Chords Challenge Levels: A Structured Piano Chord Curriculum

This post about a structured piano chord curriculum was originally published in June 2015, and updated in June 2019 and April 2020.

Piano teachers would almost universally agree that teaching piano chords to our students is important. But without a structured piano chord curriculum, we often resort to teaching chords in whatever order they happen to pop up in our students’ repertoire or method books and crossing our fingers that we eventually get through them all.

For a student, this haphazard approach makes it difficult to see how chords relate to each other. It can seem like there are way too many types of piano chords to keep track. It can be overwhelming.

Chords Challenge Levels A Structured Piano Chord Curriculum 2

That’s where these chord challenge levels come in.

Chords Challenge Levels

These 5 levels of chord challenges give teachers a clear structure for working through all the major, minor and dominant seventh chords with piano students, including inversions.

  • Challenge Level 1: Major chords in root position
  • Challenge Level 2: Minor chords in root position
  • Challenge Level 3: Dominant seventh chords
  • Challenge Level 4: Major and minor chords in first and second inversions
  • Challenge Level 5: All chords in random order with appropriate inversions

For students, the 5 challenge levels provide a sense of accomplishment with landmarks along the way to guide progress.

Learning Chords Through Playing

Once I decided what each chords level would cover, I had one main decision left to make: written, played, or both?

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you’ll know I’m a big advocate of teaching theory through playing wherever possible. So, for my chords challenges, I decided that I wanted my students to be able to play the chords in each level effortlessly. Once students are comfortable playing the chords, the notation side of things becomes much easier. (Speaking of teaching notation, the tips on my Music Theory page can help!)

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The Chords Challenge Levels booklet will walk you and your students through each level and what’s required, with handy visual references along the way. Feel free to adapt this to the way you teach chords and have fun with it!

Are you a Vibrant Music Teaching member? Access the booklet instantly in the VMT library along with backing tracks and an iReal Pro playlist to add some excitement to your students’ chords practice.

Adding the Magic Pixie Dust

When it comes to technical work, sometimes we need to get a little creative to give students the foundation they need to be successful.

Simply adding a super fun name to each level pumps up the appeal for kids. After all, who wouldn’t want to become a Chord Ninja?

One way I recognise my students’ achievements when they complete a challenge level is with these custom stickers which we put on the front of their assignment folders to show off their achievements.

piano reward stickers

I got my stickers printed at moo.com, but I’m sure you can also print them at home or get your local printer to do it.

What do you think?

How do you decide what chords to teach, and when? Do you use a similar piano chord curriculum, or is there a different system you like? Let me know below!

12 thoughts on “Chords Challenge Levels: A Structured Piano Chord Curriculum”

  1. Excellent system. – thanks for thinking this through. I love the stickers for each level . I was struggling to figure out a way to reward the students for their technique success.
    great website – I often use your ideas

  2. I have tried to download and save Level 5 – Chord Master many times to send to my local printer, but the file appears as damaged every time. Is there a way to repair the file? Thank you!

    • Hi Tammy, level 5 is a very large file so my guess is that you’re not waiting long enough before clicking save. Click on the link and wait until the whole file loads in your browser, then try saving.

      • I have downloaded, saved, and put all the other pentascale, scale, and four chord levels onto a flash drive for my printer. There is something up with Level 5. I have waited for it to complete downloading in my browser each and every time before saving. My Adobe Reader is updated to 11.0.11. I’ve restarted my computer twice. Any other ideas? Thank you! Really looking forward to starting the summer off right with these resources.

  3. I am curious to know why you made the change from flashcards and ID the chords from reading to a strictly playing approach.
    I have been using your chord challenges but adding in the play component as equal in importance to the reading component. I do like the theory component of the old chord challenges.
    I also use TimTophams’ 3+2=major and 2+3=minor. This little trick makes learning to play the chords go amazingly fast.
    All that said,
    I love your new material. Thank you for re-doing an already brilliant concept

    • Happy to hear you like the old version. There’s nothing “wrong” with them which is why I left them there! The reason I wanted to focus entirely on playing is mostly because it speeds up progress through the levels and I want students to get to all the chords sooner and because if they can find them quickly and by shape that’s more useful for playing from lead sheets and arranging.
      My students will work on the written chords through their theory books further down the track too. 🙂

  4. Second comment,
    where do you work these challenges into your curriculum?
    Do you start them after a student has finished piano safari or other method book?
    How do you reconcile these with technique levels from the conservatory of your choice.
    I follow RCM but these lists are random keys. They do introduce HT triads by level 4 RCM, but students haven’t learned all the keys at this point. I am trying to create my own approach.

    • I ignore the technical requirements for exams because:
      1. Not all my students do exams and the ones that do don’t do every level.
      2. I find their syllabus too slow to introduce all keys which leads to students feeling that black keys are “hard”, which is nonsense of course.
      I introduce chords more based on age than level since students’ hands need to be a certain size to really play a triad easily. Also, because most younger students aren’t bothered about learning pop but teens will want that right away!

  5. How do I print the custom stickers? I love your chord system and am using all the levels. I never had a systematic approach to teaching Chords. I would like to use the custom stickers and am trying to print them and set up a board with levels so they can move from one over to another with a name button or something similar.


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