Hand on piano keys

How to Play Piano Chords: An Introduction to Triads

When people talk about piano chords, have you ever wondered what exactly they’re talking about? What makes something a chord, or not? And more importantly, why should you care about them?

Chords are a very important part of harmony, which in turn plays a huge part in most music. If you understand not only how to identify chords, but how to fully understand them and build them yourself, it will help you tremendously with your musical goals, whether that’s playing music that’s already been written, composing your own music, or improvising.

In this article I’d like to talk about the most basic and most common type of chord: The triad.

What Is A Triad

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The triad is the most basic type of piano chord. The word triad just means a set of three. In musical terms this is still true, but a little more specific: A triad is a set of three notes built in thirds. This “built in thirds” part is important. Not just any 3-note chord is a triad.

For example, C, D, E is not a triad. You could play these notes together, thus creating a chord, but it’s not a triadic chord. This is because it is NOT built in thirds; C and D are a second apart, as are D and E.

What Does It Mean to Be “Built In Thirds”

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For a chord to be built in thirds, it just means that in its most basic position, what we call Root Position, each note is separated by the interval of a third*. C, E, G is a root position triad, because C and E are a third apart from each other and E and G are a third apart from each other.

*Note; If you’re not quite sure what the interval of a third is, I highly recommend you consult my post, Intervals in Music, before reading on.

Different Types of Triads

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The way to make different triads, is to make different types of thirds. Each third in a triad can be either a major third, or a minor third. This means there are as many different types of triads as there are different combinations of those two types of thirds. Can you guess how many that is?

The answer is 4: 1. Major thirds on top and bottom; 2. Minor third on top, Major third on bottom; 3. Major third on top, minor third on bottom; 4. Minor thirds on top and bottom.

The table below explains this idea visually. The top row defines the top third and the left column defines the bottom third. Their cross-sections in the table are the resulting triad of each combination.

A chart of the four different types of triads: Augmented, Major, Minor, and Diminished

Here are specific note examples of each triad type if C is the root:

Piano keys with letter names written on C, E, and G#, which make a C augmented triad
C Augmented Triad
Piano keys with letter names written on C, E, and G, which make a C major triad
C Major Triad
Piano keys with letter names written on C, Eb, and G, which make a C minor triad
C Minor Triad
Piano keys with letter names written on C, Eb, and Gb, which make a C diminished triad
C Diminished Triad

Try playing each of these on the piano to experience each triad’s unique sound.

Now try transposing them to another key, say, G. If this isn’t easy, you may need to get more comfortable with differentiating between major thirds and minor thirds. As mentioned above, be sure to read my post on intervals.

You may want to stick with practicing the above information for awhile. If building triads in most keys feels easy, you’re ready to move on to the next section.

Inverting Triads

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Let’s take a closer look at C major triad. That’s the one with a major third on bottom, and a minor third on top. This configuration of the triad, with thirds all stacked next to each other, is called root position.

But that’s not the only way to play triads! You can also play them in inversions.

When you invert something, you take the bottom and put it on top. A pencil, for example. If I’m holding it vertically with the tip pointing down, when I invert it then the tip is pointing up.

What was once on the bottom, is now on the top.

When you invert a triad, you do the same thing. If you’re inverting a C major triad, you would take the C from the bottom and play it on the top, thus E, G, C.

That new arrangement of the notes is known as C major triad, first inversion.

Piano keys with letter names written on E, G, and C
C Major Triad, First Inversion

What do you think needs to happen in order to create second inversion? Simply take the new bottom note, E, and put that on top, thus G, C, E is C major triad, second inversion.

Piano keys with letter names written on G, C, and E
C Major Triad, Second Inversion

Now what happens if you invert it again? Notice anything about what you get? Your new note configuration, after putting the G on the top of the chord, is C, E, G. We’re back in root position, this time an octave up the piano!

Piano keys with letter names written on C, E, and G
C Major Triad, Root Position

Looking at it Numerically

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Rather than memorizing every note to every triad, it can be easier to think about it numerically. So back with our C major triad, rather than thinking of the notes as C, E, and G, you can call them the root, the 3rd, and the 5th.

Just like a root is the first part of a tree, the root of a chord is what makes a chord itself. Notice we’re calling this chord C major triad. The name of the chord is the same note as the root.*

*Note: Remember how a triad with its thirds all stacked next to each other is called root position? That’s because the root of the chord (C in our example), is at the bottom (where one would expect a root to naturally be) in this position!

The E is called the 3rd because it’s the third note above C in the C scale. As we’ve discussed thoroughly in this post, it’s the interval of a third!

As we’ve also discussed, the G is the interval of a third above E. However, it wouldn’t be very helpful to have two notes called the 3rd. Also, we want to be thinking about each note as it relates to the root. Since G is the fifth note above C in the C scale, we call it the 5th.

Piano keys with an R on the C key, a 3 on the E key, and a 5 on the G key
C Major Triad: Root, 3rd, and 5th

In case you weren’t sure, these names remain the same no matter what inversion you play the chord in. For example, if you play a C major triad in first inversion, the 3rd will be on the bottom, followed by the 5th, and last the root will sit on top of the chord.

Piano keys with a 3 on the E key, a 5 on the G key, and an R on the C key
C Major Triad in First Inversion: 3rd, 5th, Root

Building Your Own Triads

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Now you have another method of building triads, other than stacking thirds. Simply pick a scale you know well, and play the root, 3rd, and 5th of that scale. Pretty easy, right?

Notice that when you pick a major scale, your chord is major. When you pick a minor scale, your chord is minor. That’s not a coincidence!!

But what if you want to build a triad off of a note that’s somewhere else in the scale? Perhaps you’re playing in the key of C (using the C scale), but you want to play an F chord. Just keep using the C scale for your notes to make sure you use the appropriate sharps and flats (in this case, there are none), but start on F to find your root, 3rd, and 5th. In this case you get an F major triad–F, A, C.

Piano keys with an R on the F key, a 3 on the A key, and a 5 on the C key
F Major Triad: Root, 3rd, and 5th

What About Diminished and Augmented Chords

Before ending this post, I want to point out where diminished and augmented chords show up naturally in scales. Try building a triad in the key of C, but starting on B. If you did this correctly, the chord should sound a little bit scary. The notes are B, D, F–a B diminished triad!

Piano keys with an R on the B key, a 3 on the D key, and a 5 on the F key
B Diminished Triad: Root, 3rd, and 5th

Now how about A minor Harmonic scale. In case you’re not familiar with this, the scale only has one sharp–G#. If you try to build a triad off of C, but stay within the key of A minor Harmonic, you end up with the notes, C, E, G#–a C augmented triad!

Piano keys with an R on the C key, a 3 on the E key, and a 5 on the G# key
C Augmented Triad: Root, 3rd, and 5th

I hope that cleared up some questions you had about triads and how they work. Of course there’s a lot more to learn about piano chords, but I recommend really getting a firm understanding of these fundamentals before moving on to more complicated aspects of chords and harmony.

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And as always, please feel free to voice any questions or thoughts in the comments section!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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