Train Your Ears: Identifying Basic Chords

Identifying intervals and scales by ear is fun and all, but both concepts deal with notes that are played in sequence. What about chords, where the notes are played simultaneously?

For those of you unfamiliar with chords, check out Basic Chord Theory for a quick explanation. To keep things simple I’ll be focusing on root position triads.

Note:  The term, “root position”, is used when the lowest note of the chord (sometimes called the “bass note”) is the root of the chord. For example, the root of a C major chord is C. The root of a G minor chord would be G, an A major chord would be A, and so on. Other notes from the chord can be used as the lowest note, such as the 3rd, 5th, or 7th, which creates an inversion of the chord. I’ll discuss inversions in a future post.

Before I begin, let’s quickly talk about chord qualities. The “quality” of a chord refers to the mixture of intervals used to construct it. Depending on what those intervals are, we put a label on the chord. The main chord qualities for triads (chords that only use three different notes) are major, minor, diminished, and augmented. Those are the four that we will be going over in this series.


Major chords are made with the root, 3rd, and 5th of the major scale. The C major triad is:

C   E   G

Here are these three notes played together as a chord:

Listen to the example repeatedly and try to pick out and hum each of the three notes. Pay close attention to the interval between the root and the 3rd. In this case, C to E is a major third, which gives the chord that characteristic major sound.

For those of you having trouble separating the notes, I’ve made this little audio example. First you’ll hear the chord being played, then the E and G will be cut short so that the C continues to ring. Then you’ll hear the chord again, but the C and G will be cut short so you can hear the E. Finally, the chord will play a third time and the C and E will be cut short, leaving the G. Confused? Listen here:

(You may have to turn your speakers up to hear the sustained notes)

This chord can be described as standard, happy, and unaltered. It’s arguably the most common chord used in modern music, so it shouldn’t be too hard to identify. Perhaps the “unaltered” trait of the chord will make more sense when you hear the remaining three chords that I’ll be going over.


Minor chords are made with the root, lowered 3rd, and 5th note of a major scale. The C minor triad is:

C   Eb   G

Notice how the only difference between this chord and the major chord is the lowered 3rd. Listen to how it sounds:

Only one note was changed, but the emotion and attitude of the chord is pretty different. Just like the minor scale, many people would say it has a sad sound to it. Almost like a sigh. The 3rd is a very important note in a chord, as it defines whether the chord is in the major category, or minor.

Again, here is the same example as above to help you distinguish the three notes:

Finally, here is a series of major chords immediately followed by minor, so you can really hear the difference between the two qualities.

Think you’re starting to get it? Test yourself by listening to these six chords. Can you tell which ones are major and which are minor?

Exercise 1:

Write down whether each chord is major or minor. There are two more exercises in this post, and you can check your answers at the bottom.


Diminished chords are made with the root, lowered 3rd, and lowered 5th of the major scale. The C diminished triad is:

C   Eb   Gb

Take a listen to what this chord sounds like and try to think about how it makes you feel.

I don’t know about you, but I would describe the sound of this chord as suspenseful, unsettling, or uneasy. It sounds like it wants to move to a different chord but it’s a little hard to tell what would come next.

Use this clip to help distinguish the notes:

Of the four basic chord qualities, the diminished chord most closely relates to the minor chord since it contains a lowered 3rd. You can consider it a minor chord with a lowered 5th. Here is an audio example. First you’ll hear a random minor chord, which will be followed by the same chord with a lowered 5th, turning it into a diminished chord. It will repeat for a few other keys.

Now for another exercise. Each one of these chords is either major, minor, or diminished. See if you can figure it out.

Exercise 2:  


Augmented chords are made with the root, 3rd, and raised 5th of the major scale. The C augmented triad is:

C   E   G#

Listen to it here:

Kind of strange sounding, isn’t it? In my post, How to Know Which Chords to Play, I reveal the triads that can be built off of each note within a major scale. Starting from the root, the quality of those triads turn out to be:

Major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished

Where are the augmented chords? Augmented chords do not occur naturally in the major scale without altering any of the notes, which is the reason that you most likely consider it unnatural sounding, or a little harsh.

