Six Basic Chords for Kids

Six Basic Chords for Kids
6 chords to learn: C F G D E and A

There are six basic chords that kids must learn in order to play the beginning piano literature.

They are C, F, G, D, E, and A.

Chords are groups of three piano keys played, in most beginning methods, with the left hand. They are the foundation of music, the DNA of sound. Having command of the chords gives any musician control over the piano, and heightens their ability to make music.

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While they are not the first thing I teach to kids, they are introduced very early, always before reading music.

The reason for this is that it is important for kids to have a way of ordering information at the piano other than reading music.

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Using chords to see patterns at the keyboard is one of the most valuable tools a pianist has.

The advantage of seeing the piano as a matrix of chords is that you can organize and compress information into readily identifiable groups. Chords become a form of musical shorthand.

In other words, the 88 keys may seem daunting at first to a child, but soon they’ll see that those 88 keys are really a small section of 12 keys, repeated 7 times (with 4 extra keys.)

First of all, teach a child the C chord. Allow them to play a two-note chord, that is, the keys C and E. The reason for this is physical. You will confuse the child with the additional fingering gymnastics necessary to include that third note, when fingering is not really the issue.

Even allow them to use two index fingers at first, if necessary, but they must “shake hands” with chords easily and without stress.

If you take this slow approach, using the fingers they offer at first, then later the child will be both physically and mentally ready to easily add the third member of the triad.

NOTE: If they play a third note, very soon introduce a rule that the top key (in the left hand) MUST be the thumb. This applies only to three note chords. As long as the thumb is on the top, they may use any two other fingers they wish to play the remaining members of a three note chord.

Ask them to use the left hand, and if they offer the right hand, accept it for a while, giving them time to get used to the idea: chords are two white keys, skipping one white key in between. For some kids this may take weeks to penetrate, but be patient. At some point they will see how easy the task of forming chords really is.

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Don’t let chords become confused with fingering: that’s why I separate the two concepts and get them to see the chords first visually and conceptually, and then later figure out the best way to attack the fingering. This non-fingering at first approach does a lot to calm them and allow success at finding the six basic chords.

After a while, ask them to use chords mostly in the left hand, so a physical habit is set up.

Ask them to use two of the strongest fingers of the left hand, the 2nd and 3rd. Explain that it’s like a sports team, where we use the strongest players first.

After learning many songs by number, in which they play chords in the left hand and melody by number in the right hand, they are ready for chord games.

First we start with a silly game I made up. The kids call it “Baboom.”

The child must play the chords C, F and C in that order. At first it will be unsteady, but at least they are now managing to juggle two of the six chords.

Next step of “Baboom” is to put it in an even rhythm, where the child plays evenly the chords C F C and on the fourth beat I say “Baboom.” We do this over and over, using different words, and letting the child say the words. This rhythm forces them to come up with chords on a given beat, in a non-threatening game-like way.

Eventually this game leads to the child having confidence in moving from one two note chord to another. Try these two-chord combinations: C F C, C G C, F G F, F C F.

Wait until they master these before you introduce the chords with black keys, D E and A.

Older kids can easily play this game with three note chords.

I start with C F and G chords. I wait a while before I introduce the three chords with a black key, D E and A.

For the first month or so, or as long as necessary, I always say, “Play a D chord with a black in the middle, please!” You have to give them the security of not guessing whether a chord has a black key until they get the idea.

Stop saying “with a black key” after you’re absolutely certain they know there are three all white chords, C F and G, and three chords with a black in the middle, D E and A.

Test them on the six chords, often, comically, theatrically, test them in any way you can get their attention, but you must get them to understand these six building blocks before proceeding further. Take apart familiar songs and show them that the songs are made of nothing but chords.

The piano is an aural chemistry set, and chords are the chemicals.

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