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

Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part III)

We’ve discussed the major and natural minor scales, as well as the harmonic minor. It’s time for another variation of the minor scale.

Melodic Minor

The melodic minor is created by raising the 6th and 7th scale degrees of the natural minor.

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

C Melodic minor:  C   D   Eb   F   G   A   B   C

melminor-1

It sounds like this:

Now I must admit that I’ve already lied to you. The scale written above is technically only the first half of the melodic minor scale. That is only how you play the scale while ascending. While descending, you play the natural minor scale. Therefore, the proper melodic minor scale in C is written as:

melodicminorfull

The ascending portion of the scale is better known as the jazz minor scale, which is the portion of the melodic minor that we primarily use today, whether we play it ascending or descending.

“Woah, woah, woah…why is the full version different depending on which direction you’re playing the notes?”

I don’t personally know the precise story behind this (perhaps someone can comment with a reliable source), but from my understanding this concept was developed in the classical music era. Composers found that the interval between the 6th and raised 7th of the harmonic minor scale was a little awkward to sing, so they decided to either raise the 6th or lower the 7th by a half-step in order to provide a smoother transition between the notes. The raised 6th was found to work best when the scale was ascending, forming the ascending melodic minor scale (or jazz minor). The lowered 7th worked better for descending melody lines, forming the descending melodic minor scale (which is identical to the natural minor).

That being said, the use of the ascending or descending patterns in classical music differs from composer to composer, and in most modern music the jazz minor is often referred to as the melodic minor, and is played whether the melody is ascending or descending. So in other words, don’t worry about it.

“Okay, well now I’m bored and this scale doesn’t seem to be much fun.”

Yes, the idea of the melodic minor scale is a bit confusing, and when you listen to the audio example above it may sound kind of strange, but that’s the beauty of it. If used in the right context this scale can sound incredibly interesting and unique. Here are a few videos to both inspire you and get you more familiar with the sound of the scale.

Listen as Tom Quayle from http://www.infiniteguitar.com switches between major and melodic minor scales:

Or take a look Andrew Wasson’s thorough explanation of melodic minor from http://www.creativeguitarstudio.com:

To me, the melodic minor scale has a mysterious and ambiguous sound. At first it clearly sounds like a minor scale with it’s lowered 3rd, but the rest of it sounds incredibly major. It sounds like a scale that is trying to be two things at once, giving it a sense of ambiguity.

Scale Summary

Okay, so I’ve covered four of the most common scales used in modern music, how they’re formed, and what they sound like. Here’s a real quick summary in case you’ve forgotten:

Major

What it looks like as a C scale:

Untitled

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Happy, standard, basic

What to listen for: Think about solfeggio (do re mi fa so la ti do).

Natural Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

Untitled

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Sad, melancholy, sigh

What to listen for: It can be thought of as the major scale starting on the 6th note (or in solfeggio: la ti do re mi fa so la). You hear it begin with a major 2nd interval, which is the same as the major scale, but then you hear the lowered 3rd. Once you hear the lowered 3rd, you know it’s some sort of minor scale, at which point you listen to the 6th and 7th notes. If both the 6th and 7th notes sound lowered, it’s the natural minor.

Harmonic Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

harmonicminor-1

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Dark, intense

What to listen for: The gap between the lowered 6th and natural 7th note is very obvious, giving the scale a distinct sound. The 7th note will lead back to the root nicely because it is only one half-step away. This creates a more intense sound than the natural minor scale, which isn’t as powerful.

Melodic Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

melminor-1

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Mysterious, ambiguous

What to listen for: At first it sounds like a minor scale, but the second half sounds like a major scale.

Once again, please check out the exercises at http://www.musictheory.net. Try the scale ear training exercises and see how well you do!

Next post:  Identifying Basic Chords

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

harmonicminor-1

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).

minorchords-1

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: Identifying Scales (Part I)

Learning how to distinguish one type of scale from another by ear is a great skill for any musician. It allows you to better understand the purpose of each scale and how they fit into the music you like to play.

Most scales can ultimately be boiled down to one of two foundations:  major or minor, with minor having three fundamental variations:  natural, harmonic, and melodic. For your exciting leap into scale ear training, I suggest you start with these four scales.

Major

The major scale is usually the first scale you learn while learning an instrument. If you play all of the white keys on a piano from one C to the next C, you play the C major scale. You can refer to my post on basic scale theory for more detail about constructing this scale, or you can just trust me these notes make a C major scale:

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

Which looks like this on sheet music:

Untitled

And sounds like this: [audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/majorscale.mp3 ]

Fun fact:  That little “8” below the treble clef means that all of the notes actually sound an octave LOWER than how they’re written. This is common for written guitar music. I plan on going over written music in a future post, so don’t feel horribly sad if this confuses you.

In theory this should be the easiest scale to identify by ear. Think of when vocalists warm up using solfeggio (Do re me fa so la ti do). In fact, singing along with the scale using solfeggio is a great way to solidify its sound in your head. Try it (while no one is listening).

Natural Minor

The natural minor scale is usually the second type of scale you learn. It is created by lowering the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the major scale by one half-step. Here is the C natural minor scale:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

Which is written as:

Untitled

And it sounds like: [audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/minorscale.mp3 ]

Notice the distinct change in emotion from the major scale. Most people would agree that the minor scale has a sad sound to it, where a major scale has a happy sound (I posted my own thoughts on why in this post).

What’s cool about the natural minor scale is that you can play one by starting on the 6th note of the major scale. In fact, if you read my post on modes you would already know that the natural minor scale corresponds with the aeolian mode. So for example, if you begin your C major scale on the 6th note, A, you will be playing A natural minor.

“I don’t believe you”

No? I can easily prove it to you by rewriting that C major scale while starting and ending with A.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

The key of A major should have three sharps, which would be F#, C#, and G# (I talk about how to determine this in my post on the circle of 5ths). Keen observers will notice that there are no sharps in the scale written above. They are all natural notes, which means that those three sharps that should be there have been lowered. Do you notice where those three notes are in the scale?

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

How about that! They are the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes. This right here is an A natural minor scale, and we got to it by writing the C major scale starting from A. Please remember this:

***Every major scale has a relative natural minor scale starting from the 6th scale degree***

Knowing this will help form a bond between major and minor in your head. It also helps for improvising music. If you’re jamming with your friend and they’re playing chords in the key of C major, you know you can play A minor over it and it will work nicely.

In solfeggio terms, you sing this scale by starting on the la in “do re mi fa so la ti do”. So the solfeggio for a natural minor scale is “la ti do re mi fa so la”. Again, I highly suggest trying to sing the scale using the solfeggio, as it really helps in solidifying the intervals and overall sound of the scale.

Relative minor exampleListen to the above example and really try to compare the two scales. It will climb up the C major scale, then drop from C to A to begin the A natural minor scale:

[audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/relativeminor.mp3 ]

For now, focus on these two basic scales. If you play an instrument, try playing them in different keys. Really compare the sounds, feelings, and emotions they produce. Again I have to recommend www.musictheory.net. Go to the scale ear trainer (http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/ear-scale) and change the settings so that ONLY the major and natural minor scales are involved. It will play either a major or minor scale randomly, and you’ll have to guess which one it is.

Next post:  Identifying Scales (Part II)

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