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Posted By: Irish1975 Hack for Learning Chords - 04/17/20 08:40 PM
Hello Piano World. This is my first post.

I wanted to share a practical exercise for learning chords that I came upon while nursing tendonitis in my left wrist. This prevented me from playing my usual instrument, guitar. I decided I could use some time on piano (which I hardly know how to play) to enliven my knowledge of harmony, and just to have fun. I'm curious if this method or "hack" is common knowledge among students of the piano, or if it is actually as helpful to others as it is to me. You might like it if you need a break from sheet music, or want to strengthen your knowledge of harmony.

THE GOAL: to quickly learn and practice every MAJOR triad, across all 12 notes of the piano, and all 3 inversions. I'm focusing on triads that can be played by one hand, within a single octave. Also, I'm only treating the major triads, but this approach can be adapted for minor triads, diminished triads, 7th chords, and perhaps any type of chord. (I use the term 'triad' because I'm talking about the same thing whether played simultaneously as a chord, or serially as an arpeggio).

THE IDEA: use triad inversions and the Circle of Fifths.

PREREQUISITE KNOWLEDGE

(1) the components of a major triad: Root (R), Third (3), Fifth (5);
(2) the three inversions: root position (R-3-5), 1st inversion (3-5-R), and 2nd inversion (5-R-3).
(3) the Circle of Fifths: C-G-D-A-E-B-(F#/Gb)-Db-Ab-Eb-Bb-F-C.

THE APPROACH

If you play a C chord in root position, C-E-G, and change to a G chord (i.e., the 5th of C) in root position, G-B-D, your arm has to jump half the length of an octave. That's often not desirable. It's more natural to move to the first inversion of G: B-D-G. That way, you keep one finger on the G note, drop the C to a B, and drop the E to a D. What I have just described is one of the most natural and harmonious changes in all of music: from any chord to its 5th, and specifically to what I'm calling the "proximate" inversion, where the R and 3 both descend in pitch, but one note stays fixed.

You can repeat this process through all 12 major chords. If you start at middle C in root position, you should end up with the same triad one octave lower. Here is the sequence if you begin from C Major in root position (R is in bold):

C E G
B D G
A D F#
A C# E
G# B E
F# B D#
Gb Bb Db (alternatively: F# A# C#)
F Ab Db
Eb Ab C
Eb G Bb
D F Bb
C F A
C E G

To practice all three inversions for every major triad, start from E-G-C, and then again from G-C-E.


THINGS TO NOTICE

1) The 5 of the present triad stays fixed, and becomes the R of the next triad.

2) The R of the present triad descends by a half step, or semitone, becoming the 3 of the next triad, which is in 1st inversion.

3) The 3 of the present triad descends by a whole step/tone, becoming the 5 of the next triad, which is in 2nd inversion.


OBSERVATIONS

1) It can be challenging to find all the right notes at first, but with time it becomes natural and easy. It trains both your ear and your muscle memory.

2) You can modify it as you please. For example, go in reverse, through the circle of 4ths. Or, switch to minor chords, where the R descends a whole step, and the 3 descends only a half step.

3) This exercise gives you useful knowledge for almost any musical context: 12 bar blues, songs that use the 1st, 4th, and 5th of any key (“3 chords and the truth”), the 2-5-1 progression, and so forth.

4) There is something inherently pleasing about chord changes that preserve one or more notes. Lennon and McCartney, for example, do it all over the place.

5) Another idea: practice the Circle of Fifths *diatonically*, that is, within a single key. For example, in C major, play C, G, Dm, Am, Em, Bdim, F, C. (This sounds a lot more interesting than just moving up the major scale in root position.)
Posted By: wszxbcl Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/17/20 10:16 PM
I think what you are describing is one of the rules of voice leading. When moving by 4th or 5th, keep the common tone in the same voice (here, finger) and move the remaining voices by steps.
Posted By: scirocco Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/18/20 12:49 AM
What you are describing is changing key, since you are moving between major triads.

