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Stage 3 - learn some really important concepts

By now, you can already play a lot of music. The chords you learnt in stage 1 and 2 can be used to play most pop songs out there. And that’s not a joke. We will talk more about that later.

Almost all chords are either major or minor ** (the ones you have already learnt). The reason why it doesn’t always sound like that is because it’s very common to build on these chords and make them more complex.

There are some chords that are neither major or minor. We call these C5, D5, Ab5 etc. We also call them power chords, and they are used a lot in rock music, especially on the guitar. These chords only have two notes. The root and the fifth. We have taken away the third. And since it’s the third that determines whether the chord is major or minor, we won’t hear if it’s major or minor. It can be both.

Look at this example by. This is a song called “Michelle” by The Beatles. The chords are written above the lyrics.

Extract of Michelle by The Beatles

It includes chords such as Fm7, Bb6, Adim etc.

Bb6 (B flat 6) is still the normal Bb chord. We have just added on an extra note. That’s what the “6” means. But since the Bb6 contains all the notes that Bb already has, playing a normal Bb chord instead of Bb6 will still sound good. It will just sound “better” if you played Bb6 instead of just Bb.

The same applies to all other chords. Playing Fm instead of Fm7 will sound “correct”, and it will work. It will just have less flavour to it.

Reading chords

When reading chords, you build them from left to right. The left part of the chord is necessary, and what comes after that is usually just to add flavour. You can omit this if you want, but it will sound a bit boring without it.

How to read chords

The first letter is the basic component of the chord. If it includes a lower case “m”, the root chord itself is minor, and this has to be played.  Anything which is after the first letter (or after the “m” if it is a minor chord) can be omitted.

That’s why I’m saying that you can play most modern music with the basic chords you have just learnt. It would just sound better if you included the numbers etc. But it will still sound “correct” if you just use the basic chords.

So whenever you see a complex chord progression like this:
Dm9 – G7sus4 – G – Cadd9

You can still play it like this:
Dm – G – G – C

Don’t worry if you don’t fully understand this yet. I just wanted to give you a quick flavour of it, and we’re going to go into this in a lot more details later in this stage.

But even though you can play all of this already, it quickly gets boring, because the sounds are not rich enough. In this section you will learn how to colour the chords and make the music sound a bit more rich and colourful. Honestly – this is where the fun starts. When you learn these chords, you open up a world of amazing fun. It will make the music so rich, and you can have endless fun with this.

An overview of what you're going to learn in this section

  • half steps and whole steps. Also called semitones and whole tones.
  • Learn the most important major scales. They can be used for stuff, you see.
  • Basic intervals
  • The four most important chords
  • Circle of fifths
  • Learn how to use some chord inversions.
  • Learn the most important chords in the most important keys.
  • Learn how to colour chords and use them in context.
  • The importance of fingering
  • Rhythm

Half steps and whole steps

This is an incredibly easy concept, but equally incredibly important to know about. It sets the foundation for a lot of other things you’re going to learn. 

This video explains the difference between half steps and whole steps:

And that’s all there is to half steps and whole steps.

Major scales and keys

Scales are one of the most fundamental building blocks of music. They are important for four main reasons:

  • They are used to give structure to the pieces you’re playing. It’s a map you use when playing. In improvisation, the major scale of the key you’re playing will tell you what notes will sound great, and which will sound horrible.
  • You can use them to find all sorts of chords.
  • They will develop your aural skills
  • They are also a great technique builder. One of the best ways to use scales to build technique if you want to be able to play clean and fast is to use a metronome. First, play with the metronome in a comfortable speed. Then speed up a little bit. Once you’re comfortable with this new speed, speed up a bit more. Stay at each tempo for 2-5 days, depending on how long it takes you to get comfortable with each new speed. It will take longer and longer for each time.

Scales are really applicable. Some of this might be repetition. But the key takeaway from this lesson is that you can use major scales as a tool to find chords etc on the piano. And on other instruments.