Here is the example to help distinguish the notes:

This type of chord is used more often in classical and jazz music. In modern pop/rock music, it may be used as a passing chord (a chord that links two other chords together). Since it most closely relates to the major chord, take a listen to this example, which switches between major and augmented chords in different keys:

Finally, combine all of the knowledge gained from this post and try to figure out the quality of each of these chords:

Exercise 3:  

Don’t be too discouraged if these exercises are too hard. Depending on how developed your musical ear is, these things can take a lot of time and practice to get the hang of. Again, a fantastic tool to use to practice is Check out the chord ear trainer at Make sure you adjust the settings so that it only plays these four basic triad qualities.

Oh, and here are the answers to my exercises:

Exercise 1 – Major, major, minor, major, major, minor

Exercise 2 – Minor, major, major, diminished, minor, diminished

Exercise 3 – Major, diminished, augmented, diminished, minor, major


Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part II)

In my last post I discussed the standard major and natural minor scales and what they sound like. Now I’d like to focus on the harmonic minor.

Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor is made by raising the 7th scale degree of the natural minor.

C natural minor:   C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

C harmonic minor:   C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   B   C


It sounds like this:

This is done to build tension within the scale, making the resolve back to the root more powerful. It’s fairly easy to identify due to the large, minor 3rd gap between the 6th and 7th notes. It’s very often used while playing the V chord in a minor key.

“Why? And what do you mean by the ‘V’ chord?”

When talking about chords built off of certain scale degrees, we usually use roman numerals. I go over this topic in How to Know Which Chords to Play. In that post, I talk about building chords off of each scale degree in a major scale, in order to determine which chords “fit” within a particular key. The example I use in that post is a C major scale, which has a G major as it’s V chord. If you were to play a G major chord whilst playing in the key of C, it will sound like it really wants to be followed by a C chord. When you look at the notes in a G major triad, it makes sense.

G   B   D

The B is one half-step below C. Since your brain processes the note C as the foundation of the key, you get a sense that you’re almost there. This is what we like to call tension. If you were in A major, the same thing would go with an E major chord.

E   G#   B

The G# is one half-step below A. These “almost there” notes are called leading tones. Technically, any note is a leading tone to the notes immediately surrounding it, but this term is generally applied to the 7th scale degree leading back to the root.

Note: This effect is magnified when you add the 7th to the V chord (G   B   D   F), but that’s for another post.

In minor land, it’s a little different. Take a look at the chords built off of a C minor scale. Remember, all you do is stack thirds on top of each note, and add the accidentals that occur in a C minor scale (which are Bb, Eb, and Ab).


Notice that the v chord is minor instead of major (remember, lowercase roman numerals are used for minor chords). It’s made up of:

G   Bb   D

Bb is a whole-step below C, so you don’t really have the same, “almost there” kind of feeling. Because of this, composers will often opt to play a G major in place of the G minor by raising the Bb to a B.

Listen to the difference between the two examples below. In the first example, a C minor chord is played, followed by a G minor, then back to C minor. In the second example, the G minor is changed to a G major.

C minor – G minor – C minor: 

C minor – G major – C minor: 

They both work musically, but the chords in the second example sound darker. The extra tension adds a little more intensity.

I’ll leave you with the second example above, but with the harmonic minor scale played on top of it. Pay attention to the raised 7th note, and how well it resolves when the C minor chord is played the second time. This is the harmonic minor sound. Get it in your head!

Move on to part III!

Train Your Ears – Introduction

1032418_69630195Have you ever wondered what people really mean when they say someone has a “good ear” for music? Is that someone that they’re talking about never you? Do you change keys 14 times while singing Happy Birthday? Well, my friend, I believe this mini-series of mine will be of service to you.

When it comes to listening to, writing, or playing music, your ears are kind of an important factor. Believe it or not, they can be trained to be more helpful (and believe me, a good ear for music is one of the most helpful things you can have as a musician).

“What exactly does a ‘good ear’ for music get me?”

There are several benefits to having a good ear, including the ability to distinguish the distances between two different notes, name chord qualities, and identify scales. If you are a singer, it will also help you sing in key. For example if you know the distance between the note you’re singing and the next note in the melody, you can hit that next note with far better accuracy. If you’re playing guitar, you may be able to tell when it’s out of tune, quickly figure out which strings need tuning and adjust everything on the fly.

