work as substitutes as well.

Additionally, a dominant 7th chord can resolve to chords that are…

  • …a perfect 4th above (C7 to any F chord).
  • …a major 2nd above (C7 to any D chord).
  • …a minor 2nd below (C7 to any B chord)

As you can see, dominant 7th chords can help you turn to various interesting directions for your music.

Now, let’s go into how to add some more drama into your chord changes.

How To Use Suspended Chords

As the name implies, you use suspended chords to create a degree of suspense in your music.

Because of that suspense, this makes your playing more interesting and ear catching.

There are two kinds of suspended chords:

  • First off, the sus4 chord is a triad where a perfect 4th replaces the major 3rd. For example Csus4 has the notes C-F-G.
  • Secondly, a sus2 chord is a triad where a major 2nd replaces the major 3rd. A Csus2 chord has the notes C-D-G.

Now, suspended chords are usually played before a dominant chord, often in a comping situation.

Here’s an interesting way of playing a dominant functioning suspended chord, a Gsus4(13,9) chord:

Since we’ve just revealed a really sophisticated chord like G7sus4(13,9), let’s look at similar sounding chords: 6th and 6/9 chords.

How To Play 6th and 6/9 Chords

The 6th and 6/9 chords are among the most stable chords you can use.

Now, let’s look at 6th chords first using C6 as an example.

So, a 6th chord has a major triad and an added major 6th, and so C6 has C-E-G-A as its notes.

If you look at it carefully, it’s no different from a first inversion of Am7.

However, the differences between Am7/C and C6 are a matter of perspective and use:

  • First, C6 has C as its root, therefore placing emphasis on the C major triad.
  • While the bottom note of Am7/C is C, the emphasis is on the Am triad sound.
  • In a chord progression, if C-E-G-A is preceded by E7, it will be perceived as Am7.
  • Finally, if G7 happens before C-E-G-A, the chord is perceived as C6

Piano Chord Theory Behind the 6/9 Chord

An important, more jazzy sounding variant of the 6th chord is the 6/9 chord.

Here’s an easy, hip sounding way to play a C6/9 chord:

In the example above, the C6/9 chord has C and G for the left hand and E-A-D for the right. A is the 6th and D is the 9th.

If you look closely, E-A-D is an example of quartal harmony.

Quartal harmony refers to notes separated from one another by perfect 4ths.

For any major chord, playing quartal harmony starting on the major 3rd creates a 6/9 chord.

To get further training, learn more about quartal harmony here.

Since you’ve just encountered the 9th in a 6/9 chord, let’s go further and talk about chord extensions.

What’s The Deal With Extensions?

If seventh chords are bread and butter, extensions are like jam.

To make your playing sound even more jazzy, you need to learn how to play chord extensions.

Chord extensions are notes beyond an octave.

These are your 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.

You might be wondering: Didn’t we just study that there are only 7 notes in the major scale.

Let’s clear the confusion below.

Extensions Made Easy…Practically Speaking

Simply put, extensions are nothing more than the same notes of the scale but above the octave.

Based on the major scale, we have the following extensions available:

9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th

To figure out what those extensions really are, you just need to do some simple subtraction:

8 – 7 = 1

9 – 7 = 2

10 – 7 = 3

11 – 7 = 4

12 – 7 = 5

13 – 7 = 6

14 – 7 = 7

If we use the key of C as an example, a 9th from C is D an octave up (the 2nd note of the C major scale), a 13th from C is A an octave up, etc.

In jazz piano chord theory, we describe these notes as 9ths, etc. if we have a 7th in the chord.

How To Correctly Perceive Extensions

The general gist behind 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths being put together with your triads and 7ths is this:

Even if they are all scale tones, it arranges all the notes of the scale in thirds.

If you look at extensions (and scale tones) in this way, you’ll have a good idea of what jazz piano chords and lines are like.

However, there is a proper way of using chord extensions in jazz.

What Extensions Go With What Chord?

Now, here’s a cheat sheet for you to learn how to play extensions perfectly over any chord:

Major chords – 9, 13, #11:

Minor chords – 11, 13 (9 if the minor chord is tonic):

Learn how to play extensions on dominant seventh chords with this shortcut – 9, b9, #9, #11, b13, 13 (dominant chords with flattened or sharped extensions are also called “Alt” chords):

Because dominant chords with flat or sharp extensions are based on the altered scale, we call those notes altered extensions.

As for minor 7 (b5) chords, leave them alone. They’re “spicy” enough as they are.

Now that you know some basics of jazz harmony, let’s go into more piano chord theory techniques.

How To Play Chords Smooth And Fast

The key to move in between chords with ease is something that Steve calls “lazy piano playing”.

And so, if you want to learn “lazy playing”, you need to know chord inversions.

Say, for example, you have a Cmaj7 chord.

