How to Identify Music Chords on Piano
Sometimes your fingers strike just the right notes for a song you’re trying to
write, but when you look down you flounder at any attempt to define what your fingers are playing.
Other times you may be reading music to a song and want to transpose
songs on piano or find a way to clarify what chords the song is based on.
If you’re unfamiliar with chords structures and patterns, then even these simple tasks will prove very difficult
to perform. It is essential for every pianist to effectively identify the music chords they encounter.
Without knowing which chords you’re playing, everything is just notes to you. It is very difficult to remember
that your left hand should play C, Eb, and G while your right hand plays Eb, G, and Bb. Instead, you could just
think to yourself “Cmin7” and know exactly which you’re playing and also know all of the inversions and variations
available at that moment.
Knowing chords is one of the most significant tools a pianist has that transforms him from a
I-have-to-read-every-single-note-on-a-page-and-can-never-deviate-from-them kind of player to a
not-only-can-I-read-music-but-can-easily-remember-it-improvise-it-and-vary-it kind of player. Two enormously
different kinds of players.
Identifying chords is easier than you may think. The first step to identifying music chords on piano is
determining which note of the chord represents the root. In the Cmin7 example above, the C note is the root.
You can identify the root of the chord by putting your fingers into a
standard triad formation, meaning that there should be intervals of thirds between each of your fingers. If
when you play the chords, your fingers are not at even thirds, but rather have a third and a fourth, or a
fourth and a third, then you are playing an inversion.
Simply continue to make inversions of this mystery chords until your fingers are at even intervals with one
another. The lowest note in this chord is known as the root, and this note gives the chord the first part of its
So, if you happen to be playing Eb, G, and C, you need to go down one inversion before your fingers are evenly
spaced by thirds, then you need to look at the lowest note. It’s a C. So you know you have a “C…something” kind of
The next step is to determine if you chord is major or minor, and this is easily accomplished by looking at the
third. If the third is four half steps away from the root, then it is a major chord. If the third is only three
half steps from the root, it is a minor chord. If you play C, E, and G, look at the E – it’s four half steps from C
and therefore you know you’re playing C major. If you were playing Eb, then you know you’re playing C minor.
The first steps to identify chords in piano ear training are to determine what the root
note is and if the chord is major or minor. Practice playing various triads all over the piano and determining the
inversions and which notes make which chords.
Although look through the music you play and see if you can identify the chords used in those songs as well.
Remember, however, that there is much more to chords than just major and minor triads, and the more advanced your
chord-identifying becomes, the more you’ll be able to identify variations and unique types of chords as well!
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