Most importantly, in my opinion, are the benefits a good ear has for improvising. Melodies will pop up in your head effortlessly when you hear chords being played, and you’ll really feel like you have control over what you’re playing.

“I think I can do some of those things already. Do I REALLY need to train my ear?”

If you’ve never sat down and specifically trained your hear, but you feel like you already have some of the mentioned skills, that’s great! Some people have naturally good ears for music, but everyone, no matter what level, can benefit from ear training. Trust me, I thought my musical ear was as good as it would ever get until I took a couple of ear training courses in college. I was pleasantly surprised with how much it helped, and I realized that there was a lot more to learn than I thought.

As far as upkeep goes, ear training is something you should absolutely revisit every now and then. In fact part of the reason I’m even writing this is because I haven’t been keeping up myself and I’ve noticed quite a difference.

I’ll link to each post below as they come out, so check back soon!

Part 1:  Identifying intervals (Part I)

Part 2:  Identifying Intervals (Part II)

Part 3:  Identifying scales (Part I)

Part 4:  Identifying scales (Part II)

Part 5:  Identifying scales (Part III)

Part 6:  Identifying basic chords

Part 7:  Listen

How to know which chords to play

Let’s say that after learning the basic chords on the guitar, your other guitar-playing friend invites you to a jam session. You show up with your cheap starter acoustic guitar and sit down to play, head held high with confidence that you can play any chord your friend needs. That’s when your friend says, “alright, let’s jam in C. You play chords first”, then proceeds to count off, expecting you to start strumming whatever comes to your head. If all you’ve ever done was learn separate chords, you will most likely jump to the C chord that you practiced, then proceed to draw a blank as to what to play next. If you read this post and put some effort into learning the content, I assure you that will never happen again.

In order to strip this down to the fundamentals, let’s take a look at the C major scale written out on a staff.

Now, if you’ve read my post on chord theory (or just know the basics of chord theory already), you know that basic chords contain a root, a 3rd, and a 5th. Let’s add those to each of the notes above, but let’s make sure we use only notes from the C major scale (which we know, from basic scale theory, contains no accidentals).

The chords that each group of three notes produce are written on top of the staff in the image above. C, E, and G make a C major chord, while E, G, and B make an E minor chord (it is minor because of the G. If it were a G#, it would be an E major chord. At some point I’ll make a post that talks more about what notes are in each key). For those of you who have trouble reading music notation, here is a list of what is shown above:

Measure 1: Contains C, E, and G, making a C major chord

Measure 2: Contains D, F, and A, making a D minor chord (D major would be D, F#, A)

Measure 3: Contains E, G, and B, making an E minor chord (E major would be E, G#, B)

Measure 4: Contains F, A, and C, making an F major chord

Measure 5: Contains G, B, and D, making a G major chord

Measure 6: Contains A, C, and E, making an A minor chord (A major would be A, C#, E)

Measure 7: Contains B, D, and F, making a B diminished chord (B major would be B, D#, F#)

The roman numerals at the bottom of staff are used to indicate which scale degree the chord is attributed to, as well as the quality of the chord. Upper-case numerals represent the major quality while lower-case represents minor. For example, the numeral “IV” can be interpreted as “the major chord built off of the fourth scale degree”, and the numeral “vi” can be interpreted as “the minor chord built off of the sixth scale degree”. The quality of chords built off of a standard major key will always follow this pattern. Learn it, memorize it, love it, live it:

Major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished

To further prove this, let’s look at the key of Bb major, which contains the two accidentals; Bb and Eb (I’ll explain how I know that in a future tutorial. For now, if you don’t know what accidentals are in each key, refer to my post on basic scale theory to get yourself started). First, like the example above, we will begin with the scale written out on a staff:

Now let’s stack those thirds on top of each note. Remember, since we are in Bb major, any B or E encountered must be flattened!

Amazingly, the chords that are produced follow the exact same pattern I showed you above. The three chord (iii) is minor, the five chord (V) is major, the one chord (I) is major, etc.

So what does all of this mean?

