How to combine piano chords

After you have learned chords you want to combine them in a way that creates music. The guitar may be the ultimate chord instrument in the way the chords by themselves make great music. A piano player will in many cases add some melody notes to the harmony created by the chords.

Nevertheless, you must learn how to combine chords to create an appealing harmony on your piano. And there is some knowhow for this.

Creating chord progression - chords that match

If you are going from a chord to the next in a random fashion you will now and when experience dissonance. So how to avoid the dissonance? Stay in one key at a time is the simple answer. The table below gives you the guidelines.

Common keys and “neighbor chords”:

I ii iii IV V vi VII
C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
D Em F#m G A Bm C#dim
E F#m G#m A B C#m D#dim
F Gm Am Bb C Dm Edim
G Am Bm C D Em Fdim
A Bm C#m D E F#m G#dim
B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#dim

The table tells us, for example, that we can combine the chords C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim in all possible ways … and it will not be any disharmony.

You may wonder about the roman numerals in the table above. These can be use to generalize sequence of chords. For example, I ii iii are the same as C Dm Em or D Em F#m. It is a way to describe a structure more than a specific chord progression. Big letters (e.g. "I") is representing major and small letters (e.g. "i") are representing minor.

The table above serves you a foundation for tons of possible chord arrangements. Just staying in some of the keys and choose from the chords that belongs to it should give you thousands of possibilities. If you are not satisfied and want further enhancement just continue reading.

Major and minor

You should combine both major and minor chords, this is a mix that enriches the music. Sometimes you could stick to only major or minor chords, but it often will be monotonic in longer sequences.

The table above is focusing on major keys with a major chord as the first chord a sequence (or at least working as the tonal center). However, it is also possible to start a progression with a minor chord (or use it as the tonal center).

The Am chord is the minor relative to the C major chord. So, for example, you could start with Am and create progressions with the chords in the key of C.

Common minor keys and “neighbor chords”:

i II III iv v VI VII
Am Bdim C Dm Em F G
Bm C#dim D Em F#m G A
Cm Ddim D# Fm Gm G# A#
Em Fdim G Am Bm C D
Fm Gdim G# A#m Cm D E

The minor keys are relative to the major keys and therefore using the same chords.

Extended chords

So far, we have only talked about the basic chords, including three notes (triads). There are many more ways to play a chord and you may already be familiar with some chord names like Cmaj7, F9, Gadd2 and so on. So instead for playing a sequence like C, F, G you could, for example, alternate with C Fmaj7 G7.

There are some knowhow concerning which chords that are best suited for being extended depending on the key the chord sequence they are derived from. In general, the key chord is often best to keep as a triad, but not always which the following examples will show.

Another thing to know about is that some extended chords are especially appropriate in certain music styles. A very common progression in jazz, for example, is: iim7, V7, Imaj7.

If you are confused by the roman numerals iim7, V7, Imaj7 is the same as for example Dm7, G7, Cmaj. Extended chords are very common in jazz and if you want supplementary information, see for example this list with ten popular jazz chord progressions.

There are also lots of extended chords in blues, although not as many different chord types as in jazz, generally speaking.

12-bar blues and 16-bar blues progressions are very standard in blues and the most fundamental to learn concerning chords. A 12-bar progression is, just like the name says, a sequence consisting of 12 bars. The most common structure includes three chords and can look something like: I, IV, I, V, IV, I. If you are interested about learning more about blues progressions, here you find examples including videos and soundtracks.

Extended chords are used in several other music styles, like different Latin styles and in pop music. But instead of going deep into music styles, we will return to the main subject and continue with ways that can serve you then looking for different ways to combine chords.

Descending and ascending bass lines

One way to create lovely movements and moods in music is to apply descending and ascending bass lines. The bass note in a chord is the same as the root, in other words the lowest note. Therefore, a bass line is created with the lowest part of the chords which by chord changes creates a bass line.

We could proceed from the bass line c, b, a, g and build a chord progression that uses that bass tones. One example of such a progression could be: C, G/B, Am, Am/G. (G/B and Am/G are so-called inverted chords and you could find diagrams of these on the site.) Here is another example of a progression with a descending bass line: G, G/F#, Em, Em/D, C.

As a generalization, descending bass lines can establish a dreamy mood, whereas ascending bass line creates a more energized feeling. An example with progression with a "positive” feeling made by an ascending bass line: C, Am/E, F.

A nearby subject to descending and ascending bass line is bass walks. Instead of playing a whole chord you could choose to only play the bass notes and after that change chord. A simple example could be: G, f#, Em, d, C (small letters indicating only a note).

Understanding of chords resolution

The last part of this introduction of ways to combine chords to another will be the most theoretical. You don’t necessarily need to know this if you by intuition can get a feel of it, otherwise it could serve as a handy guideline.

The resolution is stronger between some chords than others. By this means how stable the chord sounds. Compare the following two sequences:

1.    C, F, G7, C
2.    G, Em, F, G7

Doesn’t it sound like the first progression end on a stable chord whereas the second end on a chord that seems to want resolve into another? I we add a C after the G7 it will sound stable, right?

This is because some chords in the context of a key appear slightly different in this aspect. Compare these two sequences:

1.    C, F, G, C
2.    C, F, Em, C

Even if the second progression don't creates any dissonance, it feels a little abrupt at the end. In the first progression, on the other hand, the end sound very natural. The reason is that in the key of C major the G major chord resolves naturally into the C major chord.

The same relationship is true for all keys, so with roman numerals the last two progressions could also be written as: 1) I, IV, V, I and 2) I, IV, iii, I. The fifth degree in the scale is therefore a better choice as the last chord before the ending chord.

See also Fingerings and movements ›