Chords constitute the backbone of the entire freestyle method. Without getting too technical, chords are note-groupings that provide a convenient means of describing the harmonic progression of a song. (The sequence of chords in a given song is called the "chord progression.") Learning how to construct and combine chords is at the heart of playing confident freestyle piano.
First, we need to understand how chords are constructed. This is where all the numbers we talked about last week really become useful. Using the chart below, anyone can figure out the notes in any given chord effortlessly.
Chord Types, where "X" is the letter designation (A-G) of the chord:
|X||1 3 5||A||A C# E|
|Xm||1 3b 5||Dm||D F A|
|X7||1 3 5 7b||E7||E G# B D|
|Xmaj7||1 3 5 7||Fmaj7||F A C E|
|Xm7||1 3b 5 7b||Bm7||B D F# A|
|X2||1 2 5||A2||A B E|
|Xsus||1 4 5||Csus||C F G|
|Xdim||1 3b 5b||Gdim||G Bb Db|
|Xaug||1 3 5#||Eaug||E G# C|
Guitarists don't have to know the notes in the chords they play, they just memorize fingerings. (Ask a guitarist what notes are in an F#min sometime: most of them won't know.) Pianists, however, are not so lucky. Chords are your ticket to freedom from the slavery of four-part notation, but you have to learn them forwards, backwards, upside-down, and inside-out.
As you can see from the examples given in the chart above, 1 is equivalent to the chord's letter designation and you count up the Ionian scale from there. Once you know how to build chords "from scratch," you can start basing your play on chords rather than sight-reading and enjoy a tremendous amount of creative freedom.
Chords can be played as many different ways as there are notes in the chord. These are called permutations. Take a C chord for instance. This chord can be played with either a C, an E, or a G as the bass note, and it will still be the same chord. (Sometimes the chord notation will designate a specific bass note with a slash. "C/E" means a C chord with an E as the bass note. If there is no slash, the chord is played with the root as the bass note.)
Now that we've seen how chords are made, we can now examine how they relate to one another. In any given key you will generally find the same chord patterns. Being familiar with chord patterns will help you know what to expect and enable you to transition and improvise appropriately. We'll take a closer look at these patterns in just a minute.
Using the number method, chords are referred to numerically based on their position in the scale of the mother key. So in the key of C, C would be 1, F would be 4, G would be 5, D would be 2, and so on. Just like using numbers to describe melodies, using numbers to describe chords simplifies things dramatically and allows songs to be "translated" into different keys very easily.
Common Chords by Key
Most songs use 5 or 6 basic chords. As you can see from the chart above, the 6 most common chords are 1's, 4's, 5's, 6m's, 2m's, and 3m's. You will also come across 2's, 3's, 4m's, 6b's, and 7b's, but not as frequently. For now, work on memorizing the common chords for the 6 most common keys: C, G, D, F, E, and Bb. But that's 36 chords! No it's not - it's only 20, because all 12 keys share the same 24 chords - they just combine them differently. In fact, if you set yourself to learn 4 chords a day, you can learn all 24 in less than a week.
That's enough for one day. Work through the exercises below, and check back next week when we'll talk about Kinetics and Improvisation. Also, if you'd like printable versions of the charts in this post, let me know and I'll send them to you.
Putting it into Practice:
- What are the notes in an Am chord? Fsus? Ebmaj7?
- What is the 1 chord in D? The 4 chord in G? The 2m chord in Bb?
- Figure out and practice playing permutations for the common chords. For instance, C can be played as C-E-G, E-G-C, and G-C-E.
- Practice playing 1-4-5-1 chord sequences with your left hand in C, D, and G. You may want to use different permutations so you don't have to move your fingers as much. (For instance: in C, the easiest way to play this sequence is C - F/C - G/B - C.)
- Start playing through songs from a praise book, (or a hymnal with chords,) playing the chords with your left hand and the melody with your right. Don't try and do anything fancy, just concentrate on learning the chords and playing them accurately.
Image courtesy of popmatters.com