Here is what a major scale sounds like:

Remember that sound, because that particular order of notes are so common that a lot of songs and pieces are based on it. If you’re able to hum a major scale to yourself (the starting note doesn’t matter) then a lot of things will be a lot easier for you to figure out of.

The first major scale you will learn is the C major scale. There are twelve different notes on the piano. Every note has their own major scale. This means that every note has their own major scale. This means that there are 12 major scales in total. You don’t have to be confident playing all of them. But I would recommend getting comfortable playing 6 of them: F, C, G, D, A, E

Why these 6? Because they are the 6 most common keys you will come across.

So what are “keys”? We have 12 notes, 12 major scales, and also 12 keys. When writing a piece of music, we have to decide what key it’s going to be written  in. Here is a simplistic explanation of what a key is: When a piece of music starts with the C major chord and ends on the C major chord, this piece is written in the key of C major. Similarly, if it starts and ends with the G major chord, we can say that this piece is “in the key of G major”. What this essentially means is that the piece is based around the major scale that it is written in. When writing a song, we have to start somewhere. And you have 12 different choices. It doesn’t matter where you start. But where you start determines what chords the song will be built up of. I will soon upload a video to demonstrate this.

Melodies that are written in the key of C major will generally only include notes from the C major scale. That’s what I mean by a melody being based around the C major scale.

So how do composers and songwriters choose what keys to write their songs in? Here are a few deciding factors. First of all, it doesn’t really matter. But if they want it to be a popular song that beginners can play, it makes sense to choose an easy key.

Now you know theoretically what a C major scale is. Here is a video explain how to play it:

Get used to the one octave version first. If you want to use this scale to develop technique, do the two octave version. But it’s only the one octave version you will need to get to know the piano well.

Here is a fact you will love: All the major scales I will teach you in this guide will use the exact same finger formulas.

Here is a fact you might not love: The F major scale is an exception to this rule…  But only the right hand version. Instead of playing it with these fingers:

One octave: 123 12345 

Two octaves: 123 1234 123 12345

You play it with these fingers:

One octave: 1234 123

Two octaves: 1234 123 1234 1234

Now let’s go back to the C major chord. Notice that the C major chord is the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of the major scale. This is the relationship that the chords have with scales. And this is how you can find all the chords you need if you need to learn new ones. If you know the 5 first notes of the major scale, you can find the chord.

The major scale formula

There is a formula or code you can use to find any major scale on the piano. Here is a short video that explains this:

Here is the formula from the video:

Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half

Once you know the formula, use it to find these scales:

  • G major
  • D major
  • Ab major

Can you hear that they all sound the same, except that they start on different notes? That’s because they use the same intervals or steps. You will learn more about intervals soon.

If you use the formula starting on a D note, you get the D major scale. If you start on a G note, you get the G major scale. Start on the F# note to get the F# major scale. That’s how easy it is.

Now you know enough about what scales are, theoretically. Now I will show you how to practise scales in your daily routine.

How to practise scales

As I mentioned earlier, you should get comfortable with these major scales:

C, G, D, A, E, F

Learn them in that exact order.

But take some time to get comfortable with each scale separately before moving on the next one. Leave a week in between learning each scale.

Play all scales (except F major) with these fingers for the right hand:
123 1234 123 12345 (On the way back, you just reverse it)

And these fingers for the left hand:
54321 321 4321 321 (Reverse it on the way back)

Learn each scale like this:

  1. Repeat the scale 5-10 times with each hand separately until it becomes quite easy. Only one octave. Play it in a slow, even tempo. This might take around 3-7 days.
  2. When you can one octave of the scale easily, do the two octave version. Repeat it 5-10 times a day until it becomes easy. 

When the time comes where you feel like you need to know more scales, pick them up then.

If you want to play hands together, you should have at least a couple of months experience with the piano before attempting this.

You can learn more than one scale at a time as long as you don’t overload yourself with too many different things to learn at a time.

