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Free piano lesson 8 - Understanding and expanding chords PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 20 April 2009 14:36


Lesson 1 – Get to know the notes on a piano
Lesson 2 – Basic scale theory
Lesson 3 – Basic chord structures
Lesson 4 – Learn to play two songs
Lesson 5 – Practice your ear
Lesson 6 – Notes and fingering
Lesson 7 – Add melody to chords
>  Lesson 8 – Understanding and expanding chords
Lesson 9 – Harmonic principles and progressions



Although chord formation was discussed in depth in Lesson 3, we now look at some of the logic on why we play certain chords in certain keys and how to expand them.



In any major key, there are three basic major chords and three basic minor chords that are mostly used in that key.



In the key of C, the tree basic major chords are C, F and G.

Each of these majors has a related minor that can often be interchanged with these majors.



A Related minor is always three halftones (semitones) lower than its related major.



C major’s related minor is A minor (Am).

F major’s related minor is D minor (Dm).

G major’s related minor is E minor (Em).



So what do we have now in the key of C? We have C, Am, F, Dm, G and Em.



In the key of C, you can build a chord on each note of the scale:



C Dm Em F G Am...

1    2    3   4    6...



Stop here for a moment.




Play these chords in root form on the piano. Notice that they all have the same hand formation. Now take that same hand formation and build a similar looking chord on B as well. This is a Bdim (B D F).



The complete set of chords in C major thus looks like this:



C Dm Em F G Am Bdim [C]

 2    3    4  5    6     7     [1]



These seven chords are called tritones or triads. Each of them is built on a note of the scale of C major. This is the building blocks of how to harmonize a piece of music in the key of C. They are the basic chords used for any tune in C.




Let’s now take it one step further. The following pattern emerges:



major minor minor major major minor diminished.

1           2           3           4          5         6         7 (notes in any scale)




This is a fixed pattern for all chords in a specific key. Let’s now take the key of E as an example. The tritones in E will be:




E F#m G#m A    B C#m D#dim [E]

1    2      3      4    5      6      7      [1]



In harmony, the chords built in any key, can be indicated as follows:




1     2    3    4    5    6    7

I      ii    iii   IV    V    vi    vii



Note that the minors and diminished chords are indicated by lower case, and the majors are indicated by upper case. In this way, chords can be non-key specific.



See the following sequence:


I   ii   V7   I


In the key of D, this will be D, Em, A7, D

In the key of A, this will be A, Bm, E7, A


What will the same sequence be in F major?


Hover F   Dm   C7   F for the answer.




See if you can understand and memorize this principle.




Now download Chordexpansions.pdf.


Look at the top row (horizontal). This is the tritones as discussed above. It is written in the chord formulas (as explained in Lesson 3).






Important! These are the basic chords used in any Major key. Guess what chords do you use in a Minor key!? The same chords as in that minor's related major key! E.g. if you play in Am, you will use the chords of C major. The main difference is that you will start and end in Am (the related minor).  One of the other differences is that you will tend to play a major on the third harmony in stead of a minor (in this case E).




Now look at the second row (Exp1). These are the same chords as in row one, but it is in first expansion mode. To each of the tritones, another note is added – a seventh. Note that it is a normal seventh (7) in some cases and a flattened seventh (b7) in some cases.



Here is the logic: In the key of C, play all the tritones first (C Dm Em F G Am Bdim). Now add another note to each chord by skipping a white note. Remain on the white notes! If you remain on the white notes, you will note that some of the sevenths will be normal sevenths and some will be flattened sevenths, exactly as in row two! When I said “remain on the white notes”, I could have said: build the chords by using notes in the key of C. So, in row two, we now have: Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bm7b5.




At this stage, we could tell you that the dim chord and its expansions are rarely used in normal harmonization. Most important is that you remember where the sevenths are and where the flattened sevenths are:



Imaj7 (normal seventh)

ii7 (flattened seventh)

iii7 (flattened seventh)

IVmaj7 (normal seventh)

V7 (flattened seventh)

vi7 (flattened seventh)



The sevenths and flattened sevens almost correspond to the majors and minors, with one exception, that is the V7. This is the fifth harmony. It is called the dominant seventh. It is often used in harmonization and anticipates going back to the tonic (first harmony). Try to remember and memorize this sequence.


Now see of you can work out the second row (with the added sevenths) in the key of D (leave out the diminished). Now, you will not only use white notes, but you will use notes in the key of D.


Hover Dmaj7   Em7   F#m7   Gmaj7  A7   Bm7 for the answer.



OK, so what are these expansions for? This is the way you can “color in” your chords and make them sound richer and more jazzy. You can expand the chords of any song in this way. Fist determine which harmony it is (e.g. if a Dm is played in the key of F, it’s the sixth harmony), and look on this table (Chordexpansions.pdf) or work out the chord expansion by yourself. The next step will be to use them in any song and also learn how their inverse forms would look like. This takes time and practice.




Now look at the third row on Chordexpansions.pdf (Exp2).


Now we are engaging in a little bit more jazzy stuff. You now build an added ninth note on top of your seventh chords. The way you do it is the same as with the seventh notes. Start in C major, stay in the key of C (white notes), and add another note on top of the seventh notes in each chord (e.g. Cmaj9 = C E G B D). Try also to do this in other keys (let's say G).


For some, this might become an acquired taste. But you can teach your ear to appreciate jazz in much the same way as one can learn to appreciate red wine, olives or sushi.


By replacing normal chords with ninth chords (as on this table) you can enrich your harmonies.


If you like this, you can advance to Exp3 and Exp4.


You will see that playing an 11’th or 13’th chord is often appropriate on the fifth harmony (V). You will also notice that as you expand chords, you can start to drop some of the basic notes. The eleventh is seldom played in thirteenth chords. Many of these chords will make more sense if inverted and played within the context of the harmonic line within a song.


Now let’s put theory to practice. Play this version of “Oh when the saints” going full circle. These two files are essentially the same, with the one difference that the first one has a single melody line, and the second one has all the notes (that’s if you struggle to work out all the funny chords).


1. owhensingle.pdf

2. owhen.pdf


If you can work out and master this version of “O when the saints”, you can not only help yourself on the piano, but you can officially play jazz!




In the next lesson, we will help you to understand a bit more about harmony and give you some guidelines on changing the harmony of a song or even harmonize a song yourself.




Advance to Lesson 9.