Playing the Piano: How to Read Chord Symbols
When you encounter piano sheet music or songbooks containing just melodies and lyrics, you usually also get the little letters and symbols called chord symbols above the staff. Knowing how to build chords from chord symbols is an extremely valuable skill. It equips you to make a G diminished chord, for example, when you see the chord symbol for one, G°.
A chord’s symbol tells you two things about that chord: root and type.
Root: The capital letter tells you the chord root. As with scales, the root note gives the chord its name. For example, the root of a C chord is the note C.
Type: Any letter and/or number suffix following the chord root tells you the chord type. Major chords have no suffix, just the letter name, so a capital letter by itself tells you to play a major triad.
Play the chord with the melody note that’s directly below the chord symbol. The chord lasts until you see a chord change at the next chord symbol. So if you see a C chord at the beginning of measure 1, play it on beat 1. If there isn’t a chord change at the next measure, you can play the C chord again, or not — your choice.
You may encounter many curious-looking chord symbols in the songs you play. The following table lists the most common and user-friendly chord symbols, the variety of ways they may be written, the chord type, and a recipe for building the chord. Note: The examples in the table all use C as the root, but you can apply these recipes to any root note and make the chord you want.