The Cmaj7 chord has its notes defined as C-E-G-B.

C-E-G-B, or any voicing starting at the root, is called a root position chord.

If we start the chord at notes other than the root, we say a chord inversion.

As a warmup, practice playing all of the chord inversions like this:

Practice playing chords this way to get familiar with chord inversions. Subsequently, this will also help you learn how to map out the keyboard properly.

Moving forward, let’s go into more piano chord theory details to take advantage of chord inversions in your playing.

How To Move Smoothly In Between Chords

Once you have a grasp over piano chord inversions, it’s time to work on playing chord progressions using smooth voice leading.

Now, let’s say you’re going to play a ii-V-I chord progression in the key of C.

Use some rootless right hand voicings like this:

Interestingly, the chord voicings above show how you can use chord inversions.

We started with a rootless Dm7(9) chord in “root” position.

As you can see above, an Fmaj7 root position voicing works as a Dm7(9) chord.

Subsequently, the next chord, G7(13), is in the 3rd inversion.

At the second bar of the progression, we see a rootless C6/9 chord. This is also an E7sus4 chord in the root position.

Therefore, the key here is to use the nearest chord voicings as much as possible.

For more detail, watch this video on piano hand position exercises:

Practice some smooth voice leading techniques this way for both right and left hands in all 12 keys.

Let’s look at another neat piano chord theory technique.

How To Switch Between Shell Voicings Fast & Smooth

Here’s one big piano chord theory tip for playing shell voicings:

7ths become the 3rd of the next chord and then 3rds become 7ths for the next.

Let’s look at our ii-V-I example in C and use some left hand shell voicings:

As you can see here, the Dm7 is just represented by the shell voicing D-C i.e. the root and b7.

The next voicing, G7, is simply represented by G-B i.e. the root and 3rd.

Therefore, the b7 of Dm7 became the 3rd of G7 by simply moving a half step below.

Now, to move from the V chord to the I chord, all you have to do is keep that B and change the G to the lower C.

Keeping the B and switching from G to C switches it from a G7 shell voicing to a Cmaj7.

That was easy, right?

How To Learn More Chord Voicings

Speaking of chord voicings, if you really want to make the process of learning chords easy and fun then grab an exclusive pass into a Premium Membership.

Get instant access to Premium Jazz Lessons here.

Now, let’s learn some additional chord ideas using piano chord theory.

A. Harmonizing Using Quartal Harmony

Up to this point we’ve looked at chords built with 3rd intervals. What happens if you build chords in 4ths? Let’s find out by exploring these chords below.

Here are some quick quartal harmony shortcuts for any given chord:

  • Major Chords – apply quartal voicings starting on the 2nd/9th, 3rd, 6th/13th, and 7th

  • Minor Chords – do the same over the root, 2nd/9th, 4th/11th, and 5th.

  • Dominant chord (V chord in a major key) – harmonize along the Mixolydian scale with quartal voicings.

  • Dominant chords (V chord in a minor key) – harmonize the Phrygian Dominant scale with quartal voicings.

  • Minor 7th b5 chords – harmonize the Locrian scale with quartal voicing diatonically.

For more insight, you can get more details on using quartal harmony right here.

B. How To Use Diminished Piano Chords To Make Your Playing Spicy

Diminished and diminished 7th chords work exactly like dominant chords.

Therefore, they can always resolve to the nearest major, minor, or another dominant chord.

Using Barry Harris’s “Sixth Diminished” piano chord theory, we can move across the key in a real sophisticated way.

And so, check this out:

A C6 chord can move into a Bdim7 chord and resolve back to C6:

Using that logic, from a C6 chord in root position we can go up the scale by moving to the closest inversion of Bdim7 above: This is essentially a Ddim7 chord.

Amazingly, a C6 chord can change functionality given different contexts. And so, here are some examples:

  • Rootless Fmaj7 chord (A-C-E-G)
  • Am7
  • Dm7(13,9)
  • A rootless G7(13,11,9)

Since a C6 chord has the same notes as an Am7 chord in root position (A-C-E-G), it can shift to tension via a Gbdim7 chord and back.

If we observe the pattern closely, we can come up with interesting ways of harmonizing or thickening up lines.

To learn more about the technique, check out Barry Harris‘s Piano Chord Theory lesson here.

Now that you’ve learned all of this piano chord theory hacks, how do you go further?

Why You’re Still Struggling (And How To Overcome It)

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I hope you all enjoyed this detailed lesson on piano chord theory.

For comments, questions, and suggestions for the next lesson, leave a comment below.

Lastly, have fun exploring some new piano chord voicings. Thanks.

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Mark A. Galang, OTRP, MAM-MT(c)

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at FreeJazzLessons.com. He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music. Mark is also a licensed occupational therapist in the Philippines that combines music therapy intervention with occupational therapy.