An important part of learning the piano (or learning about many types of music in general) is understanding and recognising chords. The most common types of chords in the Western world are major and minor triads: three-note chords that are built by stacking notes that are a 3rd apart. Chord progressions provide harmony in music, adding colour to melodies by blending different notes together in various combinations. At the bottom of this post is a downloadable PDF I have made of major and minor chord flash cards so that you can print them as a memorisation aid.
Why Learn Chords?
Give colour to melodies by adding harmony and bass lines. Knowing about chords helps you to pick harmony and bass notes that suit your melody, sound good, and give the feeling you are looking for.
Easily read chord symbols on lead sheets. When you know which notes belong to which chord, you can play from lead sheets (where the melody is notated and chords are given as symbols above the stave) and jazz charts.
Create your own accompaniment parts and arrangements. When you can read chord charts (or work out chords by ear), you can easily put together an accompaniment for yourself or others. You can even take it further by arranging parts for a band or musical ensemble.
Get better at sight reading. If you know your chords, you can recognise them from notated music. Spotting patterns like this improves the speed and accuracy of your sight reading; instead of reading many individual notes one-by-one, you might notice that bar 1 uses notes from the G major chord, bar 2 contains an E minor chord, and so on.
Notice patterns and similarities to better understand the music you play. When you begin noticing chord progressions, it’s very likely that you’ll come across them (or similar versions) time and time again in music of various genres. In Western musical styles, most melodies and harmonies get their notes from a key (usually major but sometimes minor or modal). Because there is a limited number of basic chords to choose from in a key, and a limited number of ways to order them to suit the particular genre, you find that the same progressions get reused and recycled, even though the other musical components (melody, rhythm, texture, instrumentation, etc.) may be very different. Spotting progressions like this helps us to understand why songs, pieces or whole genres sound the way they do (e.g. Blues music, which usually uses a progression called the Twelve Bar Blues). You can then use this knowledge to make your own music.
What’s the difference between major and minor chords?
Major chords tend to sound bright and cheerful, while minor chords can sound dark and gloomy (this is subjective, of course, and depends on the chord’s context).
Parallel major and minor chords (e.g. C major and C minor) share ‘outside notes’ (the root and 5th). Only the middle note (the 3rd) changes between the two types.
- A major chord is made by finding a major 3rd above the root (go up 4 semitones from the note the chord is named after), then finding a minor 3rd above that (go up 3 semitones from the previous note).
A minor chord is the exact opposite: go up a minor 3rd first (3 semitones), then a major 3rd (4 semitones).
In lead sheets and chord charts, the symbol for a major chord is usually just the note name (e.g. D is the symbol that represents a D major chord). Minor chords require a lower case m after the note name (e.g. Dm represents D minor).
What are the best ways to memorise chords?
A combination of the following approaches works best. You can tailor the balance to suit your preferred learning styles.
Finally, here is the link to download my major and minor chord flash cards, along with printing instructions. They’re colour-coded by letter name (A is red, B is blue, C is yellow, D is orange, E is purple, F is pink and G is green).
- Print pages 1 to 4 (the chord name pages). I recommend thick A4 paper that is at least 120gsm or heavier so that the ink doesn’t show through it.
- Print pages 5 to 8 on the back of pages 1 to 4, so that page 5 prints on the reverse of page 1, page 6 goes on the back of page 2, and so on. (Be careful which way round you put the paper back into the printer!)
- Cut out the cards along the blue lines. I keep mine in a small labeled envelope.