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

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

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

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

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 musictheory.net. Check out the chord ear trainer at http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/ear-chord. 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