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

Advertisements

Train Your Ears – Identifying Intervals (Part II)

In the first part of this post I discussed the intervals from unison to the perfect 5th, and references to identify them with. Check it out if you haven’t already! Let’s take a look at the next set of intervals.

Don’t forget, all of my MIDI piano examples start on a C. The song examples I give may not necessary be starting on a C, so don’t let that throw you off. Hopefully this will help you learn to identify them no matter what the starting notes are. It’s the space between the notes that you care about, not the notes themselves!

Minor 6th

Separate:

Together:

The minor 6th, to me, is a sort of dreamy sounding interval. Perhaps this is because one of the ways I like to remember it is through “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. You can hear it in the lyrics:

wiz1

Check it out:

(Audio taken from this video)

Keep this song in mind, as it’s going to show up two more times in this post!

Major 6th

Separate:

Together:

There are two references that I like to use for the major 6th. The NBC chimes are a perfect example:

(Audio taken from this video)

You can also listen to the line before the minor 6th in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

wiz2

Listen here:

(Audio taken from this video)

Minor 7th

Separate:

Together:

For the minor 7th we can once again refer to the West Side Story musical. This time from the song “Somewhere”.

You can hear the minor 7th in the beginning of the line:

somewhere

Listen here:

(audio taken from this video)

Major 7th

Separate:

Together:

The major 7th is one of my favorite intervals. It almost has an inherently jazzy sound to me, mostly due to the fact that jazz chords and melodies utilize the interval quite a bit. It’s also similar to the tritone in that it’s ALMOST a perfect interval (it’s ALMOST an octave, as the tritone is ALMOST a perfect 5th), so it has that off sound but in a soothing sort of way. Take Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” for example. You can hear the major 7th in the first two words:

dontknow

Listen here:

Craving a more 80’s synthpop/rock example? Try “Take On Me” by A-Ha.

takeon

Check it:

Octave

Separate:

Together:

Finally we come to the final interval I’m covering for this mini-series, the octave. This one represents 12 semitones and is the 8th note in a standard scale (thus the prefix, “oct”). Scientifically, an interval of an octave is what you get when you double the frequency of a note. For example, the A note above middle C has a frequency of 440 Hz. The next A note (or the A one octave higher) has a frequency of 880 Hz. The A after that is 1760 Hz, and so on.

Let’s once again refer to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which begins with the iconic:

wiz3

Listen here:

Now to make my fellow guitarists happy, a little Hendrix. The intro to “Purple Haze” has Jimi repeating two notes an octave apart. This example is special, though, because if you listen closely you can hear that the bass is playing a tritone instead of an octave underneath the guitar. Two intervals for one.

Listen up:

That’s right, Jimi Hendrix and Judy Garland in the same section.

So there you have it. A few examples for each interval from unison to octave. Again, I only covered the intervals going in the upward direction, so I may make a post for intervals going down later (let me know what you think). Obviously there are plenty more examples for each interval, but I did my best to stick with classic examples that more people are probably aware of.

fantastic link that you should check out for interval ear training (and ear training in general) is www.musictheory.net. Specifically the interval ear trainer. By fiddling with the options you can set which intervals you want to practice, whether they are ascending or descending, and more. Test yourself and try to improve. If you get a score you’re proud of, brag about it in the comments.

Do you have your own examples for each interval? How do you like to memorize them? Let me know!

Next post in the series: Identifying Scales

Train Your Ears – Identifying Intervals (Part I)

For those of you that don’t know, an interval is simply the distance between two pitches. Here is a list of intervals along with the number of semitones (or half steps) they represent. I also give examples of which notes are separated by that interval (second note is always higher than the first note).

Unison = 0 semitones (Same note played twice)

Minor 2nd = 1 semitone (examples:  C to Db, B to C, G# to A)

Major 2nd = 2 semitones (examples:  C to D, A to B, F# to G#)

Minor 3rd = 3 semitones (examples:  C to Eb, G to Bb, F to Ab)

Major 3rd = 4 semitones (examples:  C to E, Db to F, A to C#)

Perfect 4th = 5 semitones (examples:  C to F, A to D, Bb to Eb)

Tritone = 6 semitones (examples:  C to F#, G to C#, E to A#)

Perfect 5th = 7 semitones (examples:  C to G, Eb to Bb, D to A)

Minor 6th = 8 semitones (examples:  C to Ab, B to G, E to C)

Major 6th = 9 semitones (examples:  C to A, F to D, Ab to F)

Minor 7th = 10 semitones (examples:  C to Bb, D to C, A to G)

Major 7th = 11 semitones (examples:  C to B, G to F#, B to C#)

Octave = 12 semitones (Same two notes played one octave apart)

You could continue on to even larger intervals (9ths, 11ths, 12ths, etc…) but for the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with the intervals contained in one octave. The diagram below may help you visualize these distances.

semitones

(NOTE:  If you’re unsure of what those notes in parenthesis are doing there, refer to my post on basic scale theory.)