Become really comfortable with the C major scale before you learn G. Then get really comfortable with G before moving on to D. And so on. On a general note, if you can play each scale 3 times in a row in an even tempo without any mistakes AND it sounds clean, you are ready to move on to the next scale.

If you want to use scales as a technical exercise (which you should!), play them two octaves.

An octave is when you go from a note to the next note of the same kind. An octave is 8 notes up or down on the piano. That’s the same thing as playing a major scale once. Two octaves is when you repeat the scale and play it twice.

Intervals basics

Intervals are one of those core concepts in music that you just can’t be without. Intervals basically just means “the distance between two notes.” And we give this distance a name. Before you learn about intervals, it’s important that you learn the difference between half steps and whole steps. Also called semitones and whole tones. You learnt this in stage 1. So go back and review that if you don’t feel 100% comfortable with it.

Then watch this to understand everything you need to know about intervals for now:

Notice that the intervals follow the pattern of a major scale. sometimes the note goes up a half step and sometimes a whole step.

It is a good idea to be able to name the intervals if you hear them. Practising this is a good way to train your ear. Having a good musical ear is a very important skill if you want to be able to play melodies from ear without having to use sheet music.

If you get really good at this, you can also find chords for songs without having to look them up.

So why did you need to learn about intervals? Here is the main reason. All music is is whole steps and half steps in different arrangements. Since this is what music consists of, it makes sense to have a meaningful way to communicate about this with other musicians. Instead of saying “Go from F to C”, you can say “Go up a fourth interval”.

Another benefit of being comfortable working with intervals is that you can play the exact same melody higher or lower by changing the starting note. This is called transposing.

If this doesn’t make too much sense to you at the moment, don’t worry. You can come back to this later when you have played a bit more piano, and it will make a lot more sense.

The 4 most important chords

I have included this lesson just so that you can understand a very cool concept. A huge number of the most catchy pop songs out there use only 4 chords. In other words, you can get really far with music by only knowing 4 simple chords!

Here is a video that explains this a bit further:


Check out Axis of Awesome’s “4 chord song” for a great practical example of this:

When you see ads on YouTube and Facebook that says things like “Master the piano in 2 weeks!” I am pretty sure this is one of the main takeaways from those courses.

The circle of fifths

The circle of fifths is one of your most valuable tools as a musician. It can be used to:

  • Find out how many sharps or flats there are in every scale, and which notes are sharp and flat.
  • Find out which chords sound good together in a chord progression (series of chords).

It’s a tool that explains the relationship between keys and chords. So for example if you are playing a song with the four most important chords that you learnt above and you need to change the key, you can use the circle of fifths to do this. Why would you need to change the key?

  • To change to some chords that you find easier or to practise chords you’re less familiar with.
  • If you’re singing and the song is too high or too low. You can change the key to make it more suitable for your voice range.

This is called transposing. When transposing, it’s often easier to work with the circle of fifths than to work purely with intervals.

Even though these videos will show you all the keys, I would urge you to only focus on the relationship between C, G, D, A and E for now. Remember – it’s much better getting confident with a few things than average with all of it.

Before watching the videos below, you need to know the meaning of a couple of terms.

Key signature: Key signature means the same as “key”. The key signature of a song is the same as the key it’s written in. A piece of music that has three sharps right in the beginning, it’s written in the key of A major. This is because the A major scale has 3 sharps. You can also see this reflected in the circle of fifths.

Relative minor: I have explained this in the next section.

Here is a video that explains the basics of the circle of fifths:

Here is the circle of 5ths:

The Circle of Fifths

Feel free to print it and keep it by your piano. Do the minor chords in the inner part of the circle confuse you? You will learn what this means when we go through the relative minor concept a bit further down.

There is more to the circle of fifths. If you want to go a bit more in depth, watch these videos below. But this is not absolutely necessary.

