Teaching Chords - as simple as 1-2-3-(4)

Posted by Tim Topham on

If you work with teens, you have probably had at least some of them bring their favorite tune off the radio into their lesson. Supplementing with music they enjoy can be a great way to keep teens motivated and involved with their lessons and working from lead sheets gives you the opportunity to teach them a whole new set of skills.

But in order to play from a lead sheet, one needs to know how to play chords.

And memorizing chords one chord at a time can be a long and frustrating process.

There is a better way! I learned this from my coach, Donny Lee, a couple of years ago and have been using this with all my students - from age 4 on up to my adults - ever since.

The concept is simple, and once learned, students actually gain the ability to be able to play 12 new chords within minutes. That never fails to impress them.

With this method of teaching chords, your students will never have to fear seeing a chord that is unfamiliar (Cb? F#?) because they will have the tools to build a chord (in its root position) starting on any note on the keyboard.

Because the only 'prior knowledge' needed to learn chords this way is an understanding of half steps, the ability to count them and knowledge of how to play C, F and G chords (usually taught in a prior lesson), chords (and lead sheets) can be introduced in the first few lessons should you choose to do that.

This is also why this method works with even very young children.

Here is the process:

  • First introduce half steps and how to count them.
  • Then have your student play a C chord. Have them count the half steps between the root and middle note. Finally they count the half steps between the middle and top note. I don't worry about discussing major and minor thirds at this point, they are just counting half steps.


  • I tell them this is the formula for making any major chord. I also tell them they now know how to play all 12 major chords.

To overcome their disbelief, we practice. I randomly call out note names and have them count and play the chord. Once they have played some 'easier' chords (such as D or E or A) I have them play some black key chords, usually finishing with either a Gb or F#.

Depending on the student, I might point out the shape of the chord. Especially for the visual learners noting the shape can help cement the learning.

It is just as easy to teach all 12 minor chords except the numbers are reversed - 3 half steps and then 4 half steps. If your student is ready for it, you can teach minor chords in the same lesson. I usually wait until the following week.

One other 'trick' I might use once the major and minor chords have been learned is to have them play the major and then the minor chord one after the other. Many notice that you make the minor chord by dropping the middle finger down a half step. Sometimes they even discover this on their own when they are practicing at home.

Your student is now ready to tackle playing from lead sheets. Of course there are more chords than just the majors and minors, but generally any chord on a lead sheet can be played as either a major or minor and sound just fine. Once they are comfortable with making the major and minor chords you can begin teaching 12 new chords at a time by using a similar method.

By Karen Gibson

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This originally appeared in PianoBenchMag Issue 8 which you can buy here:


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