Reading Chord Charts

By John Hart

This skill is essential for music students who want to learn to play music genres such as blues, country, folk, hip, jazz, pop, soul, and gospel music.  Instruments such as piano and guitar are commonly used as the musical backbone of these styles because they can sound more than one note at a time. Though sight-reading written notation is an important skill to acquire for any instrument, it is not required for reading chord charts.  This skill doesn’t usually take long to learn and gives the budding musician the satisfaction of producing music that is pleasing to the ear within weeks versus the years that it takes to learn to sight-read proficiently.

Here are the steps a pianist should take to begin learning to read chord charts:

1.    Learn the names of the 7 white keys on the piano:  C, D, E, F, G, A, B

2.    Learn to play the C major scale.

3.    Play all 7 chords in the key of C:  C major (CEG), D minor (DFA), E minor (EGB), F major (FAC), G major (GBD, A minor (ACE), B diminished (BDF). 

4.    Now focus on the 3 primary chords:  C, F, and G.  Learn to play these 3 chords in their inversions:  C:  CEG, EGC, GCE;  F:  FAC, ACF, CFA; G:  GBD, BDG, DGB

5.    Lastly, learn to move from one chord to the next without leaving huge gaps between chords.  In other words, practice moving from CEG to CFA (instead of FAC). After you are proficient at moving from chord to chord in close position, you are ready to start producing songs.

Before you begin playing, find some simple chord charts that only use C, F, and G, then decide how you will produce the music:

Will you play the chords with your left hand and play the melody with your right (by ear), or will you play the chords with your right hand, single bass notes with your left hand, and sing the melody?  Another option would be to play the bass with your left hand, and play both the chord and the melody of the right hand.

If all of this seems like a lot to work out on your own, don’t worry; AWSOM has produced a 12 week course that will help you get started! Just contact your teacher for more information.