How to Read Chord Symbols to Play the Piano or Keyboard

By Holly Day, Jerry Kovarksy, Blake Neely, David Pearl, Michael Pilhofer

When learning to play the piano or keyboard, you will likely be somewhat confused by sheet music. When you encounter 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 it: Gdim.

A chord’s symbol tells you two things about that chord: root and type.

  • Root: The capital letter on the left 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, like m for minor and 7 for seventh chords. Major chords have no suffix, just the letter name, so a capital letter by itself tells you to play a major triad.

Music written with chord symbols is your set of blueprints for what type of chord to construct to accompany the melody. For any chord types you may come across in your musical life (and there are plenty of chords out there), build the chord by placing the appropriate intervals or scale notes on top of the root note.

For example, C6 means play a C major chord and add the sixth interval (A); Cm6 means to play a C minor chord and add the sixth interval.

Here, you see the tune “Bingo” with its chord symbols written above it in the treble staff. The notes in the bass staff match the chord symbols and show you one way to play a simple chord accompaniment in your left hand.

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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, like in “Bingo,” play it on beat 1. If there isn’t a chord change, like in measure 5, you can play the C chord again, or not — your choice.

To play a song with chord symbols, try “Scarborough Fair.”

You may encounter many curious-looking chord symbols in the songs you play. Here are 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.

Chord Symbol Chord Type Ingredients
C Major 1-3-5
Cmin; Cm Minor 1-♭ó3-5
Caug; C(♯5); C+ Augmented 1-3-♯5
Cdim; Cdim. Diminished 1-♭ó3-♭ó5
Csus2 Suspended second 1-2-5
C(add2); C(add9) Add second (or ninth) 1-2-3-5
Cm(add2); Cm(add9) Minor, add second (or ninth) 1-2-♭ó3-5
Csus4 Suspended fourth 1-4-5
C(♭ó5) Flat fifth 1-3-♭ó5
C6 Sixth 1-3-5-6
Cm6 Minor sixth 1-♭ó3-5-6
C7 Seventh 1-3-5-♭ó7
Cmaj7; CM7; C△7 Major seventh 1-3-5-7
Cmin7; Cm7; C-7 Minor seventh 1-♭ó3-5-♭ó7
Cdim.7; Cdim7 Diminished seventh 1-♭ó3-♭ó5-6
C7sus4 Seventh, suspended fourth 1-4-5-♭ó7
Cm(maj7) Minor, major seventh 1-♭ó3-5-7
C7♯5; C7+ Seventh, sharp fifth 1-3-♯5-♭ó7
C7♭ó5; C7-5 Seventh, flat fifth 1-3-♭ó5-♭ó7
Cm7♭ó5; CØ7 Minor seventh, flat fifth 1-♭ó3-♭ó5-♭ó7
Cmaj7♭ó5 Major seventh, flat fifth 1-3-♭ó5-7

The number recipe 1-3-♯5-7 is applied to three different root notes — C, F, G — to illustrate how chord building works with different root notes and thus different scale notes. By the way, the resulting chord is called a Cmaj7♯5 because you add the seventh interval and sharp (raise one half step) the fifth interval.

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