Let’s say you’re jamming with your friend. He is improvising in the key of Bb major. As long as you have the order of chord qualities memorized for a major key, you can whip out any of those chords during the jam session. Start at a Bb, then move to a Gm, then an Eb major, then an F major (I just outlined a very common chord progression known as I-vi-IV-V, or 1 6 4 5). It makes sense when you think about it. We build these chords using only notes from that particular key, so scales being played in that key should sound good* on top of them. Or let’s say you want to write a song. Remembering this order of chord qualities will greatly help you with coming up with a chord progression for the song.

*Disclaimer: “Good” in the sense that they technically work. What sounds good musically to someone is rather subjective, but most people will agree that a major scale played over the chords extracted from the scale sound “correct”.

I realize that this is an oversimplification of this topic, but I think it is a good place to start if you are new at improvising chords. I will certainly make expansions to this tutorial in the future (talking about the different modes, chord movement, specific scales that sound more “in” on top of each chord, adding sevenths to each chord, etc) and I may also re-vamp and improve this post, so stick around.

All feedback, positive and constructively negative, is welcome!

Basic Chord Theory

For my second music theory tutorial, I’ll be talking about the wonderful, amazing, mystifying world of chords!

(This post assumes you have the basic knowledge of scale theory. If not, maybe my scale theory post can help!)

A chord, in its simplest form, is made up of three different notes played simultaneously. This is also known as a triad and it contains a root, a 3rd and a 5th. “What is a root, 3rd and 5th”, you ask? Let’s take a look at the C major scale to find out. This is the most straight forward scale as it contains no sharps or flats. If you know your alphabet from A to G, you know the C major scale.

C   D   E   F   G   A   B

Since the musical alphabet stops at G, we circle back to A once we get there. Trust me, there is no “H” note, no matter how hard you listen for it.

We can number each note in this scale, starting with C as the root (fancy name for the first note of the scale), D as the 2nd, E as the 3rd, and so on until we get to B, which is the 7th. As I stated before, we need the root, 3rd and 5th to construct a simple chord. If we extract those notes from the C major scale, we get:

C (the root), E (the 3rd), G (the 5th)

Count it out yourself if you don’t believe me. This is what it looks like on a piano:

A root position C major chord highlighted in blue on a piano keyboard

If you were to play all three of these notes at the same time on a piano just as they are highlighted above, you will hear a C major chord. Amazing!

So we have just completed the daunting task of composing a C major triad. Now, how do we make a C minor triad? Simple. All you have to do is lower the 3rd by one half step. Doing so yields an Eb. Now we have:

C (the root), Eb (the lowered 3rd), G (the 5th)

Check out the visual!

A root position C minor chord highlighted in blue and red on a piano keyboard

If you play these notes simultaneously, you will hear a C minor triad. Fantastic.

The four types of triads are major, minor, diminished and augmented. Here are examples of each in the key of C major:

Major: C E G – (root, 3rd, 5th)

Minor: C Eb G – (root, lowered 3rd, 5th)

Diminished: C Eb Gb – (root, lowered 3rd, lowered 5th)

Augmented: C E G# – (root, third, raised 5th)

There you have it. Let it all soak in. Now if you play a chordal instrument (an instrument that allows you to play multiple notes at once, such as the piano or guitar) and you know where to play these notes individually, you can start composing beautiful music in no time. Try writing out triads in every key. Here are the same four triad types for D to get you super pumped and excited:

Major: D F# A

Minor: D F A

Diminished: D F Ab

Augmented: D F# A#

Check back often for more theory related posts. I may edit them or add multiple parts to further expand the material. If you have something specific you want me to cover, yell at me!

The Emotion Behind Chords and Scales

I’ve always wondered why certain chords and scales evoke certain emotions. What is it that makes a minor chord “sad” sounding and a major chord “happy” sounding? How can a combination of musical notes actually affect us emotionally? It is one of those topics that never really comes up because it is so engraved in our brains. No one ever sat me down as a kid and said, “when you hear a major chord you will feel happy, but once you lower the third of that chord, you’re gonna cry”. It was almost as if I naturally associated those chord qualities with those feelings.

For now let’s focus on major and minor chords, as these are the most common and the easiest to associate with emotion.