The relationship between chords

This is a lesson on the basics of harmony. If you’re not particularly interested in why a particular chord progression sounds good, you can skip this. But if you want to play pop music and understand why music sounds the way it sounds, you shouldn’t skip.

You’re going to learn the following concepts:

  • The important relationship between the 5th chord and the 1st chord.
  • Relative minor

The relationship between chord 5 and chord 1

In music, the first note and 5th note of a scale are the most significant and most widely used. The reason for this is because they sound very clean when played together in harmony.

Similarly, The chord starting on the first note of a scale and the chord starting on the 5th note of a scale sound good when playing in succession. In fact, you can’t really play too much good sounding music without using this relationship. We have already used this relationship in every single tune you have played in his guide. You just weren’t aware of it…

The most important part of this relationship is that the fifth chord wants to go to the first chord. This usually happens at the end of a piece of music to make it sound “finished” or “complete”. 

Tonic is another word for the first note or the root note of a scale.

Dominant is another word for the 5th note.

There are several ways you can find the fifth chord of the key you’re in. Let’s say you’re in the key of C major:

  • You can play five not upwards in the C major scale. You will arrive at the G note. This means G is the fifth chord in the key of C.
  • You can also find it by playing the C major chord. When you play the C major chord, you play the notes C, E and G. Notice that the last note on the C major chord is the fifth note in the C major scale and at the same time the root note of the G major chord.
  • Or you can simple use the circle of fifths. Find C, then go a step clockwise in the circle. That’s where you will find G.

You can use these three methods on any key you’re in.

Why do you need to find the 5th note of chords? Knowing this informs you better as a musician. And if you ever want to be able to find the chords of a tune without having to look up the chords, being aware of the 5 – 1 relationship is crucial. It also makes it much easier to remember chord progressions off by heart.

Is this hard to understand? I will probably make a video about this soon to give you some practical examples and post it here.

Relative minor

Here is quite an elaborate explanation of the the relative minor concept:

If you don’t want to watch the whole video, here is a summary of what you need to know:

Since there are 12 different notes on the piano, we have 12 different major keys/chords. We also have twelve different minor keys/chords. This is because any key (and chord) can be either major or minor. Every major chord has a minor chord that it has a very special relationship with.

For example, A minor is the relative minor of C major. When you play the C major chord, it sounds good to play the A minor chord next. In order to play the piano well you don’t HAVE TO understand why, you just need to know that it is extremely common in music to go from a major chord to that chord’s relative minor. You also have to know how to find the relative minor of each major chord.

How to find the relative minor chord

There are two main ways you can find the relative minor chord. If you want to find the relative minor of the C major chord, either go up to the sixth step of the C major scale, or down 2 steps (not counting C). You will get to the note A. This means that A minor is the relative minor of C.

This works in any key. And this is a good example why it’s worth knowing a few major scales, or at least know the formula for how to find them.

You can also just look up the relative minor on the circle of fifths chart. Here you can easily see which keys are the relative minor of each major key. Each major key points to a minor key. This is the relative minor of that key. C major points to A minor. G major points to E minor etc.

Why does it sound good to go to the relative minor?

I’m only going to give you a quick explanation. In the case of C major and A minor, it’s because the C major scale and the A minor scale share exactly the same notes. They just start in different places.

Info: Even though we have only one major scale for each key, we have three minor scales for each key. Melodic minor, harmonic minor and natural minor. It’s the natural minor scale that share the same notes as it’s relative major. You don’t have to understand more about the minor scales, but if you’re curious, you can read more here.

Colouring chords

You can only get so far with the basic chords we have covered up until now. You can enjoy them for a bit, but they will quickly start to become monotonous. Colouring chords is how you can make your music go from sounding quite basic to sounding rich. Instead of playing basic chords like C, Am, F and G, we are going to add a bit more flavour to them and play C, Am7, F6 and G7.

