Students may recall those wonderful days of 3rd grade math class, rehearsing
the multiplication tables. 3 x 5 = 15. 2 x 12 = 24. And so on.
What’s interesting is that teachers frequently referred to these numbers as “families of facts” and would point
out how these same three numbers worked together equally well in division. 15/5 = 3. 24/12 = 2.
Learning the multiplication tables from numbers one through twelve helped students establish a firm
understanding of the way numbers relate to each other, so that even complex computations could be broken down into
Learning chords on
piano works in a very similar way. If a student applies himself to learning the primary chords on piano like
one learns the multiplication tables, then even the oh-my-gosh-these-song-structures-don’t-make-sense-to-me
complexities can be understand in simpler terms.
The primary chords on piano are called “primary” for the obvious reason that these are the first and most
important chord progressions a pianist can learn. When thinking of primary chords, think of them as yet
another “family of facts” and remember these numbers: one, four, five. Or, when written more like you’d see in
music theory: I, IV, V.
Learning how to play these chords opens up literally thousands of songs, making so many diverse songs suddenly
appear so similar to one another. In fact, it may prove rather difficult to master many songs without knowing these
The I refers to the first chord, also known as the root chord. This chord is the anchor and beginning place for
these three chords and is commonly, although not always, a triad with the lowest note being the triad’s root.
This means, for example, that the I chord for C major would consist of C, E,
and G, with C being the lowest note of the three. It is obvious why this simple chord is one of the most
important in chord progressions – it is the basic foundation of all chords. But, to complete the
progression, two more chords are required.
The IV represents the chord that is exactly four steps higher than the I chord. This means that if C major is
your I chord, then F major would serve as your IV chord. Try playing C major now, and then quickly transfer your
fingers to the IV chord. You’ve just played two out of three primary chords!
Even though there are several different ways to play these two chords, try experimenting with inversions. Use
your thumb on the C for the C major chord, but also keep your thumb on C for the F major chord, and simply move
your fingers to play F and A from the E and G notes. This allows your hand to keep relatively the same position and
avoid an awkward leap between chords.
Finally, the V names the chord that is five steps higher than the I chord. So, again, if C major if your I
chord, then G major is your V. Like before, try to play C, then F, then G. Also, like above, experiment with
various inversions that reduce the amount of jumping your fingers need to make between chords.
Practice transition between these three chords in different patterns, rhythms, and piano chord inversions. As you do so, your ears are certain to begin picking up some
familiar tunes. Many, many songs are written usually primarily these three chords.
Just like learning the multiplication table can seem like a tedious ordeal, mastering these primary chords on
piano may appear shallow, but harbor deep, essential benefits for any performer.
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