Playing Chord Charts

A comprehensive, dynamic piano tutorial


Playing from chord charts can be daunting—especially if you're coming from a background of reading staff notation. Equally daunting is attempting to teach someone such a skill—but this tutorial aims to do just that.

Making music from a chord chart is like preparing a dish from a recipe. Most recipes assume some basic skills that will not be explicitly spelled out. Also with any recipe, there is the freedom for the cook to make alterations, substitutions, and additions. The same goes for chord charts. Chord charts should be viewed as a beginning framework on which to build—a basic recipe which can be transformed into a gourmet meal. In this tutorial, I explain the prerequisite, basic skills as well as provide plenty of ideas and techniques for going beyond the symbols on a page.

My goal is to demystify chord charts by explaining things from the ground up. The tutorial is primarily for piano players but I think it can benefit any musician in understanding how chords and progressions work. The material is divided into three sections as follows:

  • Scales - presents the structure and function of scales as a foundation for understanding chords and progressions
  • Chords - enumerates all the various types of chords, explaining their structure, notation, and common voicings
  • Progressions - explains the how and why of sequencing chords into progressions

Words and Symbols

Possibly the biggest hurdle to overcome when playing from chord charts is grasping chord symbol notation. With each chord, there seem to be far-ranging possibilities with a myriad of unfamiliar words, numbers, and symbols.

To fully understand this world of chord notation, I start the tutorial with a thorough explanation of the scales and intervals that chords are derived from. Then in the Chords section I attempt to corral all chord notation into one overarching scheme, helping you to see the big picture. With numerous examples, I demonstrate the variants of notation for each chord type and also indicate those that are common practice.

As with most musical terms or concepts, there will be modern, common-practice names as well as less common, perhaps unfamiliar terms from Western classical music theory. I endeavor to explain pertinent terms and clear up any ambiguities or inconsistencies as much as possible.

Numbers are used in various contexts in this tutorial: to name the degree of a scale, to name a chord tone or extension, or to name a chord's relation to the key. While I name the numbers in different ways—e.g. '7', '7th', 'seven', or 'seventh'—the meaning should be clear from the given context.

Using the Tutorial

Since the tutorial is focused primarily on chord symbols, I have refrained from using staff notation. Instead, chord examples are explained by their structure and their derivation from the major scale—and by how they look on the piano keyboard.

Each example displays a chord or scale by its actual note positions on the keyboard. The examples are dynamic in that you can change the key using the widget in the example's header. For example:

C 7b9

b7 b9 3 5

Some things to note about the examples:

  • The location of 'middle C' is deliberately omitted. A given voicing may sound good in several different octaves on the piano, and the placement will depend on your playing context.
  • The dot colors are consistent throughout the site:
    • - Green is the default color, used for most examples.
    • - Two-hand voicings are shown with orange for the left hand and green for the right.
    • - Blue is used when single bass notes are shown, indicating the root of a voicing.
  • Root notes of voicings (displayed with blue dots in the bass) are not always shown. Your playing context will determine whether or not a bass note is needed. However, when practicing examples, you should always play the root in the bass to fully hear and understand the chord. This especially helps with rootless voicings.

  • The chord symbol displayed to the left of the keyboard may not explicitly name every addition or alteration in the voicing. One of the key concepts of the tutorial is the freedom you have to 'color' chords beyond their basic structure. For example, I may demonstrate adding a b9 and 13 to an Eb dominant 7 in a voicing, yet display the basic symbol of 'Eb7'.

Throughout the tutorial, I incorporate a couple of different insets like the following:

For Practice

These insets suggest practice exercises, some with audio examples.

Did You Know?

These insets explore tangential topics and interesting digressions.


Western music theory and notation are not exact sciences—there are many inconsistencies, ambiguities, and differences of opinion. The organization and presentation of concepts in this tutorial is entirely of my own design, which means, of course, that it is biased towards my own musical experience and knowledge.