A more “musical” exercise that is often taught to pianists to teach the value of inversions to limit the hand movements required is to play all the triads within one key in this sequence:

I (2nd) to IV (1st)
vii (2nd) to iii (1st)
vi (2nd) to ii (1st)
V (2nd) to I (1st)

Then repeat for the relative minor. Double each chord root in the left hand.

This sequence of 8 chords is very beautiful and musical as it stays within one major / minor combination. But the best thing about it is that the movement from 2nd to 1st inversion is extremely easy and satisfying. You kind of “pivot” on finger 2 which stays put while only moving the outer fingers. (The movement down to the next 2nd to 1st inversion pair is also very easy).

Repeat in different keys.
Posted By: Ido Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/18/20 07:48 AM
Irish1975, scirocco - thank you both very much for sharing this!
I'm gonna try this. If you got more exercises like this I'd love to hear about them.
Posted By: jjo Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/18/20 04:12 PM
Here's a version I was taught for when you want to step up to seventh chords. It uses the ii-V-I progression that is the heart and soul of jazz.

1. Play D minor 7 some, from bottom up, D F A C. This is the ii chord of C major.
2. Drop the C to B, and the A to G. Now you have a G dominant 7, the V chord of C major.
3. Now drop the F to E, and the D to C, and you've got C major 7, the I chord.
4. Now drop the B to Bb, and the E to Eb, and you've got a C minor 7, which is the ii chord of Bb major, and you keep the pattern going.

Doing it this way will take you around 1/2 the circle of fifths. You need to start over a half step up or down from where you began to get the other half.
Posted By: Greener Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/18/20 05:35 PM
Originally Posted by jjo
... Doing it this way will take you around 1/2 the circle of fifths. You need to start over a half step up or down from where you began to get the other half.

Similarly, you can do circle of 5ths in reverse. Instead of C to G, it is C to F (4th of C) the 5th of Bb. This takes you through the V I cadences when you add a 7th to each chord before resolving to the next. Also more musical then going the other way. You'd be starting from bottom of list and going up, thus.
Posted By: Irish1975 Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/18/20 10:43 PM
Originally Posted by scirocco
What you are describing is changing key, since you are moving between major triads.

Thanks for your reply.

The way I think of it, there is no key at all, since this is just an exercise for learning the 12 (major) triads.
Posted By: Moo :) Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/18/20 11:47 PM
Ok I will try this. Thank you for sharing.
Posted By: jjo Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/19/20 12:50 AM
Greener: The drill I suggested gets to all the keys, but it actually moves by whole steps. What I outlined goes from C major to Bb to Ab, to Gb to E to D and back to C. That's why it covers half the keys. One purposed behind this drill, which is common in jazz, is that it mimics a common chord progression where you have a ii-V-I to a major 7th chord, and they turn that major 7th into a minor 7th (same root) to start a new ii-V-I. A good example of this is How High the Moon.
Posted By: scirocco Re: Hack for Learning Chords - 04/19/20 02:48 AM
Originally Posted by Irish1975
my usual instrument, guitar. I decided I could use some time on piano (which I hardly know how to play)

If you've come from guitar I guess you are probably used to learning chords by hand shapes. There is an analogy on the piano where if you know some very simple rules for forming major and minor thirds, and perfect fourths and fifths, you can instantly create any major or minor triad in root, 1st or 2nd inversion.

This is a very simple method that suits people who learn best visually rather than by rote.

For example you can always make the outer notes that make up the root position triad perfect fifth by going white note to 5 white notes higher, or black note to black note 4 notes higher. The exceptions are B and B flat where you have to adjust by one semitone more or less respectively.

Similarly for the fourths that you use in an inversion you go white note to 4 white notes lower, or black note to black note 3 notes lower. Again the exception is the B and B flat where you have to adjust by one semitone.

Thirds have a couple more variants but it's easy to learn the majors and adjust down by one semitone if you want minor. This video shows those:

https://youtu.be/5Y01jIorpeA?t=381

And provided you have a mental picture of the chord you want (e.g. 2nd inversion has root as the middle note, find it, go up a major or minor third as required, and down a perfect fourth to reach the fifth of the chord) you can very quickly construct any of the basic triads from the black and white keys in front of you.
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