Introducing Chords to Students

Chords are the backbone of music.  Yet, how many of us take the time when teaching chords to make it relevant?  Not as part of their technique exercises or on a theory page, but as an element that makes a song … well, a song.  And, how many times do we sing chords so we can play chords?

How I learnt back in the day

I learnt how to read chords through theory books & exam prep books.  And, I distinctly remember thinking it was incredibly boring & had no bearing on my music.  Ironically, when I did learn how to play off chord charts & lead sheets outside of piano lessons, it never occurred to me that my ‘regular’ music had the same chord structures.

There was a complete disconnect between teaching chords & using chords.

How to NOT introduce chords to students

While I did use some theory books at first, I decided early on I wanted to do things differently.

I decided to use Roman numerals since this was how I learnt from chord charts & lead sheets.  It was, I decided, the perfect way for teaching chords & their progressions.

Except for one little problem.  Most of my students did not know anything about Roman numerals.

And, wow, did I ever struggle.  Trying to teach that while the individual notes change when we transpose to a different key, the pattern does not.  Even if the chord progression was the exact same, a new song meant we were learning from scratch.  And learning chord inversions?  I remember the headaches … both my students & me!

How was I helping my students become independent musicians?  I wasn’t.

Teaching in a new way

Why do melodies often feel much easier for students?  They sing or hum them all the time!  They’ve subconsciously internalized the intervals & patterns.

If you can sing chords, you can play chords.

So, I started over.  Changed my whole approach.  Instead of wondering why students could sing melodies & not chords, I got them singing away from the bench, at the bench while playing, & giving them words to explain what they were playing.

Idea Map of Singing Chord Word Sets


The result

The results were much more than I had anticipated originally & have led to me becoming a better teacher for it.

Make it normal

Teaching chords became a regular part of lessons instead of something to be shuffled off to a separate category.

My students started seeing those patterns that were so easy for me to see.  They began seeing & hearing that each type of chord sounds similar regardless of what key it’s played in.  They began to make connections.

Make it relevant

Singing chords in the keys in which your students already have songs makes it relevant. 

It keeps the conversation going about patterns between pieces.  And, it gives students a vocabulary to share what they are seeing & hearing.

While we worked on chords in their warm-ups, I kept pointing out or asking them to find the chords they were currently learning in their ‘regular’ music.  And, through this process, they learnt a new strategy for figuring out that ‘tricky’ accompaniment … whether it was in-lesson or during the week.  It also meant that recital songs were so much easier to learn because they had the framework for understanding how songs are put together.

They became more independent musicians!

Make it fun

Use silly words & actions to link both the brain & large muscle groups. 

Bonus! Students that are having trouble staying on the bench stay engaged while they burn off that excess energy.  And if you are teaching online, getting off the bench is even more important since students (& teachers) need to move away from the screen regularly.

And, isn’t that what we all want?  Students who have the confidence to play independently.  Who can play the songs they love … without needing a teacher to show them how.

The Benefits of Warm-Ups

Warm-ups are not just for exercising.  They are for brain learning as well!

And when you can make in-lesson warm-ups do more than one thing, it’s a great use of lesson time as well.

As a teacher, I loved having a warm-up that:

  • Started each lesson by covering multiple concepts: vocalization, ear-training & transposition.
  • Built-up each week with small steps.
  • Easily translated to exploration during the week during practice time.
  • Even my beginning students could play parts of chords … letting them know this was nothing to be intimidated by!

If You Sing Chords, You Can Play Chords

I’ve created a 10-week set of warm-ups that will get your students up off the bench, singing, playing & exploring chords like they never have!

To purchase your copy of these powerhouse warm-ups, click here.  

Purchase your copy of "If You Can Sing Chords, You Can Play Chords"



P.S. This article was originally posted on August 3, 2018.  It’s all the same good stuff, but more relevant ideas have been added to update the article.

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