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How to read a piano chord chart

How to Read a Piano Chord Chart

Maybe you have looked at a chord chart and have no idea what those letters mean.  Or maybe you’re like me and learned to read music, but have no idea how to read a piano chord chart.  Well, I want to give you some helpful pointers to help your budding musician, or yourself, get started.



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What is a chord?

A chord is basically two or more notes played together at the same time.  In music, there are key signatures which tell you how many flats or sharps a song will have.  To save time and to give you simple music theory, I will break down each chord for you.



A major chord has the root, which is the 1 chord, the 3rd and the 5th.  The chord can be inverted.  Using the C chord as an example, it can be played in it’s original form, inverted to E-G-C, or inverted to G-C-E.  A major chord sounds happy and cheerful.

C: C-E-G

G: G-B-D

D: D-F#-A

A: A-C#-E

E: E-G#-B

B: B-D#-F#


C#: C#-E#-G#

Ab: Ab-C-Eb

Eb: Eb-G-Bb

Bb: Bb-D-F

F: F-A-C



A minor chord is basically taking the major chord and lowering the 3rd a half step.  On the piano, this means you would move from playing on a white key to a black key or vice versa.  A minor chord has a gloomy and sad sound.  A minor chord always has the chord name followed by a lower case m, like Cm.

Cm: C-Eb-G

Gm: G-Bb-D

Dm: D-F-A

Am: A-C-E

Em: E-G-B

Bm: B-D-F#

F#m: F#-A-C#

C#m: C#-E-G#

Abm: Ab-Cb-Eb

Ebm: Eb-Gb-Bb

Bbm: Bb-Db-F

Fm: F-Ab-C


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What does a chord chart look like?

Ok, so now that you know what a chord is, how do you play a chord chart?  Let’s use the song “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In” as an example.


Oh when the saints go marching in



Oh when the saints go marching in



Oh how I want to be in that number

                  C                             F


When the saints go marching in

                   C               G               C


As you can see, there are the words to the song with capital letters underneath certain words.  These letters represent what chord to play.


How do I play a chord chart?

While looking at the song above, play the chord written below the word.  So, you will play C chord underneath the word “saints.”  Then, you will not play another chord until the G chord underneath the word “in.”  This is the basics of playing a chord chart.  To make it more interesting, you can play…

  • the chord in the right hand and an octave (same note just 8 notes apart like C and C) or single tone in the left hand
  • a broken chord which for the C chord is still C-E-G but instead of playing the notes at the same time, they are played one at a time
  • the normal chord in the right hand and a broken chord in the left hand
  • the melody in the right hand while playing the chord in the left hand

Of course as you learn to play piano and get more used to seeing chord charts, you will figure out that there is so much more you can do with it.  You will also learn there are several other more complicated chords like augmented, diminished, 7th, suspended, and more.  Keep things simple at first and play around with different songs.


What are your favorite songs to play using a chord chart?  Let me know in the comments below. 


If you are a parent, student, or teacher who wants to learn more about music, connect with other musicians, or wants to post their latest videos of what they’ve been working on, I would love for you to join the Facebook group Music Education Connection. Collaborate, learn from each other, and grow new friendships. This is a place to receive encouragement, positive feedback, and to ask questions.




How to Read a Piano Chord Chart

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Jessica Peresta

Music teacher and music education blogger who helps parents and teachers by providing online music education lessons for kids.

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