At their most basic, piano chords are formed by playing three or more notes simultaneously. The combinations that result set the mood of a musical piece – happy, sad, powerful, soulful, etc.
Historically, major chords have always evoked positive emotions while minor piano chords evoke the opposite. That’s a fairly simplistic observation, but it gives you an idea of one of the most primary effects chords have on music.
It’s a good idea to understand the various chord types. Each has a formula that creates a specific musical effect no matter which key you are playing in. Here are some examples and, bear in mind, these explanations only cover the most basic of each chord type:
- Triad – three notes consisting of the root (the key you are playing in), the third and the fifth.
- Sixth – a fourth note added one full step above a triad’s fifth position.
- Seventh – a fourth note is added to a triad at the seventh position above the root note.
- Extended – a note is added to a triad chord above the seventh position, such as a ninth for example. Since a scale has only seven notes, it doesn’t seem to make sense that you could have a ninth. However, a second and a ninth are the same note.
- Added Tone – a chord that includes an added note, such as a sixth, but doesn’t include the basic triad’s third.
- Suspended – a chord that substitutes the third with either a second or fourth note from the scale. This is an interesting chord type since, when it is heard, the listener generally anticipates the next chord being the standard triad containing the root, third and fifth.
Piano chords are said to “color” music from various genres.
For example, country music tends to utilize sevenths, and jazz/blues tend to incorporate ninths or thirteenths. Rock, especially hard rock, favors “power chords” that are made up of the root note and the fifth, often with the octave serving as a third note at the top of the chord.
Most chords are further distinguished by what’s often referred to as their quality.
- A major chord, which tends to evoke pleasant emotions, features a major third in the triad. In a C chord, this would be C, E, and G.
- A minor chord, which most often appears in somber music, has a minor third in the triad. In a C chord, the notes would be C, E flat, and G.
- An augmented chord raises the fifth position one-half step, common in blues, country and jazz. You might be interested to know how different augmented piano chords are related; for example, the augmented chords for C, E, and G sharp all contain the same notes.
- A diminished chord features a minor third and a “diminished” fifth. More specifically, you lower the third and fifth of a major triad by one-half step. These are common in classical, jazz and gospel.
Chords are further designated by their scale degree, and the two most essential examples are the tonic and dominant chords. Appropriately, a tonic chord begins with the tonic note, which is the first note of the scale in which you are playing. If the song you are playing is in the key of C, your tonic chord has a C as its bass note and it is, naturally, a C chord. The dominant chord is a chord in the key of your scale’s fifth note. In our example, the dominant chord is the G chord and begins with G as the bass note.
The final element of chords we will learn about here is an inversion. The number of inversions available to a chord is the number of notes in a chord minus one. A triad has two inversions; start with the tonic chord, also called the root when discussing inversions, which is not an inversion. Then there is a first inversion, which is the same chord but it begins on the third note in the scale. You may have already guessed this next one; the second inversion is the same chord, only it begins on the fifth note in the scale.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this discussion on chords. If you who already have a basic playing ability will no doubt begin to vary your chord construction to add personality, effect and emotion to your performances. Good luck!