Fake It to Make It – How to Play Popular Piano with Minimal Note Reading

playing chords

So, I’m not sure if it’s common knowledge or not, but did you know that Paul McCartney (who I just saw in concert at Fenway Park in Boston, MA on July 17th) doesn’t read notes? He and John Lennon wrote 350 songs to boot. He knew his chords though and that doesn’t involve reading notes. I’m here to give you some secret formulas for playing chords and you don’t need to know ANYTHING about music except the notes on the piano which I’ve included below and a short lesson on half steps.

playing chordsHere’s what you need to know and it’s very simple. There are half steps and whole steps on the piano. Anytime you move from one key to another key without any note in between (black or white), this is considered a half step. If you go from C to C#, that’s a half step. But C to D would be a whole step because there is a black key in between. Going from E to F is a half step because there is no black key in between. But E to F# would be a whole step.

Okay, now the fun begins. There are three formulas based on half steps that will teach you how to make Major Chords, Minor Chords and Seventh Chords. And this is all you need to learn most pop songs. Really.  Here they are:

Major Chords  – 4 + 3

Minor Chords  – 3 + 4

Seventh Chords – 4 + 3 + 3

A major chord is notated with just the letter name. So if a C chord is required, the chart will say C. If the song asks for a minor chord, there will be a small m after the letter, for example Cm. If a seventh chord is indicated, you will see C7.  Now, what do those numbers mean? Well, they refer to half steps. So, for a C major chord, you will play the C note, count 4 half steps up (C to C# then C# to D then D to D# and finally D# to E) and you will get the middle note in the chord. That’s E. Then count 3 half steps up from E (E to F then F to F# then F# to G) and you will get G. Play C E and G at the same time and voila! You’ve got a C major chord. You can do the same thing for all major chords. You are just starting on a different note each time.

For the minor chords and seventh chords, you go through the same process but with different formulas. It’s really that easy.

Your next step is to buy a fake book online (Amazon is cheapest). I recommend the series by Hal Leonard called Easy Fake Books. The print is large, the arrangements are simplified (but not overly so) and most of the chords are major, minor and seventh. If you see a chord you don’t recognize, you can leave it out in the beginning. You will get the gist of the song. If you don’t want to play the melody and prefer to sing it, that’s all you need to know! If you want to play the melody, it is there for you to read if you know the basics of note reading. But to play any song, this is all you need to know. Have fun!

So, to recap, if you are playing solo piano (no singing), you will play the melody with the right hand and the chord with the left hand. If you are accompanying yourself singing, you play the chord with the right hand and the root of the chord (nice and low) with the left hand.



Debbie Gruber, B.M., M.M., is the President of www.EasyPianoStyles.com where she sends out free video piano lessons on playing pop/jazz piano. Debbie was a lecturer in jazz appreciation at Western Michigan University. She is also a piano and voice instructor and performs at many restaurants and parties in the Boston area.

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I play the keyboard for many groups a one man show and follow Scott’s method.with his way of playing and use Easy play music ( lead sheets ) . Every song I play the keyboard is the lead instrument, kind of like a sing along. My problem is many times I play with up to a dozen guitar players. they can play along with me, no problem,, strumming the cords, but once they take the lead part of the song or any song and I want to accompany them with trails I am out of it. By the lead sheet I can play the cords and hold them until the next cord, but again as far as me playing along with them when the are the lead instrument and I would like to accompany them with some piano trails , I am lost hope future post address this We all play very old and classic country Thanks

I teach music in two elementary city schools, and I just love your very direct and easy explanation of chords.

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