The space between each of those lines is a semitone. From B to C you have one semitone or a minor 2nd, from D to A you have seven semitones or a perfect 5th, and so on. 

Of course, using this diagram is cumbersome and not very practical while actually playing or singing music. What you’ll want to do is memorize as many of these intervals as you can (the perfect 4ths and 5ths are a good place to start, as they are linked to the circle of 4ths/5ths, and are very useful in general). Find the intervals on your instrument, find them in written music, make flash cards, or use any other method you want.

“But this post is about ear training, not staring at diagrams and flash cards!”

Right, while the theory is important, don’t get too caught up in it. Balance the theoretical studying with some actual ear training. Let’s go through each interval in detail and actually listen to them. I’ll give you some pointers on how to recognize them by ear, including references to some popular songs. Let us begin.

Disclaimer:  I will be focusing only on tips for identifying intervals in the upward direction in this post. Depending on the response I recieve, I may make a post where I discuss intervals going downward as well. So if you think this post is swell, let me know! If not, let me know how I could make it better. Also, the MIDI piano examples all begin with the note C. The audio examples I give may not begin on the same note, so don’t let that throw you off. Remember it’s the space between the notes you care about, not the notes themselves.

Unison

Things couldn’t start off any simpler. If the distance between two pitches is described as unison, they are the exact same note. It’s as easy as that.

Minor 2nd

Separate:

Together:

The minor 2nd is the smallest interval between two different pitches that exists in a scale (well, at least in the 12-tone equal temperment scale we commonly use today). This is the interval between every single note in the chromatic scale. Familiarize yourself with that scale and you’ll be able to identify this interval by ear fairly easily (just be careful not to mistaken it for the major 2nd).

For a classic reference, just listen to the tense theme from Jaws.

(audio taken from this video)

Major 2nd

Separate:

Together:

Perhaps a little easier to identify, the major 2nd represents the whole step. A good song to think of is the lullaby, “Frère Jacques (Are You Sleeping?)”. The interval between the first two notes (as well as between the 2nd and 3rd notes) is a major 2nd.

First part of “Frère Jacques” melody:

Minor 3rd

Separate:

Together:

I personally recognize this interval by hearing the minor triad in my head. It’s the distance between the root note and the lowered 3rd. Here is a clip of a C minor triad, first arpeggiated then played all together.

Minor 3rd triad:

Remember, a minor triad is made up of a root note (in the above example it’s C), a lowered 3rd (in the above example it’s Eb), and a 5th (in the above example it’s G). The interval between the root note and the lowered 3rd is, not surprisingly, a minor 3rd.

Also, how about a little “Smoke on the Water” for my guitar playing readers? Listen between the first two notes of the riff.

Major 3rd

Separate:

Together:

The major 3rd can be described as more “uplifting” than the minor 3rd. You could think of the major triad in your head to help identify this interval, but another way is to think of “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

You can hear the major 3rd in the first sentence of the lyrics:

whenthesaints

Listen to Louis sing it here:  

(audio taken from this video)

Perfect 4th

Separate:

Together:

I can’t hear the perfect 4th without thinking of “Here Comes the Bride”:

The interval between the first two notes is a perfect 4th.

Tritone

Separate:

Together:

Does this interval sound particularly menacing to you? You aren’t alone. According to The New Oxford Companion to Music by Dennis Arnold, the tritone adopted the nickname, “Diabolus in musica” (the Devil in music) in the Medieval era due to its dissonance (lack of harmony). While other intervals sound dissonant as well, this one is often considered the most awkward to sing.

However it has become an increasingly popular interval to experiment with over the years. One of the most notable songs to feature the tritone is Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story.

You can hear the tritone between the first two syllables of “Maria”.

Maria

Listen here:  

(audio taken from this video)

Perfect 5th

Separate:

Together:

The perfect 5th is a very strong, confident sounding interval. So incredibly powerful that it has been used in such works as the Superman theme and, of course, Star Wars.

Listen here:  

(audio taken from this video)

I’ll cover the remaining intervals in Identifying Intervals (Part II)! Feel free to comment!

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