Take a listen to these two melodic lines.

Example 1:

Example 2: In example 1, an A major chord is arpeggiated, leading to a D major chord. Example 2 uses the same melody, but now minor chords are being used. Think about what emotion you feel as you listen to them. Does either one make you happy? Sad? Enthusiastic? Shameful? Envious? Enthralled? Sympathetic? Hungry?

Alright so maybe you don’t experience anything too deep from these two tiny, simple melodies, but if you are like most people, you would classify example 1 as “happy” and example 2 as “sad”.

The question then arises, why? Please note, I understand that this topic has been studied and discussed amongst people who have done far more research than I have. I am simply stating what I am aware of and theories that seem plausible to me.

We’ve heard it before:

This is the first theory that pops into my head, but it seems to bring up more questions than answers. Simply put, we attribute such emotions to certain chords and scales because those particular chords and scales are used in songs we’ve heard that evoke a certain emotion. In other words, we hear songs that are about sad subjects, most of which utilize that minor sound, and therefore associate the minor sound with sadness. However, why was the minor sound chosen for those songs in the first place? This is similar to the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Did minor chords get the sad stigma because they were used in sad songs, or were minor chords originally chosen for sad songs because those chords already sounded sad by themselves? Perhaps it is something that slowly evolved over time?

It’s all in the notes:

As another theory, we can examine the notes that make up the chords themselves. Could there be a link between the actual intervals contained in the chord and our emotions? (Warning: Haters of music theory should only skim this segment)

In its simplest form, a chord is composed of three notes played simultaneously, which is also known as a triad. These three notes include the root, some sort of 3rd and some sort of 5th. By altering the 3rd or the 5th, we can make four different qualities of chords. The four qualities are major, minor, diminished and augmented. A major chord contains no alterations to the 3rd or the 5th. A minor chord is made by lowering the 3rd by one half step. A diminished chord is made by lowering both the 3rd and the 5th by one half step. Finally, an augmented chord is made by raising the 5th of a major chord by one half step.

Let’s focus on the difference between major and minor. We will simplify things by using C major and C minor as examples.

C major is composed of the notes C, E and G. C to E is a major third and E to G is a minor third. If we look at C minor, which is composed of C, Eb and G, we will find the opposite. C to Eb is a minor third and Eb to G is a major third. Both contain a major and minor interval, but they sound like completely different chords due to where those intervals are placed. The third can essentially be viewed as the center point of the chord, which can be why it has such an effect on the way the chord sounds. Take a look at this visual representation.

As you can see from the clever picture, both chords contain the same amount of “space”, but if we focus on the positioning of the notes with respect to the lowest note, the major chord just looks more…confident than the minor chord, which looks almost droopy. Could this actually have anything to do with the common emotional association of each chord? Perhaps not, but it is thought provoking none-the-less.

Of course once we begin talking about chord inversions, this theory gets a little more complicated. In fact the visual diagram of a first inversion C major triad would look shockingly similar to the root position minor triad shown above. So surely it cannot only be the shape of the chord. Perhaps it is the shape PLUS a specific combination of intervals. This leads to my next thought.

By the way, if you know nothing about music theory but are dying to learn about it, check out my basic scale theory post!

Your brain + frequencies:

Without getting too technical and drowning this page with numbers and graphs, I’ll just generalize this theory. Could it be possible that the actual combination of frequencies in major and minor chords actually trigger these emotions in our brains? In other words, could the combination of notes in a minor chord generate a frequency which, after being processed by our brain, naturally triggers a negative emotion? I would like to point you to another site that discusses the link between sound and emotion:

Wisdom of Sound

The idea that sound, be it as specific frequencies or as music, can effect a persons health is a science in itself. Just ask anyone in the field of music therapy.

Since I’m too lazy to continue I meant for this post to be only a small taste of the matter, I think it’s time for me to stop writing. I’m sure I’ll come back to this topic more than once in the future. Hopefully people will get involved and express their own knowledge and opinions on the subject, giving me more content to discuss in future posts. I didn’t even begin to talk about how the most commonly used chords and scales differ depending on what part of the world you’re in. That puts a whole new spin on the topic.