By adding flavour, I generally mean adding an extra note to the existing chord. Sometimes, instead of adding a note, we swap a note out for another note. To understand this section, it’s important that you understand all of these concepts first which we have covered earlier:

Notice that I have added numbers to the end of the chords. This is the most common way of colouring chords. You need to get comfortable with the 7ths first. What this number 7 essentially means is that you are adding the 7th note of the major scale on top of the existing chord. It’s important to use the same scale as the chord you’re playing. If the chord is Cmaj7, you have to add the 7th note of the C major scale to the C major chord. If the chord is Dmaj7, you have to add the 7th note of the D major scale to the D major chord. etc. This is the same for any key you’re in.

There are two different 7ths, this video explains the difference:

In the examples above, we have added the 7th note of the scale to the major chord. You can also add the 7th note to the minor chord. You will then get these two chords:

Cm7
Cm(maj7)

Minor 7 chords are used A LOT, so get comfortable with them. Minor(maj7) chords are not that common.

So to recap, we can play 7th chords in 4 different ways:

C7 (also called C dominant 7)
Cmaj7
Cm7
Cm(maj7) (less frequently used. I call it the crime mystery chord, because it sounds like Poirot just got a new mystery he has to solve)

The 7th chord is the most common of the coloured chords, but also one of the most confusing. Here is a chart of all the basic variations of the 7 chords.

Variations of 7th chords

After you are really comfortable with the 7th chords, there are some other common chord flavours you should get comfortable with. Here are all the chord variations I think it’s worth learning if you want to add a bit of richness to your piano playing:

  • dominant 7 and major 7
  • sus2 and sus4
  • 6 and m6
  • add9
  • 9 (only if you want to)
  • diminished
  • augmented
  • 7 -5 or 7b5
  • -7 (explain -9 and +9 as well)

This is most of the chords you will ever need. You will see other types, but you can just play the root type of the chord instead. You don’t have to learn all of these, and certainly not straight away. Learn new chords when they come up and as you need to learn them.

Below, I have added the resources and explanations you need to learn each chord type. For the chord diagrams, I have used the C chord for every example since this is the chord that is easiest to use when learning new chord types. You can easily transpose or translate every chord to whatever root note you need.

7 (or dominant 7)
Major 7 (maj7)
Sus2 and sus4

Csus4 piano chord
Csus2 piano chord

If you see Csus, this will most likely be Csus4. “sus” is often used as a shorthand for “sus4”.

6 chords

C6 piano chord


This just means that you add the 6th note to the root chord. Here is a video explanation where you can also hear what it sounds like:

Minor 6 chords

C minor 6 piano chord

Same as 6 (also called major 6th). The only difference between a major 6 and a minor 6 is that the root chord itself is major or minor. The sixth note of the scale that you have added is exactly the same in both chords. Here is what it sounds like (watch between 0:43 and 1:22):

 

Add 9 chords

Cadd9 piano chord

Here is an easier way to play the add9 chord. Since the second step in the major scale is the same note as the 9th step, you can just replace the 9th with the 2nd:

Cadd9 piano chord - easy inversion

Dim / diminished 7th chords

C diminished piano chord

Augmented chords

C augmented piano chord

Minor 7 flat 5 chords

C minor 7 flat 5 piano chord

You will see this chord mostly in Am, D, and Em, so get comfortable with those chords. But I still used Cm just to show you how it’s constructed.

Now you know a bunch of different chord types. So what can you use this for? The most important thing for now is that you are aware of what they mean and how they are constructed. One of the best ways to get comfortable with these chords is to play some jazz standards. Jazz standards are the classics of the jazz world. They use a lot of these chords that you have now learnt.

Here are some jazz standards you can look up to get you started. You can easily find the chords for these online:

  • Misty
  • Autumn Leaves
  • All of me
  • Dream a little dream of me

Try to play them in both of these two ways:

  1. Chords in the left hand, melody in the right hand
  2. Bass notes in the left hand, chords in the right hand (accompanying)

If the music have chords such as Bbmaj9 and Bb9, you can play Bbmaj7 and Bb7 instead and it will sound just as good.