Do you find chords hard to sight-read? Does your mind go blank as soon as you see chords? Then read this article where you’ll learn some tips and exercises you can use to sight-read chords quickly.
Does your brain go blank when you see chords with 3 or more notes? Do you have to stop and figure out each note before you can play them?
If this is you, you’re not alone. The more notes we have to process at any given time, the harder it becomes – whether you’re a beginner or a more advanced sight-reader.
Luckily, the chords that we usually come across as classical pianists tend to be the same types of chords.
In this article, I’ll go over these common types of chords as well as other types and give you tips and exercises you can do to familiarise yourself with chords so you can sight-read them with more confidence.
Common types of chords
The most common type of chord in both classical, pop and jazz is the triad. A triad is a chord made up of three notes. These three notes can be arranged into any of these three combinations: root position, first inversion or second inversion.
Root position chords
A root position chord is a triad with the root – the first note of a scale – at the bottom. It is made up of two sets of 3rds. All three notes are either line notes or space notes.
When you see a root position chord (or a chord made up of two thirds), automatically use 1-3-5 in the RH and 5-3-1 in the LH.
First inversion and second inversion chords
To obtain a first inversion chord, flip the bottom note of the root position chord to the top (as shown by the arrows in the example below). And to obtain a second inversion chord, flip the bottom note of the first inversion chord to the top.
A first inversion chord is made up of a third at the bottom and a fourth at the top.
When you see a first inversion chord, or a chord with the smallest interval at the bottom, automatically use 1-2-5 in the RH and 5-3-1 in the LH.
A second inversion chord is the opposite of a first inversion chord, as it has a fourth at the bottom and a third at the top.
When you see a second inversion chord, or a chord with the smallest interval at the top, automatically use 1-3-5 in the RH and 5-2-1 in the LH.
Tips to quickly sight-read basic chords
To quickly sight-read basic chords such as triads, look at the bottom note and look at the shape of the triad to determine if it is a root position, first inversion or second inversion chord. For inversions, you don’t need to know if it’s a first or second inversion – you only need to know whether the 3rd is at the bottom or at the top – and use the right fingering accordingly.
Other common chords
In classical music, other common chords include the V7 (or dominant) chord and the diminished chord, which are made up of 4 notes (although sometimes the 3rd or the 5th note is omitted).
The V7 / dominant chord
A V7 chord is a root position chord on the fifth degree of a scale with the added 7th note. For example, in the key of C major, G is the fifth note of the scale. Therefore, the V7 will be a G major triad with the 7th note (counting from G) which is F.
This chord is found everywhere in classical music. It is especially prominent in cadences (chord progressions at the end of a section or piece) of almost all classical pieces such as the I-IV-I-V7-I progression. This progression is found in The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences which I highly recommend.
The dominant chord is formed by adding a minor third above the 5th note of a root position chord. The V7 chord is an example of a dominant chord.
The diminished chord
Although not as common as the V7 chord, the diminished chord is also useful to know. It is formed by lowering the 3rd, 5th and 7th notes of a dominant chord by a semitone (a half step). It is made up of 3 minor 3rds:
When you see a dominant or a diminished chord in root position (all notes will be line notes or space notes), use 1-2-3-5 in the RH and 5-3-2-1 in the LH.
To become more confident at sight-reading chords, practise the following chord exercises so that you learn the fingering, the feel and the sound of each chord.
Root position triads
Play the triads starting with the tonic then moving up the scale. Include the sharps or flats that are present in the scale you are playing. For example, the chords in G major would be:
As any major scale contains a mix of major and minor triads, (for more info on major and minor triads, see How to Sight-Read in Any Key: Part II ), I suggest practising the triads in major scales only.
Play the root, the first and the second inversions, then the root again, ascending then descending, hands separately or hands together. Start with C major and go through all keys or do the inversions in the keys you are practising.
Once you’ve learned the notes and the fingering in one key, try to play the chords without looking down at your hands.
Chord sight-reading practice
To practice reading chords, take any sheet music in the style that you like that has chords and try playing them as fluently as you can, one hand at a time.
As you go from one chord to the next, notice if there are any common notes. Focus on the notes that move and keep your fingers on the notes that stay the same. For the notes that change, look at the interval – do they move up or down by step, by a skip or by another interval?
You can also practice chord drills. Watch this space because I will soon add a video with chord drills!
Other types of chords
As pianists, we are blessed to have a huuuuuuuge repertoire spanning many different genres but that means we are bound to encounter all kinds of chords, not just the ones we’ve seen here. It would be impossible for me to cover all types of chords in one blog post!
Instead, I can offer you some advice: when you see chords that are not common chords like the ones listed above, look at the intervals that make up the chord. Look at the overall shape and determine what the interval is between the top and bottom notes. Most often than not it will be a 6th, a 7th or an 8ve so learn to identify these intervals quickly (for help on identifying intervals, see How to Identify Intervals on the Staff Quickly). Then look at the inner intervals in relation to the top or bottom note. The inner intervals will most likely be a 2nd, a 3rd, a 4th or a 5th.
Looking at the intervals as opposed to each note will greatly speed up your reading, as discussed in Should You Read the Notes or the Intervals?
If you’re new to chords, take it slowly. Start with root position chords and learn to play them and identify them by sight and by ear. Then once you’re comfortable with root position chords, move on to first and second inversion chords. And lastly, move on to other types of chords such as V7/dominant and diminished chords.
Once you’ve learned these basic chords, you’re free to specialise in any style you like. For example, if jazz is your thing, look into jazz chords specifically.
Are you comfortable sight-reading chords? Which types of chords do you find challenging to sight-read? Let me know in the comments below!
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