There’s an “uh-oh” moment in the Matrix movies when Agent Smith, a deadly fixture of the computer-generated world, multiplies himself into an entire army of Agent Smiths.
I wonder if that’s how pianists feel when, after playing single lines, they face an explosion of chords — three, four, five or more notes all at once.
Chords can be overwhelming, especially when dense and complex harmonies are involved. Here are three tips for tackling them, fast.
1. Know your intervals.
The absolute wrong way to read a chord is to read off each note one by one. Instead, think of every note’s relation to another member of the chord, that is, its interval.
Then, if you’ve got two-note chords, you have it made. You only have to “read” or “name” one pitch, what I call the “anchor” note, which can be either the bottom or top note depending on which is more musically important. Then you can find the other note based on the interval away from the anchor note.
If you can’t yet find intervals up to an octave by feel at the keyboard, now is the time to learn. You will use your hand as a ruler to find the intervals, rather than reading both notes. Boom! You’ve turned two notes into one physical task.
For chords with three or more members, read on.
2. Brush up on chordal harmony.
Reading a chord without understanding the harmony is like sounding out a foreign language word without understanding its meaning — you’ll have a harder time making it stick.
After you’ve mastered intervals, work on recognizing the basic chords of tonal harmony — triads and seventh chords first, then more chromatic ones, like Neapolitans and augmented sixth chords, and so on.
With your interval-identifying prowess, you’ll also be able to recognize what inversion they’re in. For instance, if you see the members of a G major triad with a fourth on the bottom, you’ll know it’s a second inversion! Recognizing inversions (and doublings) makes all kinds of chords seem less random.
Study up on chord progressions and you can even predict what comes next!
3. Use hand shapes as a template.
Once you can name intervals and chords, start memorizing the shape they take in your hand. This translates your visual and intellectual knowledge into physical skill.
For example, try playing a C-major root position triad in the right hand with fingers 1–3–5. Memorize how that spacing feels.
This hand shape is now a ruler. Now, when you see a root position major triad on the page, form your hand into that shape and then put it on the keyboard (choosing your anchor note carefully), and adjust to the key signature as needed. Shortcut!
Once your hand is calibrated to the shape of common chords, you can use it as a template to measure distances. This muscle memory will lighten your mental load, which was likely the time-suck in the first place.
Experienced pianists do this instinctively, but there’s no reason you can’t start being aware of this and using it to your advantage from your very first chords. Reading them, learning them, and playing them need never be a tedious note-by-note exercise ever again.